I began watching Vatican Girl, the Netflix documentary about the 1983 disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, when it was released last year. I resisted the temptation to throw my laptop across the room. It’s that bad. And that’s too bad.
She was just fifteen when she vanished. Ever since then, her family has been dogged in looking for clues. As the daughter of a Vatican employee, who lived inside the Holy City, suspicion quickly fell upon the Vatican, which plenty of people inside and out consider unholy – and which is why Dan Brown (of The DaVinci Code, etc.) has made millions.
One might paraphrase H.L. Mencken: Nobody ever went broke alleging nefarious shenanigans in the Vatican, although I don’t know if Vatican Girl’s writer-director Mark Lewis has made millions.
Vatican Girl spins more than a few theories about what happened to Emanuela. She was abducted by sex traffickers; she was taken by blackmailers; she was made hostage by the KGB. The man who was head of the police at the time says lots of kids disappeared back then, only to reappear. To be sure, Emanuela was not one of those.
And the Vatican should be a focus of inquiry since that’s where Emanuela lived and makes her disappearance different from that of any other girl in Rome.
But it doesn’t mean her kidnapping, if that’s what it was, is a Vatican crime committed by somebody or – bodies – within the Church, although Vatican Girl insists it does.
The first hint of this comes early in the film. News footage shows St. John Paul II expressing hope for Emanuela’s return. American reporter Richard Roth says there’s no explanation for why, in a daily pronouncement from a window in the Apostolic Palace, the pope would say that. An Italian journalist with an astonishing name, Andrea Purgatori, adds that it means the pope knew she was alive.
Most previously to St. John Paul II’s comments are scenes of people all over Vatican City pasting up “missing” posters bearing Emanuela’s photo. Her disappearance was before everyone’s eyes and on everyone’s lips. As the documentary’s title proclaims, she was a “Vatican girl,” so why would it be odd for the pope, titular head of Vatican City, to express hope for her safe return? It would have been odd had he not. The story has been called “perhaps Italy’s most famous unsolved mystery .”
And it refuses to go away, in part a tribute to the tenacity of the Orlandi family, especially Emanuela’s older brother Pietro. It’s just too bad that the Orlandis have aligned themselves with Mr. Lewis’s film.
Vatican Girl could have been a longish segment on “60 Minutes” or some other tabloid TV program. This is because nobody knows what happened to Emanuela. There are few clues.
As a result, Mr. Lewis turns his camera on members of the Orlandi family, a handful of journalists, some shady characters whose credibility is sketchy, and all of them speculate about what may have happened.
The most stunning and, I think, comically specious speculation is that the KGB grabbed her in an attempt to do a prisoner swap for Mehmet Ali Ağca, John Paul II’s would-be assassin. How else could the Russians keep Ağca from exposing their attempted hit on the pope?!
Archbishop Georg Gänswein devotes nearly 1400 words to the case in his just-published memoir, Nothing but the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI.
The archbishop met with Pietro Orlandi in 2011, and Orlandi asked if a brief meeting could be arranged with Pope Benedict. In consultation with others, the decision was made not to allow it because if the “Pope even just mentions the case [it] can lend support to the hypothesis” that the Vatican knows details about the case it has refused to disclose. The archbishop adds that, “I was also assured that, over the years, everything possible had been done to help the Orlandi family.”
I’ll speculate that Pietro Orlandi will scoff at that.
As proof of the volatility surrounding Emanuela’s disappearance, rumors apparently abounded that Gänswein himself had prepared a dossier about the case. But no, he writes, “I have never compiled anything in relation to the Orlandi case, so this phantom dossier has not been disclosed solely because it does not exist.”
I’ll take his word for it.
Gänswein even mentions rumors, as does the documentary, that go-to heavy Archbishop Paul Marcinkus (1922-2006), who seems allegedly behind every Vatican conspiracy theory of the last half-century, may have snatched the poor girl.
Over four all but unendurably boring 1-hour episodes – bloated by repetition of phones ringing, clocks ticking, narrow and dark streets looming, and long knowing stares – we’re exposed to manifold theories at the end of which Mr. Purgaori utters words no serious journalist ever should:
“No matter which is the right theory, there are grains of truth in each one.” He also says all roads lead to the Vatican.
Everybody seems to agree about that. Each interviewee brought back to comment at the film’s end uses the word, “absolutely.” Well, one says, “certainly,” and another, “yes,” but all concur: the Vatican is absolutely to blame – if not for taking and probably killing Emanuela, then certainly for covering up the truth.
I’m not saying clerics inside the walls weren’t involved. Maybe they were. And maybe that’s why the Vatican has announced  that it’s “reopening” the Orlandi case. And according to the report, Mr. Lewis’s documentary is the reason why. So, perhaps some good may actually come from his overblown and failed attempt to craft a thriller of sorts out of a paucity of reliable sources and even less confirmable evidence.
Conjecture and hearsay do not add up to proof . But a lot of both are regularly employed to cast aspersions on the Vatican.
*Image: È SCOMPARSA (She’s missing)
You may also enjoy:
Michael Pakaluk’s The Wreck of Vatican II 
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Vatican Failures in Cardinal Ouellet’s Case