ROME — Speculation continues to build as skeletal remains recently found on Vatican property undergo DNA testing, leaving much of Rome on pins and needles as they wait to see who the bones belong to, and whether they could be related to the case of two teenagers who went missing in 1983. 

The disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, whose father worked at the time for the Vatican bank and lived on Vatican property, in particular is perhaps the most celebrated unresolved mystery in modern Italy.

Two weeks ago an almost fully intact skeleton and a separate pile of bones were found during the renovation of a building attached to the Vatican’s embassy to Italy, which sits near the city’s famed Villa Borghese, a little under four miles from the Vatican itself. 

After an initial examination, the bones were sent on November 5 for official DNA testing to determine the age of the person, and how old the bones are. 

According to the Italian news site ANSA, the remains are believed to belong to a woman based on an initial examination of the pelvis, but the sex will not be confirmed until the DNA testing is complete, which could take some seven to 10 days. 

For many Italians, the discovery has reopened the cases of Orlandi and Mirella Gregori, both of whom went missing in 1983.

Neither of the girls’ bodies were ever found, and many conspiracy theories have emerged over the years as to what could have happened to the young women. Most of these theories surround Orlandi, whose father worked for the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as “the Vatican bank,” during a time when financial scandals were being unveiled in the Vatican.

Some theories say Orlandi was kidnapped in order to put pressure on the Vatican not to reveal illicit financial activities of members of the mafia who had their hands in the Vatican’s pocket, while others believe she fell victim to a sex ring in which members of the Vatican police and diplomats close to the Holy See participated. 

Still others linked it to possible attempts by international terrorists to force the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who tried to assassinate St. Pope John Paul II in 1981.

In comments to the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa in 2012, Father Gabriel Amorth, who died in 2016 and who for years was Rome’s leading exorcist, said he believes Orlandi’s disappearance was the result of “a crime with a sexual background.”

According to Amorth, the late Vatican archivist Simone Duca had said that at the time Orlandi went missing, parties were thrown in which a member of the Vatican’s gendarme corps would act as a “recruiter” of young women. Also involved in the ring, Amorth said, was a member of the diplomatic staff of a foreign embassy to the Holy See. 

“I never believed the international track,” he said, adding that he had reason to believe that Orlandi’s disappearance “was a case of sexual exploitation resulting in murder shortly after her disappearance and the concealment of the corpse.”

Emanuela Orlandi is pictured in a photo that was distributed after her presumed kidnapping in 1983. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE FILE PHOTO)

Other theories say Orlandi, who disappeared in the evening on the way back from a music lesson near Rome’s Piazza Sant’Apollinare, was perhaps the victim of the rector of the Sant’Apollinare basilica located in the square, and who, according to Orlandi’s brother, Pietro, was someone girls were warned to stay away from by the director of the music school, Sister Dolores.

According to ANSA, Gianni Arcudi, director of pathology at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, said that at first sight, the skeleton did not appear to be too decomposed to analyze, despite having been buried in humid ground.

Initial examinations have yielded the belief that the remains found belong to two different individuals, with the smaller set of remains appearing to be older than the skeleton.

A molar is reportedly being examined, and after the bones have been cleaned, DNA from the skull and from parts of the other remains will be compared to that of Orlandi and Gregori to determine whether there could be a match.

In comments made to the “Porta a Porta” program for the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera October 31, Pietro said that if the bones are found to belong to his sister, it ought to be a moment of joy since his sister’s disappearance would finally be solved.

Yet at the same time, “if the bones belong to Emanuela, it would be as if she died today,” he said, adding that, “If this is the truth, it’s important that it gets out. … I want to know why Emanuela was in that place, and who brought her there.”

Seeking to tamper expectations about outcome of the investigation, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin affirmed that “there has been no connection made with Emanuela Orlandi by the Holy See.”

“I do not know who connected this case with Orlandi,” Parolin said in a November 8 interview with the official news outlet of the Italian Bishops’ Conference.

Parolin also explained that the decision to involve Italian authorities in the investigation was “done in order to be transparent — so that there would not be any accusation that the Holy See wanted to hide something. 

“Things are being done with greater openness and transparency. Human remains were found, there’s the desire to get to the bottom of what was done, whose [bones] they are.”

Still, Parolin did not go so far as to definitively rule out a possible Orlandi or Gregori connection.

In separate comments in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, Pietro Orlandi said he is anxious to know who first associated the finding of the bones to his sister’s disappearance, and is eager to see the results of the DNA test. 

Speaking to ANSA, Gregori’s sister, Maria Antonietta, said she doesn’t want to “fool” herself and is trying to keep a clear head as the case and the testing go forward. However, “in my heart I hope that those bones are from Mirella so we could finally put an end to this story and I would have a place to go cry and bring flowers to my sister,” she said.

Maria Antonietta voiced hope that the current investigation brings light to the case, and she said she wants answers as to “why they immediately thought of my sister and of Emanuela Orlandi in the hours after.”

Elise Harris is the senior correspondent for Crux in Rome.

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