ROME — Father Jeff Bayhi may be a Catholic priest running a house for victims of human trafficking, but he’s the first to admit that it’s women — not men — leading the fight.
Specifically, it’s women religious.
“The heroes in today’s Church for the fight against human trafficking are religious women. It’s not the bishops, it’s not the priests. It’s religious women. Period,” Bayhi told Crux during a Vatican conference on human trafficking earlier this month.
Bayhi is a priest of the diocese of Baton Rouge in Louisiana where in the early 1980s he purchased a home hoping to turn it into a Catholic retreat center for young people.
“Every young priest has a desire to change the next generation,” he said.
Yet despite his best efforts and several reboots, the retreat center never took off until in 2002, he met Sister Eugenio Bonetti.
Bonetti is an Italian nun who is one of the leading crusaders against sex trafficking in the Church. Over the last 25 years, she pioneered some of the first programs dedicated to rescuing women from the practice. Her work has even attracted the attention of Pope Francis who asked her to pen the meditations for this year’s Good Friday service at Rome’s Colosseum, with a particular focus on human trafficking.
“Her passion and her compassion is infectious,” Bayhi said, recalling their first encounter where Bonetti inspired him to turn his property into a home for adolescent girls needing shelter from the sex trade.
“I’m not doing this without religious women,” Bayhi told Bonetti.
Bonetti was undeterred, and found five Sisters of Mercy who took up residence at Metanoia Manor, named after a Greek word that means “change of heart.”
“To live and care for these girls twenty-four hours a day isn’t something you can just pay anyone to do,” said Bayhi. “It has to be a calling.”
The Louisiana estate now has 16 private rooms where women — all adolescents, as the average age of a trafficking victim is 13 years old — can live as they attempt to restart their lives, unshackled by the bondage of sex slavery.
Bayhi insists that although religious sisters staff the home, their only mission is to help provide a new start, not to proselytize.
“They can go to any church of their choosing or no church at all,” Bayhi told Crux. “This is not just a Catholic shelter.”
Today, Bayhi spends much of his time raising the half million-dollar budget it takes to keep the house fully functioning each year and he hopes to add more sisters in the coming years.
Although he doesn’t take state or federal funding, he says one of his biggest allies is the state’s Catholic governor, John Bel Edwards, who, along with his wife Donna, have taken a particular interest in the work of Metanoia Manor.
In addition, the head of the state police, the sheriff’s association, and a number of local law enforcement officials serve on the board and have proven to be allies in helping the young women navigate custody issues as they seek to find shelter at Metanoia.
“They work for us,” Bayhi said of the law enforcement personnel. “They are true public servants.”
Of Edwards, he praised him as being a “big tent sort of guy,” known for his ability to work across the aisle with Democrats and Republicans alike. Bayhi said that’s particularly important for an issue like human trafficking. “This isn’t some political issue,” he insists. “It’s an issue of human dignity.”
“And these are not just other people’s kids,” he continued, referring to the young women that Metanoia Manor takes in. “We’re all responsible. They’re all of our kids.”