This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
It's 5AM on the 12th of November, 1998 when Lorena Morselli hears the doorbell ringing. She's a mother of four, a kindergarten teacher in the town of Massa Finalese, near Modena, in central-northern Italy. On the other side of the door are seven policemen with a search warrant.
The agents go through the family's belongings and seize videotapes of parties, baptisms and holy communions. Morselli doesn't understand what's going on. They tell her to go wake up her husband and their children.
At the police station the couple is served an emergency protection order, alleging that Lorena Morselli and her husband, Delfino Covezzi, were allowing their children to regularly be taken from their homes at night by a group of paedophiles and brought to local cemeteries to take part in satanic rituals. The kids are immediately removed from their parents and taken to an unknown location.
Confused and panicked, the couple go to see Morselli's mother and find her in tears. The police have been to her house, too, and arrested her husband and two of Morselli's brothers – all of whom have been accused of molesting their children. The whole town is in shock: this is a well-respected family. They've never had a problem with anyone, let alone the law.
When they get back home, Lorena Morselli climbs into her eldest daughter's bed and cries herself to sleep. She doesn't know it yet, but that morning was the last time she'll see her kids.
Dubbed "the Devils of Lower Modena" by the Italian media, Italy's "Satanic Panic" case was reopened this year in light of new evidence unearthed by a 2017 Serial-style podcast called Veleno (Poison), which included staggering revelations made by some of the children involved.
The story began in 1997, when members of the impoverished Galliera family in Modena were accused of abusing local minors. Their youngest son Dario* Galliera had previously been removed from the home by child services, because the family was struggling financially, and was living with another family and visiting his biological parents from time to time.
At the time, Dario told his foster mother that his brother Igor* used to "play tricks under the sheets" on him and his sister. Worried, she put him in contact with local child psychologist, Valeria Donati. Over the following months, Dario's stories referred to more and more people with increasingly disturbing detail. Eventually, his entire family was arrested.
Authorities believed they'd found a ring of paedophiles who abused children inside and outside of the Galliera family home. Dario's father was accused of having his son and other local kids perform sadomasochistic acts for money, as well as selling photographs and videos of these acts.
Based on Dario's accounts, five other people outside of the family were investigated and their kids taken away, including a single mother, Francesca Ederoclite, who killed herself in September of 1997. Hers was the first in a series of deaths associated with this case.
The high profile "Paedophile-1" trials started in 1998. Prosecutors based the case on the children's stories and on medical reports conducted on the alleged victims by a respected gynaecologist. Six people were sentenced to jail. A few weeks after being convicted, one of them had a heart attack and died.
Alongside the trials, the investigation by the Modena district attorney expanded to other children. Their stories of abuse were even more extreme, describing nighttime rituals in cemeteries where children were forced to burn crosses and murder cats. They said adults in black cloaks put them in coffins and made them take part in satanic orgies and serial murders of other children, whose bodies were said to have been dumped in a nearby river.
The leader of this paedophilic satanic gang was described by Dario as a "mayor" or a "doctor" named Giorgio, who wore long black clothes and heeled boots.
Shocked by the gory details, the authorities arrested a local priest, Giorgio Govoni. They never managed to find the child porn he was accused of possessing, but they did seize two things from his home: a pair of heeled boots and his computer, on which he had searched for the terms "little girl", "hard" and "friends of children".
Despite receiving widespread support from the church and members of the local community, father Govoni was prosecuted in the second round of trials, "Paedophiles-2", with 15 other people. During the trials he had a heart attack and died in his lawyer’s office. A few days later, 12 of the 16 people on trial were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 157 years in jail. Father Govoni was posthumously declared "head of the sect".
A year after Dario's first confession, 16 children had been removed from their families and three people were dead. Residents of the small towns in the Modena area were wracked with fear and suspicion.
But there was one problem with the prosecution’s case: the evidence was circumstantial. The bodies of the murdered children were never found, there was no evidence of break-ins or fires in the cemeteries, the clinical reports made by the gynaecologist were called into question by other experts, and there were no other witnesses.
"Satanic panic" is a phenomenon well-documented in the US and UK. Critics of the media and authorities' handling of "the Devils of Lower Modena" case believe Italy also fell victim in the late 1990s.
The expression was invented by psychiatrist Lawrence Padzer, co-author of the book Michelle Remembers. In the 1980s biography, a woman recalls the abuse inflicted on her by her parents, allegedly members of a Satanic church. The story was completely made up, but caused a huge scandal in Canada and the United States.
At the same time, a controversial form of psychological treatment called recovered-memory therapy was gaining popularity with psychotherapists. Through this therapy, thousands of people claimed they had been victims of abuses and satanic rituals, triggering criminal proceedings across the US.
The most infamous example involved the McMartin family, who ran a kindergarten in Manhattan Beach, California. In 1983 they were accused of abusing more than 400 kids. The judicial case became the most lengthy and expensive trial in the history of the American justice system. It lasted seven years and ended up absolving the McMartins of any crime.
After a series of judicial debacles, the panic had subsided in the US by the 1990s. But for many European countries, Italy included, the "Satanic panic" wave arrived much later.
It's the 13th of November, 1998, the day after Morselli and Covezzi's children have been taken away. In a meeting with social services, the couple is told their kids are "really happy to be in a new family" and don't want to go home. Morselli is baffled. She didn't see any of this coming. Recalling the events, she tells me over the phone, "My kids were taken away without any inspections, without asking questions at school, at church, at Sunday school, at the scouts, nothing."
Morselli and her husband are not investigated until March of 1999 – more than a year after their kids have been taken from them. One of their daughters eventually implicates them in the satanic rituals, launching a third set of trials, "Paedophiles-3". Meanwhile, Morselli has just found out she is pregnant. She escapes to France to give birth to her fifth son, Stefano, fearing he'll be taken too.
Two new proceedings, "Paedophiles-4" and "Paedophiles-5", are opened by the public prosecutors against Morselli's father, brothers and her first lawyer, accused of having intimidated their children.
The trials never manage to prove any satanic rituals. Most of the accused are absolved of their crimes, but some only after lengthy trials. Morselli and her husband's trials are the longest, dragging on until 2014. But Covezzi never sees the end of his – he dies of a heart attack a few months before being found innocent.
Lorena Morselli tells me, "It's not just my husband who’s dead. There is a trail of blood. There are broken families, there is so much pain." Even now everything is finally over, her kids aren’t coming back.
In 2014, Italian journalist Pablo Trincia re-discovered the story and decided to make a podcast about it. "I quickly realised that this was not a story about paedophilia or Satanism," he told me over the phone. "It was much bigger than that. It had to do with mass hysteria, false memories, the justice system, the foster care system and much more."
Together with colleague Alessia Rafanelli, Trincia began a three-year investigation examining court records, interviewing experts and people involved, and visiting the places where the events took place. The resulting podcast, Veleno, was published by the newspaper la Repubblica in seven episodes.
Trincia and Rafanelli make a point of explaining the concept of "false memories", described by Trincia as "a deviation in the memory process, that brings someone to create fiction in their mind that is impossible to distinguish from true memories".
The pair believe that, by asking suggestive questions, "you risk planting into their heads doubts at first, and false memories second".
That's what they suspect happened in this case, and they aren't the only ones. In the final verdict on the "Paedophiles-3" trials, the courts referred to the psychologists and social workers involved in the case as "objectively inexperienced", and called their approach to interviewing the children "reprehensible".
What's more, Trincia and Rafanelli managed to find three of the children involved in the case, including Dario. "He told us he's convinced that he was brainwashed," says Trincia. The two other girls are Sonia* and Marta*. Sonia claims she'd never accused her parents, and was taken away based on another child’s account. "I felt kidnapped by the social workers," she says in an episode of the podcast. Marta is the daughter of the single mother who killed herself early on in the proceedings. Now, she says she "made everything up".
Thanks to these testimonies, the case has been reopened and some of the judicial proceedings are under review. Morselli hopes the accused will be proved innocent, but mostly she wants the focus on the real victims of this story: the children.
"My suffering is mine – I'm an adult and I try to defend myself," she says. "But the kids? How would I know if my kids suffered or cried? They have a right to the truth, then they can decide what to believe."
* Names were changed by the Italian press during the case, to protect the children’s privacy.