Pope Francis weighed into a decades-old Vatican scandal on Sunday, rejecting insinuations that the late Pope John Paul II sought out underage girls to molest.
The Pontiff’s comments were in relation to the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, a 15-year-old girl who lived in the Vatican and failed to return home on June 22, 1983.
Her disappearance 40 years ago – after a music lesson in Rome – is one of Italy‘s most enduring mysteries, and entered a new chapter on Tuesday when her brother Pietro Orlandi met with Vatican chief prosecutor Alessandro Diddi – who Francis himself has given free rein to get to the bottom of the case.
After speaking to Diddi for more than eight hours, Pietro appeared on a television programme where he played part of an audio recording with the voice of a man Orlandi said was part of an organised crime group that Italian media have for decades speculated may have been involved in his sister’s disappearance.
The voice of the alleged gangster says that more than 40 years ago, girls were brought into the Vatican to be molested – and that Pope John Paul would go out looking for underage girls.
Orlandi then said in his own words on the show: ‘They tell me Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II’s surname) used to go out in the evenings with two Polish monsignors and it certainly was not to bless houses’.
The comments caused a storm and were condemned by Vatican officials in the past few days before the pope himself entered the fray at his noon address to about 20,000 people in St. Peter’s Square.
‘Certain that I am interpreting the sentiments of the faithful from all over the world, I express a grateful thought to the memory of St. John Paul, who in these days has been the object of offensive and unfounded insinuations,’ Francis said.
The mostly Italian crowd broke into applause.
Francis noted that in Sunday’s crowd in the square were pilgrims and other faithful in town to pray at a sanctuary for divine mercy, a quality John Paul stressed often in his papacy, which spanned from 1978 to 2005.
Diddi summoned Pietro’s lawyer, Laura Sgro, on Saturday. The Vatican said she invoked attorney-client privileges.
Sgro told Reuters on Sunday that John Paul did not come up in her conversation with Diddi, adding in a text message: ‘I have never questioned the sanctity of John Paul II’.
Read More: Pope Francis slams ‘insinuations’ that his late predecessor John Paul II prowled Rome looking for underage girls