NEW YORK — On their own, neither law enforcement nor the Catholic Church will be able to free the estimated 40 million people who are thought to be victims of human trafficking, according to British Cardinal Vincent Nichols, but in partnership together, they might be able to accomplish what some skeptics believe to be impossible: abolishing modern slavery.
“What we know is that the Church alone cannot solve these problems. We can bandage and we can heal wounds, but we can’t bring people to account before the courts, we can’t imprison people, and in that sense, we can’t help stem the flow of this great criminal activity,” Nichols said in an interview with Crux on Wednesday.
But if Nichols is candid about the Church’s limitations, he says that in conversation with law enforcement personnel, they’re equally frank about their own limitations.
That’s why they’ve decided to work together.
Since 2014, Nichols has led the Santa Marta Group, an initiative founded by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales that brings together these two groups to combat what has been described as “one of the gravest criminal challenges facing the international community.”
Pope Francis has not only given it his official backing — but during their inaugural meeting, he said to Nichols: “This meeting is far more important than most I go to, so please keep it going.”
Nichols was in New York this past week to accept an award on behalf of the group which was given by The Path to Peace Foundation, which supports the work of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See at the United Nations, as well as to meet with business leaders and members of the international community to discuss potential partnerships for the shared goal of eliminating human trafficking.
Elevating the Issue of Human Trafficking
Since his election in 2013, Francis has elevated the issue of human trafficking as a major concern for the global Catholic Church. Yet, according to Nichols, this issue is hardly a new cause, but one Francis was invested in for many years during his time as a priest and bishop in Argentina.
“In our first meeting, there was an Argentinian woman and her husband who had been rescued from a position of slavery 17 years previously by Archbishop Bergoglio,” said Nichols.
“It was clear just yesterday when we were listening to the Commissioner of the Argentinian Police — who is here in New York with us — that he was very familiar with this as a point of commitment and a point of action for the Archbishop of Buenos Aires for a whole number of years.”
Nichols said Francis addresses the issue not merely from “the position of the papacy, but on a very personal level” — an assessment that reflects reports that as archbishop, Francis would famously confront mafia bosses who took advantage of workers and would seek to find legitimate work to shepherd women out of prostitution.
“When he speaks about it as a wound in the body of humanity, he’s asking us to do the same as he has done, which is to really keep a focus on the victims of human trafficking and see there the motivation for our response to this criminal activity,” Nichols continued.
While the issue of combatting human trafficking manages to cut across ideological and ecclesial lines, Nichols was quite clear that his attention to this issue — and the pope’s motivation for addressing it — isn’t just to build bridges. It’s to change the concrete realities of those affected by it.
“The purpose of the Santa Marta Group, and the purpose of all this work, is to rescue people from tremendous evil, and there’s no other motive,” Nichols told Crux.
“In fact, I keep saying to people, let’s be very clear about this. It’s a wide-ranging, complex criminal activity, so it involves the supply chains of world industries.”
While Nichols said that many businesses and corporations have expressed interest and joined in the fight, he said that he wants to be clear that he’s not interested in their support merely to “protect their perceived integrity and good names.”
Instead, he wants to partner with folks who are interested in the human person who, for example, “might be a four-year-old boy in the Congo who might be a victim of slave labor to produce some of the basic raw materials that end up in a mobile phone or on the laptop that you and I have.”
“Other things, in a way, don’t matter,” he insisted.
Partnerships and Honest Assessments
While in the New York area, Nichols met with major corporate leaders, such as Coca-Cola and Unilever, who are seizing the opportunity to learn from the Church and its global network to end forced labor and human trafficking.
“It’s remarkable, because we’re on the ground in every country,” said Nichols. “These guys are saying, ‘I’m going to New Zealand in a bit, who would you think I might be in touch with?’ or ‘Who do you know in Malawi?’ and we can give them names and addresses to say contact these representatives of the Church and begin to work together.”
At the most recent Santa Marta Group gathering this past February, 34 countries were represented. Nichols is adamant that it’s not a centralizing organization, but instead a facilitating one, centered on trust and honesty as the only way to move forward with real progress.
Reflecting on that meeting, he recalls Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar who “spoke very movingly of the immensity of the problem in that country of particularly women being trafficked into China. He ended his presentation by saying ‘I’m very sorry, but really it’s only bad news that I bring.’”
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the papal nuncio to the United Nations, who was chairing the session, responded to Bo and said, “Your Eminence, we’d much rather be listening to bad news that is true than good news that is false.”
For Nichols, that’s exactly the sort of spirit that he wants to define the group.
In 2014, the Vatican announced that it would take measures to slavery-proof its supply lines to ensure that no forced labor is involved in the production of any of its goods or services.
Earlier this year, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia announced that his diocese would follow suit, marking what could become a new trend or, indeed, expectation for Catholic dioceses around the globe.
“They have a part to play, they really do,” said Nichols in discussing the role that dioceses have to play.
He added that in Britain, all major companies have a legal obligation to take similar action and to report on their efforts. The point being, for Nichols, that if the corporations are being held to this standard, the Church should be too.
But combating trafficking cannot be merely an institutional response. For Nichols, it must be personal and start with individual choices, including where individuals choose to shop and the services they hire.
In 2014, religious leaders from around the world met in Rome to commit together to ending modern slavery by 2020, the latest of many such proclamations by religious groups and the international community alike.
With that deadline quickly looming, Nichols resisted cynicism by those skeptical that such a noble goal will ever be achieved.
“We do everything that we can today. We try to understand more deeply, try to act more coherently. And not ever lose sight of the victim in the midst of many, many conferences and strategic meetings and great public undertakings,” he told Crux.
“For me, it’s kind of a matter of the heart. It’s good to have targets, it’s great that the United Nations has this as one of the sustainable goals, and it will give points at which some accountability has to be rendered, but it’s a day to day thing,” said Nichols.
“It’s like life,” he said. “I’ve got to live today, and as Pope Francis said in Gaudete et Exsultate, holiness consists of the things I do each day.”
“It’s built brick-by-brick, and the response to those who bear the suffering of humanity in this dramatic way, that has to be built step by step and day by day and entrusted to the Lord,” Nichols said.