WASHINGTON — During a Feb. 8 evening prayer service for victims of human trafficking, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Washington’s retired archbishop, said of the practice: “I’ve seen this in too many places.”
It has gotten to the point that in some urban centers, parents have to give explicit instructions to their young children on how to avoid being kidnapped, he said in his homily at the prayer service, conducted at St. Gabriel Church in Washington.
The children did not seem to mind the gravity of the situation. “They thought it was a game,” Cardinal McCarrick said.
He recounted a time five years ago when he and two Catholic Relief Services staffers went to a fifth-story walk-up apartment in Kolkata, India. Inside were two social workers and, by his count, 50 women, all of whom had been victims of human trafficking.
Some had been forced into prostitution. Others had been given work as housekeepers, “subject to beatings if they didn’t do what the children wanted,” Cardinal McCarrick said. Others had been turned into beggars “with instructions to bring back so much (money) or they wouldn’t eat that night,” he added.
The women hailed from India and its neighboring nations, the Philippines, and African countries. All had shared the same sentiment, according to Cardinal McCarrick: “We can be the heroine of our community by keeping our mother and father safe.”
The lure of the trafficker, with the false promise of the women earning so much money they would be able to send some home to help their families, put them in this position, the cardinal said. But with the trafficker taking away their passports and other essential documents, they seemed stuck on a treadmill with no end in sight. The women “realized they had been taken,” he added.
Yet they had somehow escaped their circumstances. “In that fifth-floor walk-up, they were safe now, but only as long as they stayed there,” Cardinal McCarrick said. “So they stayed.”
God “made us special, and he made us not to suffer violence and indignity, but with dignity,” the cardinal said.
The prayer service, which also drew speakers from representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran, Buddhist, Coptic Orthodox, and Krishna Consciousness traditions, took place on the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese woman who in the late 19th century was herself trafficked into slavery for seven years while still a child. After her escape, she became a Catholic and joined a convent. She was canonized in 2000.
In November 2014, the Vatican declared her feast day to be an International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking. This year was the second annual observance.
“The terrible agony of what she had gone through had not made her hate,” Cardinal McCarrick said. “Many of our brothers and sisters in the world who are used in anger and for profit don’t have this chance.”
Ambassador Susan Coppedge of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said there are an estimated 20 million victims of human trafficking, yet there are only 11,000 prosecutions — and just 5,000 convictions each year on trafficking charges.
“The community of faith is often the first responder to victims of human trafficking,” said Coppedge, whose sister is a United Methodist minister.
“We sometimes commit terrible acts against other humans, other species and the planet,” prayed Anuttama Dasa of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness at the prayer service. “We shiver to think how much you are grieved.”