Goretti - Saint under siege
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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".
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
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.
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.