Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. Mathew 7:7
June 22, 2022
The crisp rays of the morning sun cut through the mist, dispelling darkness. I pray for the veil of ignorance to lift and the truth to reveal itself.
I reach St Peter’s Square at the stroke of dawn. On any other day, I would stop to admire the golden aura on St Peter’s Basilica cast by the daybreak. However, today I am on a mission and choose to focus. Slowly, the square fills up with my supporters, the citizens of the Vatican, and a section of the media. We carry placards and posters seeking answers to the one question plaguing Italy for 39 years – Where is Emanuela Orlandi?
I drift back in time…
June 22, 1983 – July 20, 1983
The usual hullabaloo was missing; why was my house grieving?
I opened the door to witness myriad emotions on the countenances of my Famiglia. I noted a quick transition from hopefulness to disappointment.
“Pietro, Emanuela is not back from her music class!” my Madre lamented.
I stood in shock, still comprehending the information, when my Sorella Frederica said, “She called me after class. She was offered a job – distributing Avon pamphlets. She was supposed to meet someone to finalize the terms. I told her the pay sounded too good to be true. I should have stopped her and insisted she return home immediately.”
My Madre broke down, holding a picture of Emanuela to her bosom.
“We contacted all her friends. One of them saw her at the bus stop after class, but no one knows anything after that.”
“My princess! I hope she is safe.” My Madre wailed.
“Pietro, could it be an accident?”
“I will go and check, Mamma,” I said, and I set off, leaving my distraught Famiglia behind.
How difficult would it be to trace a 15-year-old in the Vatican within a radius of 0.49 square kilometers and less than 500 people?
I was so wrong! I checked the streets and the hospital and returned home clueless.
None of us could catch a wink of sleep that night.
The following morning we rushed to the Stazione di Polizia to lodge a missing person complaint. We were sent off saying, `She must have left on her own accord.` We knew Emanuela; she would never do anything reckless or irresponsible. We were convinced she was in trouble, but of what kind?
We visited the Stazione di Polizia every day despite the reluctance of the police to lodge an official complaint. That my Padre worked at the Vatican Prefecture and oversaw the Pope’s private audiences did us no good.
Why were we being treated so casually?
We printed Emanuela’s posters and affixed them to every nook and corner of the city.
No one could stop us from looking for her.
On July 3, 1983, ten days after the incident, we got a hint of sinister dealings when Pope John Paul II referred to Emanuela in his weekly address. In his speech, he said, `whoever is responsible should have humanity.`
Was the Pope implying kidnapping? Was he reaching out to the perpetrators?
The Pope’s statement drove the media into a frenzy. Over the next few days, we received many calls from people who claimed to have seen Emanuela. We followed all leads, many of which turned out to be hoaxes.
Why were we being fed false information and led in multiple directions?
The only useful information was from a traffic policeman who saw Emanuela with a middle-aged man. With his help, we had a sketch of the suspect.
Who was he?
Three days later, on July 6, 1983, we received a phone call; we could hear Emanuela speaking with someone in the background. My Padre asked for further information from the caller, but the call was quickly disconnected. At the same time, a call was made to the Vatican Press demanding the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish gangster held prisoner for the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. The authorities were given 14 days to release him in exchange for Emanuela. They placed a basket containing Emanuela’s id-card and a handwritten note in a public square to substantiate their claims.
Emanuela was kidnapped but alive! Why were the kidnappers contacting the Vatican Press instead of talking to us? What was their purpose? How were they connected to Ali Agca? Will the Pope even consider the release of a prisoner, that too, the one who tried to assassinate him?
We were in despair. We prayed for Emanuela. My Padre met the Pope daily due to his job, but he never asked anything out of respect for him. The Pope offered no information to soothe my Padre’s grieving heart.
Doing one’s job pretending everything is alright is the most austere form of prayer.
We still had faith; we hoped the Pope would exercise his influence to save Emanuela.
The deadline for the exchange was fast approaching, and we were impervious to the discussions in the highest echelons of the Vatican. Twenty-five days after the kidnapping, the Pope made another public appeal.
What was he trying to communicate?
In response, the Vatican Press received a call asking for a direct line with Cardinal Augustino Casaroli, the Vatican Secretary of State, a man renowned for international negotiations.
Why were they asking for Casaroli? What were the negotiations about? For us, Emanuela was precious, her life invaluable, but will the authorities value her life enough?
Despite media attention that made Emanuela a household name in Italy, the Italian Government, the Italian Police, and the Secret Service backtracked and left it to the Vatican to deal with Emanuela’s kidnappers.
Every minute after that was like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. And finally, it exploded when the authorities did not release Ali Agca. The 14-day period was over.
July 20, 1983, ended as quietly as it dawned.
We were desperate. When my Padre realized no information would be forthcoming from anyone in the Vatican, he made a public appeal in the media.
“Please tell us if Emanuela is alive. If not, please let us know where she is rested so we can be next to her.”
How does one appeal to criminals? Do they have a heart? I know how many times my Padre has died in these many days. A chunk of him broke each time he cried for Emanuela; a slice of his soul left his body every time he recollected the good times with her.
We had accepted that we would never see Emanuela ever again. I carried a pang of guilt that consumed me every moment. If only I had accompanied Emanuela to the music class that evening, she would be with us now. I vowed never to stop until I found her.
Where there is a purpose, there is hope, and my life’s purpose is to seek answers till I get them.
June 22, 1983 – till date
I glanced at the mirror one last time. A teenager with neatly brushed hair, big dreamy eyes, naturally flushed cheeks, and a captivating smile looked back at me.
Beautiful, I said to myself as I got ready for class.
“Pietro, will you come with me to music class today? It’s already late,” I yelled from inside my room. I was confident Pietro would reach the door before I did. He never refused me.
“No, not today, Emanuela. I have something to take care of,” I heard Pietro’s response.
“It is important,” I persisted.
“Sorry, not today,” he replied without a glance at me.
Fine, but you’ll regret this, I muttered as I rushed to class.
I was planning to discuss a job offer that came my way with Pietro, but now that would have to wait.
I will hand him my offer letter.
Perhaps Pietro’s refusal was a sign. I shouldn’t have pursued the job.
I was distracted in class, but I managed to finish my lessons without attracting the ire of my Insegnante. I rushed to the bus stop in anticipation; I was meeting someone soon. I saw my friend board the bus.
I missed the bus home; he is not here.
The crowd at the bus stop thinned. I was getting late, but the thrill of landing a job made me disregard the delay. I stood waiting, fidgeting with my watch. I called my Sorella Fredrica.
“I have a job offer for distributing promotional material for Avon. The money is extraordinary, 270 CAD for a day’s work. I am meeting someone to finalize the deal,” I told her, my voice laden with excitement.
“Something is not right. Don’t confirm anything without talking to our parents,” she replied.
“I will be late,” I said as I hung up.
Did I sense a tinge of jealousy?
I should have stopped to think. I should have asked the most pertinent question – Why? But I didn’t.
Too much money – This was the second sign.
A few minutes later, a well-dressed middle-aged man with an air of authority approached me.
“You must be Emanuela Orlandi. I am the regional head of Avon,” he said as he extended his hand for a shake. I was nervous and jittery. My stomach was churning, my heart was beating as loud as church bells, and I missed the third sign – a regional head meeting a newcomer at a bus stop.
“We have limited positions. We are looking for people with ambition. Why don’t we get to know each other over coffee?”
We walked along the streets and asked a traffic policeman for directions to the nearest coffee shop. There, I met a beautiful woman – Sabrina Minardi, who was to be my supervisor. While we conversed, I saw a familiar face – not an acquaintance, but someone who seemed to be stalking me for the last few days.
Before I could react, she handed me my offer letter. I accepted it and thanked the lady.
The presence of the stalker should have raised a red flag, but it didn’t, and I blissfully missed the fourth sign.
I stepped out of the coffee shop, overjoyed.
I have done it! I landed myself a job all by myself!
That’s when I felt my head spinning. I stumbled, but the lady was behind me to steady me up. I smiled in gratitude. She guided me to a black Mercedes parked outside, promising to drop me home. I believed her.
Did I see that stalker again? Yes, I did. He was seated inside the car beside two other men.
The signs were coming to me now, my mind was screaming deceit, but there was nothing I could do. I slumped unconscious as the Mercedes sped away, taking my dreams of a bright future with it.
When I finally gained consciousness, I found myself on a single bed inside a sparsely furnished room. A jug of water was placed on a bedside table. I stood up with unsteady legs and tried to push open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. I was locked in. There was a window to my right; I pushed it open. I had a view of a garden, but no soul was in sight. I was on a higher floor, probably on the 2nd or 3rd. I screamed for help, but it was futile.
I panicked as soon as the realization hit me.
Where am I? Pietro, where are you?
I searched for my belongings – my id card, watch, offer letter, and flute, but they were not with me. Knowing I could do nothing but wait, I waited for the door to open.
What was the date? For how long have I been unconscious? My Famiglia would be worried sick; I am so sorry, Mamma and Padre. Fredrica, you were right!! Pietro, will you come looking for me?
The door opened, and two men walked in. They asked me a few questions. I answered them, hoping they were here to rescue me.
Was one of them recording my conversation?
Before I could ask them any of my questions, they left after I was locked in again. I banged at the door, cried, and screamed my heart out, but to no avail.
How naive was I? Was I still living in dreamland?
I refused to eat or drink, but my captors were unmoved. Sometimes I feigned unconsciousness and overheard their conversations.
“The demand for the release of Ali Agca is a distraction.”
“De Pedis is not a suspect.”
“What about the mafia money laundered by the Vatican Bank?”
“Did the Pope finance the Polish trade union – Solidarity with this money? Was this money also used to fight communism in other parts of the world?”
“De Pedis wants us to stop the retaliation. No more abductions. We are instructed to hand over this girl to representatives of the Vatican.”
Was I being released? Am I going home?
I did go to another place, but the real ordeal was yet to come. I was kept captive and subject to sexual abuse. I would pass out when the pain was too much to bear. Sometimes they were more than one at a time, sometimes even three. They were powerful; they were in robes. I was used as a tool for gratification. The more I objected, the more pleasure they derived, so I offered no reaction. This was my way of showing my defiance. Occasionally, I heard screams.
Some other starry-eyed teenager, like me?
I knew there was no way out from here. The Pope, for centuries, has protected his Arch Bishops and Priests, even their acts of sexual abuse.
The last conversation I overheard was, “The Orlandi family is making too much noise about this girl. She has become the talk of the town. She needs to go.”
I, Emanuela Orlandi, am now reduced to nothing but a shadow of my original self.
Am I alive? What difference does it make?
December 1983 – till date.
Six months had passed, and we were clueless about Emanuela. Our tear ducts ran dry, and we cried silent tears. We learned to live without her.
Unexpectedly that year, Pope John Paul II visited us during Christmas. He told us that Emanuela had fallen prey to an international crime, and he would do everything to bring her back. His words gave us hope. He offered me a job at the Vatican Bank, a dream come true for a fresher like me. I happily accepted.
Was the job offer his way of comforting us?
That was the last piece of information from him. We continued asking questions for the next twenty years, only to receive stoic silence in response.
Every year on June 22, people gather at St Peter’s Square. I ensured Emanuela was not forgotten.
My Padre died in 2004, believing he was betrayed by those he served with faith and loyalty.
Pope John Paul II died in 2005, carrying the secrets to his grave. I almost lost the last fragment of hope. However, bits and pieces of information started trickling in after that.
In September 2005, an anonymous tip was given to the media stating the tomb of a gangster of the Magliana gang, Enrico De Pedis, in the Sant Apollinare Basilica had the answers to Emanuela’s disappearance.
I was now grappling with more questions:
Why was a gangster buried in a privileged burial plot of the Sant Apollinare Basilica in the company of bishops, cardinals, and Popes? How was he connected to Emanuela?
I relentlessly pursued the unearthing of the tomb with the Vatican authorities from 2005 to 2012. Finally, the Vatican permitted it, and the Italian police exhumed the body. The forensic team found a carefully preserved body of De Pedis. There was no sign of Emanuela.
The Italian media reported this news, and a photo of De Pedis was widely circulated. Instantly I recognized the man. His picture matched the sketch made by the traffic policeman after the abduction.
In 2008, there was a breakthrough. Another member of the Magliana gang testified to the police that his son confessed to kidnapping Emanuela. He supposedly tailed her for days before the kidnap and took her to Rome. In another testimony, De Pedis’ girlfriend admitted she took Emanuela to people waiting in a black Mercedes. She added the kidnapping was related to De Pedis’ connection with Paul Marcinkus, the President of the Vatican Bank from 1971-1989.
Was the job in the Vatican Bank offered to keep an eye on me?
In 2009, I was unceremoniously asked to leave the bank.
Was I getting too close to the truth?
In another development, the Vatican’s chief exorcist Padre Gabriel Amorth, a confidant of Pope Benedict XVI, claimed Emanuela was a victim of sex abuse. He believed a gendarme of the Holy See was involved in her disappearance and that she was murdered and her body concealed.
I received an audio clip where a woman begged her tormentors, three of them, for mercy.
Emanuela? I wasn’t too sure.
I received a statement of expenses from an anonymous source in which the Vatican paid for the boarding and gynecological treatment of one of its inmates. The Vatican has vehemently denied the connection to Emanuela.
I pursued every lead, even sightings of Emanuela in distant countries. None of them led to anything concrete. My search for the truth continues.
Emanuela’s POV is a fictional version of what could have happened to her.
Enormous sums of money from the mafia laundered by Vatican Bank had disappeared. There is a theory that De Pedis managed to convince the mafia to stop kidnapping Vatican citizens, and in return, he earned a place in the Sant Apollinare Basilica.
In February 2022, Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops.
Words in Italian
Madre – Mother
Sorella – Sister
Famiglia – Family
Padre – Father
Insegnante – Teacher
Stazione di Polizia – Police Station
St Peter’s Square – A large plaza in front of the St Peter’s Basilica.
St Peters Basilica – A church in the Vatican City.
Vatican Prefecture – Office in charge of the Papal household
Pope John Paul II – Pope from 1978 – 2005. He was canonized (officially declared a saint) in 2014 by Pope Francis. He is credited with bringing down communism in Catholic Eastern Europe by being the spiritual inspiration behind its downfall.
Solidarity – A Polish trade union founded in 1980. Solidarity is considered to have contributed significantly to the fall of communism and the eventual break up of the Soviet Union.
Pope Benedict XVI – Pope from 2005 – 2013. Unlike other Popes who held their position till their death, Pope Benedict opted for retirement stating health reasons. It is reported that the Pope’s resignation was linked to an underground network of high-ranking clergy holding sex parties in Rome and the Vatican.
Holy See – The jurisdiction of the Pope in his role as the bishop of Rome
Magliana Gang-The Banda Della Magliana is an Italian criminal organization based in Rome, founded in 1975 and operative to date.
Reference Links :
Wikipedia – Emanuela Orlandi, Enrico De Pedis, Pietro Orlandi, Pope John Paul II.
Word count -2997 excluding Glossary and references.
Author: Lakshmi Menon
Team: Mystical Musings
Prompt : Base your story on any mysterious disappearance in history
Proposed by: Team Punz N Prosez
Picture Credit: John Rodenn Castillo, Unsplash.com