Pope Francis on Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the kidnapping of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican employee whose disappearance remains one of Italy’s most enduring mysteries and recently was the subject of a Netflix series.
In remarks after his Angelus prayer and blessing, Francis expressed his “closeness to the family, above all, the mother,” assuring them — as well as “all families who carry the grief the disappearance of a loved one” — of his prayers.
His remarks may have been brief, but they were words that Emanuela’s family had long waited for.
“It’s a very positive thing,” said Pietro Orlandi, Emanuela’s older brother. He had come to St. Peter’s Square with hundreds of supporters hoping that the pope would say something, anything, “words of hope,” he said.
The Orlandi family — first her parents and then her four siblings — has been tireless in its search for Emanuela. Family members have lobbied judicial and parliamentary authorities to investigate, gone on countless television programs to plead for tips and pursued even the most outlandish of claims.
The case has enthralled Italians for four decades, and interest rose globally after Netflix broadcast a four-part documentary series in October called “Vatican Girl.”
“After Netflix, I began getting messages of solidarity from around the world,” Mr. Orlandi said on Sunday morning at a sit-in before the pope spoke.
Many people, he added, told him that they had written the Vatican to express their dismay at its failure to assist the Orlandi family in its search for answers. The family has repeatedly accused the Vatican of reticence in admitting what it knows about the case.
That changed this year, when Alessandro Diddi, the chief Vatican prosecutor, said he would look into Emanuela’s disappearance. And on Thursday, Mr. Diddi said in a statement that an initial review of the evidence gathered so far, as well as interviews with people who worked in the Vatican 40 years ago, had uncovered leads “worthy of further investigation.”
Mr. Diddi said that he had handed over his findings to Rome’s prosecutor’s office “to proceed in the direction it deems most appropriate,” and that he would continue to pursue the case.
This year, the prosecutor’s office in Rome also opened a new investigation. Two earlier investigations did not shed any light on the case. “One was archived in 1997 and the other in 2016,” said Laura Sgro, the Orlandi family lawyer.
Emanuela disappeared on June 22, 1983, off a street in Rome after leaving a music lesson. It would hardly have made news had it not been for a phone call made to her family a few days later by a man who said her release was contingent on the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish man who shot Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in May 1981.
That was only the first twist in what has become an ever-thickening plot that has led investigators to pursue myriad hypotheses involving a cast of suspicious characters and events, including the Sicilian mafia; the 1982 collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, a bank with ties to Vatican financial institutions whose chairman was found hanging under a London bridge; a pedophile group inside the Vatican; and a notorious Rome criminal gang.
Over the years, the hunt for Emanuel, or her remains, has led to searches abroad and in Italy, in a building in the Vatican’s Embassy to Italy, in a cemetery inside Vatican City and in a crypt in a Roman church where a tomb belonging to a local crime boss was exhumed.
“The road that leads to the truth is a complex, difficult road, made up of complicated moments,” Ms. Sgro said on Sunday after the pope’s blessing. “I believe that the pope this morning gave an indication to overcome these complications and go forward together to find Emanuela.”
This year, the Italian Parliament moved to create a commission to review what is known about the disappearance of Emanuela, as well as the disappearance of Mirella Gregori, another teenager who went missing in 1983. The 40-member commission would have a broader scope than a judiciary investigation and could review past leads. “Forty people asking different questions,” Mr. Orlandi said on Sunday.
The commission was approved unanimously in the lower house in March, but has hit a roadblock in the Senate after Mr. Orlandi was accused, wrongly, of wanting to tarnish the memory of St. John Paul II.
“The search for truth is something important, an ideal that Parliament should aspire to,” Ms. Sgro said last week during a presentation in Rome on a book that she wrote on the case.
On Sunday, some supporters came to St. Peter’s bearing banners reading, “Truth and Justice for Emanuela,” while others held up photographs of the teenager taken from a poster that had been plastered throughout Rome after her disappearance. The photograph of the smiling girl, wearing a headband, is an iconic image in Italy.
Not everyone was happy with Pope Francis’s brief remarks, and some supporters of the Orlandi family began chanting, “Truth, truth,” while the pontiff was still speaking.
It is “scandalous,” said Cristina Bonomo, a nursery teacher who said that it was not enough for the pope to “be close to the family — it’s too little.”
The Vatican “can no longer hide the truth on Emanuela Orlandi and Mirella Gregori,” she said.
“Many years have passed,” Ms. Bonomo said. “They have to find the courage, the dignity and the strength” to say what really happened.
It is what the Orlandi family continues to fight for.
“Don’t give up, Pietro,” someone called out from the crowd.
“Never,” he replied.