Nuns, Catholic groups work to blunt the scourge of human trafficking

A mosaic of St. Josephine Bakhita, often seen as an intercessor for human trafficking victims, is seen in the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

WASHINGTON — Catholic organizations, from women’s religious orders to corporate watchdog groups, are working on many fronts to stem the scourge — and the crime — of human trafficking.

The two most common aspects of human trafficking are sex trafficking and forced labor, although some are victimized by both. But two people interviewed by Catholic News Service also warned of the growing prevalence of organ trafficking on the black market; the practice was depicted in the 2002 movie “Dirty Pretty Things.”

Women religious have been on the front lines of fighting human trafficking, and over the past decade, united their efforts under the name U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking. It is part of a worldwide organization called Talitha Kum, named after Jesus’ instruction to Jairus’ daughter, whom her family believed to be dead: “Little girl, get up.”

According to Jennifer Reyes, executive director of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, the U.S. group is one of 52 similar national networks belonging to Talitha Kum — evidence of both the massive scope of human trafficking and of the effort to prevent it and to help those caught up in it.

Reyes said forced child marriages are another form of human trafficking. “It can really intersect with sexual exploitation and forced labor,” she noted, adding that the phenomenon of child soldiers is yet another dimension of human trafficking.

Felician Sister Maryann Mueller, head of the organization’s education working group, said people will tell her at workshops, “Well, that doesn’t happen here.” “Well, it does happen here,” is her reply.

“A lot more people know more about human trafficking than they did 10 years ago,” Sister Mueller said. “I hope people will be aware of human trafficking — and, specifically, how we are complicit as consumers as people are aware of the dangers of smoking or not using your seatbelts.”

How are consumers complicit? “Anything that we consume,” Sister Mueller said. “Products that we buy, when we go to a restaurant and consume a meal. Even the supply chain.”

Sister Ann Scholz, a School Sister of Notre Dame, who chairs U.S. Catholic Sisters’ advocacy working group, took part in Talitha Kum’s first international gathering last fall. There, she said, they identified three “root causes” of human trafficking where the organization can put its focus.

“One is forced migration, which makes people vulnerable to human trafficking — unjust immigration law and policy,” said Sister Scholz, who also is associate director of social mission for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Second is “the power differential between men and women in all sectors, which would mean economic, social, familial, political, cultural and religious. And the third we identified was the dominant model of neo-liberal development and unfettered capitalism,” Sister Scholz said “That creates situations of vulnerability that are exploited by traffickers and employers and buyers.”

While the motherhouse of Sister Jean Schafer, a Sister of the Divine Savior, is in Wisconsin, she and another member of her order have been in California for the past 17 years ministering to trafficking survivors, including 10 years helping operate a safe house in San Diego. They now live near Sacramento, California, at a parish administered by the Salvatorians, the men’s religious counterpart to their order.

Still, she gives workshops, connects frequently via videoconference with other U.S. sisters who also provide direct services to survivors, and drives to survivors’ homes to teach English.

During one recent presentation, on how grandparents can protect their grandchildren from social media’s ills, “we had one woman at the presentation who attends the youth program at the parish. She said, ‘Actually, I saw something not good with my daughter,'” who was 16 and had a 19-year-old boyfriend who “popped into her life.”

The mother continued: “I didn’t want my daughter to know I was snooping on her. But ultimately, through open conversation and me not being too heavy as a parent, my daughter opened up and said, ‘I think he’s luring me into something. I think he’s grooming me.'”

“This is going on in our school systems,” Sister Schafer said. “We really have to be aware of the undercurrent of what’s happening in social media.”

She also recounted the story of a young woman in San Diego who, after being forced into prostitution, sought refuge at their safe house.

“They ran away from the abuser that they were hooked up with, but I think they were not fully convinced that this was not a good way to earn money,” Sister Schafer recalled. “The guy kept the money and was abusive, so they ran away from that person,” but the lure of “quick money” from prostitution and the hope that “maybe the next guy, he will be great” is hard to dispel.

“We did have women who ran away from us,” and this woman was one of them, she added. “We had the feeling they went back on the streets. But we don’t know. A safe house is not a prison.”

But another woman who came, only to leave, Sister Schafer said, “went back on the streets for four years, and then had some kind of a conversion experience,” and came back to the house, control of which by this time the sisters had given to an evangelical group seeking such a house for its ministry. That woman now works on the staff of that safe house.

Domestically, U.S. Catholic Sisters is one of about three dozen Catholic organizations, religious orders, schools and dioceses belonging to the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking.

The coalition was developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about 20 years ago, as awareness of human trafficking as “a distinct crime” began maturing, said Hilary Chester, associate director for anti-trafficking programs of the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services.

“In the early years, there were several Catholic organizations that were among the first organizations to receive federal funding to provide services to survivors, to form coalitions and task forces on the ground and in the U.S. USCCB was also one of the first organizations to get some of the funding to build capacity, to build collations, to train paraprofessionals and law enforcement,” Chester said.

On a parallel track, since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, the focus also has been on “keeping the momentum to have more protective laws,” she added. “We focus a lot more on both advocacy both at the local level but also at the national level.”

Action also is pressed at the corporate level with the help of religious organizations that press executives to stop human trafficking where it occurs in its supply chain.

There are numerous stories how the garment industry has more trafficked employees than any other industry in the world,” said Christopher Cox, an associate director at the Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment, which, despite its name, is a predominantly Catholic consortium.

“Because of the extended supply chain, there are lot of ways that a company might act to protect their reputation but not to protect God’s most vulnerable human beings in their supply chain,” Cox added.

“But even when we think about it here in the United States, agricultural workers are some of the most vulnerable workers on the planet,” he told CNS. “There are loopholes of how we treat ag labor in U.S. labor law, that leads to more exploitation.”

“There’s been a great deal of success from shareholder engagements with companies in the transportation and hospitality sectors on trafficking awareness and prevention,” said a Feb. 14 email to CNS from Caroline Boden, shareholder advocacy manager for St. Louis-based Mercy Investment Services.

“Over the past several years,” she said, “Mercy Investments has filed resolutions with nine companies in the trucking and transportation sector on human trafficking prevention, all of which were withdrawn and resulted in substantive dialogue.”

“We were able to withdraw a proposal with Marten Transport when the company agreed to engage with shareholders and adopt a policy to address the issue of trafficking. The company has publicly disclosed a policy on combating human trafficking and has implemented an internal training program for all its drivers,” Boden added.

“We have been engaging social media, device makers and telecom companies and are expanding to others,” said a Feb. 13 email to CNS from Tracey C. Rembert, director of Catholic responsible investments for Christian Brothers Investment Services.

Christian Brothers, Mercy Investments and Seventh Generation are all members of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, which prods publicly traded companies to behave more ethically.

“We have seen changes to policies and practices and a reorganization of staffing at several firms to have a dedicated online safety team,” Rembert said. “We have seen Apple begin scanning the iCloud for child sex abuse material. AT&T (is) rolling out nationwide assistance for parents on parental control setup and including non-ATT customers.

“Verizon has published a new policy on what they do to protect children and has joined a number of child protection groups to better understand new tech tools to ID and block child abuse material online. Facebook and others just launched a new tool to detect child grooming,” he noted.

“Lots (is) happening, but the risk is escalating as well,” added Rembert, noting that “over 60 million images and videos” were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hotline “in 2019.”

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