When it comes to the case of the “Vatican girl,” meaning the 1983 disappearance of a 15-year-old named Emanuela Orlandi who was the daughter of a minor Vatican employee, and whose fate remains a mystery 40 years later, Catholic opinion probably falls into two broad camps.

On the one hand, there’s a bloc that’s either indifferent or hostile to demands for the Vatican to conduct a root-and-branch investigation.

For one thing, many non-Italians may never even have heard of Orlandi, and wonder what all the fuss is about. Among those who do know the score, some may regard the idea that the Vatican is still covering something up after four decades as absurd, and see those pushing for new inquests as more interested in their media profile than in the truth.

On the other hand, there are also plenty of Catholics who understand that the passage of 40 years does little to diminish a family’s pain at the unexplained loss of a loved one. They also don’t dismiss the idea a priori that someone in the ecclesiastical system, the Vatican included, may know more than they’ve said, having learned from the clerical abuse crisis that anything’s possible.

Such Catholics, and they are likely the majority, believe the church is healthier when it faces reality, whatever it may be.

Catholics in that second group represent the natural allies of the Orlandi family in their desire for the Vatican to conduct a serious investigation – which is what makes recent statements about the late Pope John Paul II by Pietro Orlandi, Emanuela’s older brother, so counter-productive, because they alienate precisely the constituency in the church most disposed to take his side.

As Crux has reported, Pietro Orlandi and his lawyer recently had an eight-hour meeting with the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, Italian layman Alessandro Didi, after which Orlandi went on Italian television and stirred a hornet’s nest.

In sum, Orlandi quoted an ex-Roman mobster to the effect that St. John Paul II had connived in a pedophile ring inside the Vatican, and that Emanuela might have been killed to cover it up. Those insinuations triggered a firestorm of controversy, including Pope Francis himself on Sunday calling them “offensive and unfounded.”

Of course, one might expect one pope to defend another, or official Vatican spokespersons to defend the institution. What’s potentially more damaging to the Orlandi’s cause are the repercussions at the grassroots of the church.

For an example, consider Father Maurizio Patriciello.

Patriciello, 68, is a longtime pastor in a zone of southern Italy between Naples and Caserta known as the Terre dei Fuochi, “lands of fires,” considered one of the most polluted and mob-infested zones of the country. Patriciello is well known for his pro-environment and anti-mafia activity, so much so that he’s faced death threats; on his birthday last March 12, a bomb exploded in front of his church, and he now has a police escort.

Last week, Patriciello published an open letter to Pietro Orlandi. The following is a Crux translation, offered as a window onto the reaction of many Italian Catholics who’ve long supported the cause of bringing the truth about the Orlandi case to light.

Open Letter to Pietro Orlandi
By Father Maurizio Patriciello

Pietro, the horrible tragedy that struck and marked in an indelible way your existence, and that of your family, has also become ours. Emanuela Orlandi belongs to everyone. May this be the hour when the truth about her disappearance comes to light, just like the disappearances of Mirella Gregori, Angela Celentano, Denise Pipitone and many others who, unfortunately, haven’t had the same media attention.

A person who disappears never dies. They continue to live and to pierce the hearts of those who loved them and their descendants. They remain forever a shadow on the history of the country.

As the pastor of a poor periphery of Naples, I’ve followed all the developments which, from time to time, seem to throw a glimmer of light on the case. Sometimes I’m disappointed by the results. I’m not a jurist, or a gangster, or a high Vatican prelate. I’m a pastor, with the responsibility to mince, to dilute, and to integrate the news that arrives in a confused and fragmented way to so many simple people in the parish, among them the elderly, adolescents, and the very young, with the risk of forever marking their faith.

The search for the truth is a right that belongs to everyone. I’m willing to sacrifice my own honor for the truth. However, as you know, the truth has thousands of enemies, which are called lies, half-truths, calumnies, misdirections, economic, political and media interests, hatreds, etc. No one is so naïve as to not know that while you, your family, Italians, journalists and honest believers seek the truth, there are others who, in a more or less occult manner, are riding the wave for decidedly ignoble motives.

For 2,000 years the Church of Christ has fought enemies both external and internal. I’m writing you to say that the news of the opening of an investigation of the Orlandi case by the Vatican made me rejoice. We want the truth. Whoever knows, let them speak. They must speak. They have a duty to speak. The Gospel doesn’t hide anything from us, not even the cowardice of St. Peter who was intimidated by a servant girl. The Church isn’t ours, it’s God’s.

If some men of the Church are implicated in the disappearance of dear Emanuela, it’s right that – like men, like Christians – they come forward, confess and ask forgiveness from God, from Emanuela, from you and your family, from the Church, from Italy, from humanity, and then pay for their terrifying crime.

Joy, however, has given way quickly to bewilderment – what’s more, to an almost physical suffering, a sort of discouragement and delusion. Emanuela is dear to me, your family is dear, and John Paul is dear to me. His pontificate has marked my life as a person, as a priest, as a pastor. For me, as for millions of people, he was the lighthouse that lit up our path, the north star to seek on dark nights. The evening of his death, I cried like I did as a teenager when, returning home, someone told me my mother had died unexpectedly.

I want the truth, whatever it may be, but not insinuations. I don’t know what to do with them. It hurt me to hear you say you’d been told “Wojtyla every so often went out at night with two Polish monsignors,” with you adding that it “certainly wasn’t to bless homes.” If John Paul II went out at night, it actually wouldn’t surprise me. If Pope Francis did so, it would surprise me even less. The pope is not a prisoner of the Vatican. However, if you don’t know where they go, then you should stay quiet.

The right to the truth doesn’t give anyone, not even you, the right to ambiguous inferences, above all when they’re about a giant of humanity recognized by the church as a saint. My suffering, Pietro, can’t be compared to yours, but you should know that your words hurt me, and not just me. I don’t believe this was your intent. A wounded soul like you is capable of compassion, of piety, of love. In a lacerated soul, there’s no room for cynicism.

And now? Now, Pietro, you must be careful about words without foundation. They’re stones which, once launched, can fatally wound the innocent too. That would be a true failure, a further colossal injustice, [and] a real, true boomerang. The statement released by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop emeritus of Krakow and former secretary of John Paul II, drips with sadness, bitterness, bewilderment, and pain.

No, I’m not asking you to be quiet about what you know. For you too, as for everyone, there’s not only a right but a duty to speak. I ask you, however, on bended knee, to weigh your words carefully – always, but above all when they touch figures of the church who gave their lives as a gift to God and to humanity.

Emanuela is ours. John Paul II is ours. We, like you, thirst for the truth. Therefore, Pietro, if you know where John Paul II went in the evenings, say so, openly, clearly, courageously. If you don’t know, you don’t have any right to seed doubts, to hurt me – to hurt us – uselessly and scandalously in the heart.

May God bless you, dearest brother.