In October 2022, Neflix released a 4-part docuseries called Vatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi. It recounts the true story of a 15-year-old girl, a citizen of Vatican City, who disappeared in the summer of 1983. The mystery has never been solved, but by the end of the series, we have a pretty good idea who has some answers to Emanuela’s fate.
She was the fourth of five children in a family that served for centuries under seven Popes. Her father was a messenger for the Vatican Bank. Emanuela was a music student; she played the piano and the flute, and sang in a choir at a music school just outside the Vatican near the Piazza Navona. On the night of her disappearance, she was going to the school to practice singing and play the flute.
The agony of the family is palpable throughout the documentary. Rome became plastered with posters of her picture and pleas for any clues. The family and the Carabinieri followed lead upon lead. Each of the episodes focuses on one or more theories: Two years earlier, a Turkish national had shot Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square; supposed kidnappers were demanding a prisoner swap of him for Emanuela. During the time of the Cold War, there was even suspicion of KGB involvement. And at one point, it seemed certain that the Mafia had a hand in her whereabouts.
But the story returns time and again to the Vatican. Why was Pope John Paul II the first to announce that Emanuela had been kidnapped? Where did he get the money to fund the Solidarity movement in his native country of Poland? Were the Bank of Ambrosiana and the Vatican Bank laundering Mafia money? And why did Pope Francis tell her brother, Pietro, that Emanuela is in heaven? As Pietro explained, those four words stuck a dagger in his heart. But the Pope refused to say anything more.
The crux of the case, in my opinion, is a document that a journalist obtained during the time of the VatiLeaks scandal, beginning in 2012, which exposed Vatican corruption. The document appeared to be a financial accounting of expenses paid on behalf of Emanuela, and included a large final expense, which was presumed to be for her burial.
The final episode raised a new theory that again points to the Vatican. In it a high school friend of Emanuela’s anonymously recounts a telephone conversation in which Emanuela nervously confesses that when she walked in the Vatican gardens, an archbishop close to the Pope “bothered” her. The friend said that she explicitly meant that it was a sexual encounter. If so, this would be the first time that the Vatican could have been exposed for sexual misconduct on its own soil. And if so, it would be an enormous motive to silence Emanuela.
Throughout, you feel an overwhelming sense of sadness for the Orlandi family. Shortly before the father died in 2004, he told the family, “I was betrayed by the very people I served.” Her mother, now 92, thinks of her daughter every day of her life with the hope that she can put a flower on her grave before she herself passes away.
For the rest of us, we are also profoundly saddened that the power of the Church is so much greater than the life of one young girl. As the documentary closes, you wonder if all the leads that the family and the Carabinieri followed for decades were actually planted by the Vatican to distract everyone from the real culprit. The Vatican has at least partial answers, and we hope there is a fifth episode exposing those connections.