Five Sisters of St. Mary of Namur from the diocese attended a conference on human trafficking which took place at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on July 9 and 10. The conference titled, "Answering Pope Francis' Call: An American Catholic Response to Modern-Day Slavery," was sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities USA.
The two-day conference examined the international issue of human trafficking through the eyes of social workers, professors of sociology and law, lawyers, government officials and survivors of human trafficking, all of whom shared their knowledge on what Pope Francis called a crime against humanity and which several conference speakers called the human rights issue of the 21st century.
Sister Pat Brown, Sister Anne Elisabeth de Vuyst, Sister Caroline Smith, Sister Kathleen O'Neill and Sister Rosemary Riggie attended the conference. Sister Rosemary received an email from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious recommending they attend because the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur have been very active in spreading awareness of human trafficking in the Diocese of Buffalo.
The order's congregation worldwide has made an "apostolic priority toward globalizing against human trafficking," Sister Rosemary said. In doing so, they answered the pope's call to action.
"We wanted to be present in response to Pope Francis' call to religious women to be awake to the needs of the world, especially in this Year of Consecrated Life," Sister Kathleen said. "Our Holy Father has called human trafficking, in all of its various forms, a 'vile form of slavery.'"
Sister Caroline said speakers at the conference gave a broad overview of human trafficking and to look at it from a multi-disciplinary perspective. They reinforced the reality that human trafficking touches many different aspects of life, from labor on farms, to the sex trade, domestic slavery and exploitation of children. People are forced to work in restaurants, manicure and massage parlors, private houses and on farms for no pay. It is much more widespread in the United States than most even realize.
"It's not only something that happens in foreign countries," Sister Anne Elisabeth said. "It happens in the United States. It happens in Europe and probably in your neighborhood."
According to Sister Rosemary, the sisters learned the global human trafficking industry boomed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, since it became easier for traffickers to move people around the world. It is a $32 billion industry worldwide. Tragically, many criminals who had been involved in sale and manufacturing of drugs moved on to human trafficking because it was simply easier for them to do so.
"They discovered that with drugs, you have to go out and get more drugs," Sister Rosemary said. "With this, you can just keep selling the same person, over and over again."
The sisters learned that in some cases, a human being is sold and used as a commodity in the sex trade every 15 minutes. However, there is hope. Conference attendees heard from Sister Terry Shields, MSHR, co-founder, president and CEO of Dawn's Place in Philadelphia, a non-profit organization that works on behalf of women who have been "trafficked, prostituted or pimped," according to its mission statement.
Tina Frundt, founder of Courtney's House of Washington, D.C., was another speaker. Herself a survivor of human trafficking, Frundt now dedicates her life to helping victims and training law enforcement to recognize the signs that human trafficking is taking place, to save others as she was once saved.
"They deal mostly with 12- to 19-year-olds, mostly runaways and children who have been groomed into the trade and then escaped," Sister Pat said of Courtney's House. "Dawn's Place has room for about 10 women. She spoke very strongly about how traumatized everybody is and how long it takes to recover. The victims are still very untrusting. It's very difficult to rebuild trust because they're fearful that this is just another game."
The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur work with People Against Trafficking Humans Inc., a Depew-based coalition that meets around Western New York to support survivors of human trafficking and end the exploitation of human beings for sexual, labor and other purposes. The sisters who attended the conference are members of U.S. Sisters Against Human Trafficking and have participated in various community events to raise awareness, including some with the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph in Hamburg.
Hilbert College in Hamburg is sponsoring a "Night of Hope" on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 5 p.m. on its campus grounds. Immaculata Academy, adjacent to Hilbert, will host a similar event featuring speakers and information on Thursday, Oct. 15, from noon until 2 p.m.
The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur will hold their own event on human trafficking at Mount St. Mary Academy in Kenmore, the high school they founded, from 8:15-9:15 a.m., Monday, Oct. 19, for Founders' Day. The sisters will speak to the school's religion classes about what they have done in Western New York to spread awareness and commit to fight the issue of human trafficking. In addition to this, there are many other community events the sisters have planned and are planning in the future.
"We are going into high schools or colleges to make sure that young people who are at risk - even well-off kids, everybody is at risk, especially because of the Internet," Sister Rosemary said.
One of the biggest obstacle to stopping the problem is the stigma attached to it. Many victims of human trafficking either do not see themselves as victims or are too ashamed to come forward. The sisters hope to educate social workers, school counselors, health care providers and community leaders to recognize signs that human trafficking is taking place and expose it to help remove the sense of secrecy.
"What we are really going to need is a paradigm shift," Sister Rosemary said. "Smoking used to be totally acceptable, and now it's much less acceptable. Seatbelts - nobody wore them, and now most people wear them. Drunk driving - people used to brag about it, and now it's unacceptable."