ROME— Even before his concern for the environment and migration became evident, there was another social issue at the top of Pope Francis’s agenda: human trafficking and modern-day slavery, all of which he sees as interconnected.
A Vatican meeting on Thursday with the Santa Marta Group, a coalition of security forces and the Catholic Church, proved it’s still at the top of his agenda.
Human trafficking, Francis told the group gathered in Rome for an Oct. 26-27 conference, “is one of the greatest challenges of our days.”
The Santa Marta Group is an international alliance of police chiefs and prelates endorsed by Francis, which takes its name from the hotel within Vatican grounds where the Argentine pontiff has lived since his election back in 2013.
“We need a concrete, active and constant effort, both to eliminate the causes of this complex phenomenon, and to find, assist and accompany the persons who fall into the snares of trafficking,” Francis told the group.
The number of victims, Francis noted, grows each year, and it’s “the most helpless ones who see their dignity, physical and psychological integrity stolen, if not their lives.”
The Santa Marta Group was born in 2014, following initiatives by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. It first met in Rome, and, in the presence of Francis, signed a declaration committing themselves to work together to end this illegal industry.
Millions of people are currently being forced into prostitution and to work in slave-like situations, many of them children, as part of an industry which generates annual profits as high as 32 billion, making the buying and selling of human beings the second largest illegal industry after arms trafficking.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, of Westminster, presented the 2016 meeting in a Vatican news conference on Thursday, marking the group’s fourth gathering. Among other issues, during the meeting members discussed a report two years in the making offering a broad overview of the dynamics of today’s trade in human beings.
The report, which they presented to Francis, shows that human slavery is not as hidden as it used to be, and that there’s an increasing awareness that this “is an open wound in the flesh of humanity,” Nichols said.
“Voices that were once completely hidden are being heard, and misery once unacknowledged is being acknowledged,” he added.
And Francis can take at least partial credit for that increased visibility.
Rob Wainwright, the British head of Europol, the European police task force, said that the pontiff’s moral leadership and inspiration is a huge part of it.
“He’s captured the imagination of my sector, police chiefs are really inspired by the position that the’s taking,” Wainwright told Crux.
In fairness, however, despite the key role played by inspirational public voices such as Francis’s, it’s the police who’ve done the ground work, and it’s the combination of both that has led to the fact that today most European countries have a national policy to fight human trafficking, when less than ten years ago only a handful of nations had one.
Nichols was asked about including religious women into the group, since their website describes it as a coalition of police chiefs and Catholic bishops from over 30 countries. The cardinal said that women are in fact, part of the network, which is a combination of “all the resources of the Catholic Church.”
A source close to the Santa Marta Group told Crux on background that nominally the women aren’t there because in some countries religious women and the hierarchy clash over leadership on this matter.
Yet as proof of the work being done, Nichols gave the example of Argentina, where the Federal Police is replicating the Santa Marta Group on a national scale.
Francis, an Argentine, knows this work well, since he was one of the leaders in the fight against this evil back home.
“He was very involved with the institution, doing his pastoral work as a church man, but always linked with us,” said Nestor Roncaglia, head of the Argentine police force. “He visited us many times, and made his interest in fighting against human trafficking and drugs very clear.”
Roncaglia told Crux that despite the interest then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had on the issue, before they joined the Santa Marta Group it seemed like in Argentina those who investigated and fought against human trafficking were on one side of the street, and those working with the victims and survivors on another.
“We redesigned the institution so we could work together,” he said.
This coalition helped increase the positive results more than 300 percent in recent years, something Roncaglia credited to the fact that religious women and men working with survivors have access to key information, which they pass on to the police.
“A policeman or woman is trained to work with the criminal, track him down, put him in prison, but not to work with survivors,” he acknowledged.
In an attempt to breach the gap, they are currently putting together a series of training sessions for the police force that will be imparted by religious sisters working on the front lines.
Quoting Francis, who’s often said the world has forgotten how to weep, at Thursday’s press conference Nichols said that by listening to the voices and experiences of those who’ve been trafficked, “we learn how to do [weep] again.”
To make his point, the cardinal was flanked by two survivors of human trafficking. One of them was Princess Inyang, from Nigeria. She was taken from her country by traffickers in 1999, and brought to Italy through England and France.
“They promised to give me a job as a cook, because I was a cook in my country,” she said. Yet when she arrived in Italy, she was forced into prostitution to pay an alleged debt of $45,000 plus house rent.
Inyang was eventually able to escape, and founded the NGO PIAM Onlus, with the idea of helping victims of forced prostitution because she “felt as they feel.”
“I am a living testimony of the dangers and atrocities to which many Nigerian women are subjected. My heart bleeds with joy whenever I can help one of them,” she said.