Maria Goretti - Saint under siege
A hundred years ago on July 5th1902, Maria Goretti died in the Pontine marshes. Noel Crusz recalls the amazing story of a young Italian peasant girl and her martyrdom.
The shrine enclosing the relics of Maria Goretti
The shrine enclosing the relics of Maria Goretti

It was July 1952 when I stood outside the monastery of Ancona in Central Italy and rang the bell. An elderly man opened the door. This was Allesandro Serenelli, the murderer of Maria Goretti. He had spent 27 years in prison for his crime and was now a gardener in the monastery.

For Pope Pius XII, Maria Goretti, the 12-year-old girl was 'the saint of the century, 'Even Mussolini wanted her canonised. The Pope broke tradition by holding the event in St Peter's Square on June 24, 1950 in the Holy Year. Later on I was to interview and film the only mother in the history of the Church, who was to be present at her daughter's canonisation.

I also met Ersilia, Maria's sister and got more details of the tragedy of the marshes. Maria Goretti was born in Corinaldo, northern Italy on October 18, 1890. She was the third child of poor farmers Luigi Goretti and Assunta Carlini. In 1899, the family moved to the marshy land of La Ferriere near Nettuno di Conca and close to Anzio. The Roman Emperor Nero was born in Anzio, and among the ruins of his villa was also found the famous statue of the ' Girl of Anzio'.

In 1944 in World War II Allied troops landed on the beaches of Anzio, and met with fierce resistance from the Germans.

Later in 1953 I went back as a cameraman. I was travelling with the dynamic young Edward Cassidy on the troopship SS Otranto. He was later to become a Cardinal, and many were our visits to the beaches of Anzio. We were emotionally moved by the three thousand white crosses in the United States War Cemetery in Anzio.

Allesandro Serenelli, an orphan lived with the Goretti family. Luigi died of malaria at 41, three years after coming to La Ferriere. Assunta and her six children shared the Mazzolini farm with Serenelli's father Giovanni.

On July 5 in 1902, exactly a hundred years ago, at 3 p.m. whilst Assunta and the other children were at the threshing floor, Serenelli who persistently sought sexual favours from the 12-year-old girl approached her. She was taking care of her infant sister in the farm house. Allesandro threatened her with a 10 inch dagger, and when Maria refused, as she had always done, he stabbed her 14 times.

The wounds penetrated the throat, with lesions of the pericardium, the heart, the lungs and the diaphragm. Surgeons at Orsenigo were surprised that the girl was still alive. In a dying deposition, in the presence of the Chief of Police, Maria told her mother of Serenelli's sexual harassment, and two previous attempts made to rape her. She was afraid to reveal this earlier since she was threatened with death.

Maria died of her wounds on July 6 after forgiving her murderer. A socialist and anti-clerical municipality of Nettuno presented a coffin and a plot in the cemetery for her burial.

It was 83 years after her death that the media began its campaign of doubt and vilification. As a journalist who had met and interviewed Maria's mother and other members of the family in Rome, I was interested in author Bruno Giordano Guerri book Poor Saint, Poor Assassin; The True Story of Maria Goretti.

The 200 page book provoked a debate. Giordano Guerri, as an investigative journalist, had not met any of the immediate members of the Goretti family. He speaks of Serenelli whilst in prison telling other inmates that he did succeed in having sexual relations with Maria.

In the Filiodramatici Hall in Milan on February 11, there was a public debate, with professors, prelates, journalists and laymen called "The Trial of Canonisation; The Scandal of Sanctity".

Why did it take 83 years for the media to question Maria's physical virginity, and with little evidence and reason to rake this up? Catholic theologians could argue that a girl physically raped by force could still win a moral victory for virginity. The supreme commitment of a person to truth, is the commitment of life. Martyr is the Greek for being a 'witness". Sin, for Maria, was what offended God. She died defending virtue.

Guerri persistently argued that 'the peasant girl' was unintelligent and ignorant, and could not have made such an important distinction. The thesis stands on this facile presumption. Guerri admitted that his interest in the case came after a visit to the Goretti Shrine in Nettuno. He was unimpressed with the wax image of the saint: a shrine visited by thousands of devotees from all parts of the world, including two Popes Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.

Guerri recalls his Catholic education, and he well remembered his Religion teacher, who promoted Maria as an example of virtue and purity, to the girls of the Elementary school. He was also shown in school Augusta Genin's film Cielo Sula palude (Heaven Over the marshes), which won an award at the Cannes festival. I have shown this film myself to thousands of students in Australia and abroad in addition to my own colour documentary; The Land of St Maria Goretti.

Guerri argued that "irrespective of whatever happened, it was not worthwhile for Maria Goretti to let herself be killed for a stupid insignificant value such as virginity, and that the Church had done even worse by projecting her as an example". At the time of this debate in 1985 in Milan, the historian Luigi Firpo asked Guerri in a public hall: "An example of what?" The reply came: "A negative example to mislead other young girls to prefer death."

At this time the Vatican had already begun an inquiry to answer Guerri's allegations. The Italian writer Vittorio Messorie was prepared to dismantle Guerri's book page by page.

University Professor Barbielin Amidei said that " they should not take Guerri's thesis seriously." The public debate went into turmoil when Firpo stopped Messori's attempt to show up the prejudices in Guerri's work. Messori insisted that a "hypothesis should not be presented as a documentation."

The thrust of Guerri's attack was on the way the Catholic Church rushed to canonise Maria Goretti. He ignored the fact that more than 30 witnesses gave evidence at the process of canonisation, including Serenelli himself, who was released in 1929 after spending 27 years in Regina Coeli gaol. Maria was beatified on April 27th by Pope Pius XII and raised to the altar in the Holy Year of June 24 ,1950.

Of course Guerri asserted that the idea that beatification came as an antidote to the widespread immorality of the times, and that it was only in 1935 in the Concordat Vatican fever that the canonisation process began. The dictator Mussolini had reclaimed the Pontine marshes and felt that the farmers and peasants, who came from the Paduan flatlands deserved a saint.....

At the height of this debate and the claims of Giordano Bruno Giuerri's book, with blatant inaccuracies, I wrote to the Vatican with all the evidence I had gathered from the family of the Goretti's, especially from the mother and sister.

Allesandro Serenelli asserted that all his efforts to have a sexual relationship with Maria failed. Author Guerri never met any of those involved. I sent my own film to the Vatican and to the Cathedral at Nettuno.
I have visited Nettuno several times through the years. True the complexion has changed. The old scenes have gone. Thousands of tourists come to the beaches of Anzio adjoining the Church. Maria's bones are enclosed in a lifelike reliquary in the Church. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II visited and prayed at the Sanctuary.

Meanwhile after a year long study of Guerri's accusations the sainthood of Maria Goretti was re-affirmed. The Vatican held that Guerri's book did not understand saintliness and the methodology used in the canonisation process.

"The realities and facts tied in the martyrdom are many," said Rome. The Vatican criticised the falseness of the presumed consent of Maria Goretti to the offers of the killer.

Students are fascinated when they see the persons and places of the Gorreti story. I had filmed the room where Maria was born, the cemetery where her father was buried, the church where she made her first communion, the farm and exact spot where she was stabbed and fell, and the room in Orsenigo where she died.

Assunta was bedridden when I met her in her last days. She had forgiven Serenelli, and had gone to Communion with him, after his release from prison. Serenelli later became a Capuchin monk and eventually died. Pius XII's words at the canonisation are a legacy to parents and children:

"Why has Maria Goretti so rapidly conquered your hearts? The reason is that in this world, which to all appearances is in a state of chaos and is submerged in hedonism, there exists not only a small nucleus of those who thirst after heaven and the atmosphere of purity, but also a multitude, immense multitudes, over whom the supernatural perfume of Christian chastity, exercises a fascination that is irresistible and of great promise; a happy augury of true tranquillity".

On September 29,1990, Pope John Paul II visited La Ferriere de Conca. It was then the centenary year of Maria's birth. The Pope knelt at the shrine enclosing Maria's relics and prayed for an hour. He later said: "Maria Goretti is a witness to the marvels of God, who in little ones reveals his power, and gives the weak the strength of martyrdom."

It is not surprising to see how the media and television particularly have given children a precocious exposure, to the great mysteries of sex and love.

The sexual scandals from the clergy and religious of the Church have been exploited and sensationalised, even by responsible journalists.

The mud of the Pontine marshes can still be thrown in today's society. Yes, the Church will always be under siege. Pius XII warned parents that they cannot abdicate the right to protect, caution and look after their children. He rightly condemned 'the good people who did very little' about the conspiracy of evil. The virtues of purity, chastity and modesty are a challenge to our permissive society.

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