Italy, 1997. 16 children between the ages of 1 and 12 were separated from their families and never returned. The parents were accused of being part of a satanic sect that harassed and killed children. The violence took place both at home and in cemeteries and the rites were organised by the village priest. Five different trials ended with 15 convictions and the final separation from the families. But also, with the deaths of a mother who threw herself out of the window and the priest struck down by a heart attack after the sentence. But what if it didn’t happen? What if the parents and the priest were not the villains, but the victims? This was the question that Italian journalist Pablo Trincia posed and that resulted in a stunning piece of revelatory journalism: ‘Veleno’ [Eng: ‘poison’]
This report, including an interview with Trincia by Marta Desantis
In fact the parents were victims of a theory that had branded them – unfairly – as paedophiles. Psychologists and social workers, during interrogations, manipulated the children by creating a “collective false memory” which led to an incorrect assessment of their statements. Day after day the children added terrifying details to their stories and often these elements were suggested by psychologists and social workers. The indignation and fear spread among the people and the consequence of these facts was an immediate intervention for the removal of the minors.
The truth only emerged now thanks to the investigation by the journalist Pablo Trincia published in the newspaper La Repubblica and as a podcast – and later as a documentary series on Amazon Prime. Although twenty years had passed, through the new research and the discovery of some unpublished videos of the interrogations, it emerged that the children had been manipulated. Furthermore, the “child zero” – now an adult – who had first reported the abuses, following the investigation, confessed to having been manipulated. Trincia says he was inspired by a famous American piece of investigative podcast journalism:
“Veleno” is inspired by “Serial” a podcast released in the United States in 2014 that became famous and created a new genre. After listening to it, a sound designer colleague of mine and I started looking for stories of Italian cold cases and we discovered the story of a woman who had been acquitted after 16 years of the – invented – accusations of violence against her children. After talking with her we realised that the story was much wider, that many more children had been taken away from their parents. Not only that, we understood that similar stories had happened in different parts of the world. For example, in the UK there have been cases with the same dynamics. Many children have unjustly accused their families as in Italy. The difference, however, concerned the handling of these cases and also the conclusion. Consequently, we decided to go all the way and reconstruct this heart- breaking tale of unfairly divided families.”
For Trincia the investigation became a deeply personal mission that he says effected him directly and challenged his journalistic values:
“We immersed ourselves in this story and I found that there were people who had started dealing with it before me. In fact, a woman and a priest had made an extraordinary reconstruction by throwing a “stone into the future” which allowed me to understand many things and to go on in my research which lasted three years. In recent years I have been overwhelmed by the story, very strong on an emotional level. My children were very young and for the first time I entered a story where the protagonist could be me. A heart-breaking story of pain that didn’t allow me to sleep at night. A story that aroused so much anger especially when I found the videotapes of the interrogations and I realized that they had been carried out by manipulating children. During that period I woke up at 5 am, I made a litre of coffee and I tried not to get too overwhelmed by my emotions. It was difficult to remain rational, objective, impartial. Especially when we had tracked down those directly involved, families and children who have now become adults. Some of them did not want to talk, they were overcome with pain again. Others finally managed to confess the truth, to tell the dynamics of events and the manipulation by psychologists and social workers.”
Veleno was a huge journalistic success. Trincia told us that this is partly because it revealed a hidden story but also because they were able to use new technologies to create a multi-media, multi-platform piece of media that had massive emotional impact:
“Veleno’s success rests on two factors. The first is that this story takes place in an isolated geographical place. The Bassa Modenese is made up of towns far from the media centre. The second cornerstone concerns the historical moment in which this happened, before the age of the Internet. From 1997 onwards, articles were published in the local press and sometimes in the national one. But it was all disconnected and dispersed over the years. I created a narrative, I took this story and framed it, giving a beginning and an end to the events. It is a package, an emotional experience. I created a sort of “brand” with the podcast, the book and then with the TV series of which I was a consultant.”
In a world where there is often talk of the “death of journalism” and people’s distrust of newspapers, the “Veleno” (poison) investigation reiterated the centrality of this profession in society. Furthermore, technological evolution has made it possible to spread the truth through platforms that have reached many people. In fact, this was initially released in the form of a podcast which like “Serial” highlighted the value of the new format according to Trincia:
“The change of medium should not be underestimated. A story in a newspaper will always remain colder and more distant than one told in the form of a podcast. Through words, our imagination creates the most beautiful film. The story told by people’s voices offers an immersive experience. You can hear the protagonists’ accent, their way of speaking, pain and hope. The fusion of words and music that follows the text and tries to reproduce a mood, to create tension, vibrations. Finally, the ability to tell the events as if they were great novels, without however changing reality, remaining faithful to journalistic rigour. All these elements have managed to converge at the right time, with the right means, in the right way. In my opinion this was the real key to the success of “Veleno”.
The views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Polis or the LSE