Pope Francis on Sunday weighed into a decades-old scandal that has rocked the Vatican, defending Pope John Paul II after the brother of a missing teen raised allegations that the former pope sought out underage girls to molest.
Francis’s comments came up in relation to the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, a 15-year-old girl who lived in the Vatican and vanished in 1983. Her brother, Pietro Orlandi, has vowed to discover what happened to her, and he recently met with the Vatican’s chief prosecutor who was assigned to the case earlier this year.
After meeting with prosecutor Alessandro Diddi on Tuesday, Orlandi appeared on an Italian talk show, where he played an audio recording in which an alleged Italian mafia member claimed John Paul knew of people bringing women into the Vatican to molest them.
“They tell me Wojtyla [Karol Józef Wojtyła, the birth name of John Paul II] used to go out in the evenings with two Polish monsignors and it certainly was not to bless houses,” Orlandi said on the show, according to Reuters.
The fervor surrounding Orlandi’s comments eventually reached Francis on Sunday, who decried the idea that John Paul committed any sexual crimes.
“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 during his weekly noon address in St. Peter’s Square, according to Reuters. John Paul II was canonized as a saint in 2014.
The comments were also derided by John Paul’s longtime secretary, Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who labeled them as “unreal, false and laughable if they weren’t tragic and even criminal,” according to the Associated Press.
Orlandi defended his comments, saying it was not him who made the allegations. Instead, he told Reuters, he was “repeating what others had said. I certainly did not see it myself.”
The suspicion regarding Emanuela Orlandi’s disappearance was rooted in allegations that the Vatican often housed sex slaves—young women and nuns—who were abused by clergymen. The long-standing theory was supported by the late Father Gabriele Amorth, once the Vatican’s chief exorcist, who claimed in 2012 that her disappearance was “a case of sexual exploitation resulting in murder.”
Pietro Orlandi has petitioned the court to pursue every lead, including the excavation of a re-sealed tomb in 2019 that, per an anonymous tip, he believed his sister may have been buried in. Emanuela Orlandi’s body was not found in the tomb—which was empty, despite listing its inhabitant as a German noblewoman—the Vatican confirmed at the time.