Conference eyes Catholic community’s role in fighting trafficking

WASHINGTON — Human trafficking illustrates Pope Francis’ lament that “we live in ‘throwaway culture,’ in which people are discarded as quickly and easily as an old, worn out shoe,” a bishop told a Washington conference.

“Victims of forced labor or sexual slavery are seen by their perpetrators as objects to be exploited, used up and forgotten,” Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle said.

The bishop, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, delivered opening remarks at a trafficking conference held at The Catholic University of America.

Called “Answering Pope Francis’ Call: An American Catholic Response to Modern-Day Slavery,” the July 9-10 gathering drew clergy, women religious, Catholic Charities staff members and lay parish leaders.

The title was a reference to Pope Francis’ 2015 World Day of Peace message in which he spoke out against human trafficking as the central theme.

One of the conference’s goals was to discuss the Catholic community’s role in addressing the issue and look at a comprehensive response to human trafficking in the United States.

“Just as our misguided self-indulgence can promote an understanding of nature as something to be exploited and used for our own immediate desires, it is this same kind of self-centeredness that all too easily seduces us to look at others as objects made for our own personal use,” Bishop Elizondo said in his remarks July 9.

He praised those who had been fighting for the victims of human trafficking even before “movies like ‘Taken’ had become box office hits,” referring to a Hollywood film about an American girl who is kidnapped by sex traffickers while visiting Paris and eventually rescued by her father.

The bishop called on law schools to help provide legal support to survivors navigating the legal system and urged medical and psychological professionals to donate time to help trafficking victims cope with their trauma and begin the healing process.

“Lastly we continue to advocate for legislation that includes the perspectives of victims and survivors and calls for their input and leadership. They are invaluable stakeholders (in) solutions to the problem,” said Bishop Elizondo.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center is one place victims can turn to for help. It has a toll-free hotline — (888) 373-7888 — available to callers in the United States and U.S. territories 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. People who have a tip about a trafficker or a victim can call, too. Specialists can communicate with callers in more than 200 languages.

The center is operated by Polaris, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that works exclusively on the issue of human trafficking.

Another conference speaker, Terry Coonan, gave an extensive look at some of the facts and background information about the logistics involved in human trafficking.

Coonan is a professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he teaches law, criminology and film courses and is founding executive director of the university’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. He also is a practicing human rights and immigration attorney.

He said the number of trafficking victims is staggering, saying there are an “estimated 21-27 million modern-slavery victims” suffering at the hands of a business that “yields an estimated $32 billion in profits each year.”

In fact, human trafficking is second only to drug trafficking in terms of organized crime, according to Coonan.

Additionally, he pointed out that as many as 100,000 or more children in particular are victims of sex trafficking, many of them runaway and “throwaway” children. Primarily, the children between the ages of 12 and 14 are targeted.

In the United States, he said, there is a proven correlation between large sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, and increased sex trafficking activity. In response, some activists search hotels and other locations nearby major sporting venues in hopes of being able to help victims. Making matters worse is the Internet, said Coonan, who gave examples of websites that sex traffickers can navigate with relative ease to lure victims.

The co-sponsors of the trafficking conference were the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic University’s National Catholic School of Social Service, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

“As we hope for a day when slavery will be banished once and for all from the world, our faith remains strong in a loving God, who will grant us the strength and the wisdom to make this hope a reality, said Bishop Elizondo.