The papacy is working hard to combat the sex trade

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EVEN the Holy See’s greatest defenders would acknowledge this much: this is not an easy time for the Vatican to be burnishing its credentials as a defender of vulnerable youngsters from exploitation. As a colleague wrote recently, there is good reason to expect the fallout from clerical abuse scandals to get worse. Indeed, there is room to doubt whether the nettle has really been grasped. 

But, in what is one of the great paradoxes of the current papacy, Pope Francis has repeatedly returned to the issue of people-trafficking, and the closely related problem of sexual exploitation, especially of minors. In the thinking of the Vatican, the manipulation of vulnerable individuals for the sex trade is the epitome of a darkly materialistic age, when everything can be monetised and intangible values are cast aside. Whenever the pope himself, or his diplomatic representatives, speak before international bodies, including the United Nations, this point is made.

Thus, in a typical iteration of this argument, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic told the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year: “We can defeat trafficking in persons only by eliminating the culture of consumerism which feeds it…We need to foster a culture of respect for the inalienable human dignity of every person.”

Over and above these philosophical assertions, it is acknowledged by people who work in the field (including those who are far from the church) that Catholic-inspired projects and charities have a role to play in combating people-trafficking and the sex trade, one that cannot easily be matched by their secular counterparts. 

For better or worse, the Catholic church and its affiliates are among the few institutions that are actively present at both ends of the chain in one of the world’s nastiest forms of human traffic: the sex trade linking West Africa, and Nigeria in particular, with Europe, especially Italy. Experts from many African countries are gathering in Nigeria this week under the aegis of the Santa Marta Group, an anti-trafficking initiative launched by Francis and headed by Britain’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols. High on their agenda is the idea that in notorious “sending” regions, such as Edo in Nigeria, alternative livelihoods must be made available to close the economic vacuum which traffickers exploit. 

One of the Santa Marta Group’s aims is to provide a setting in which victims of human-trafficking can share their stories and hence deliver a warning to others. At one event organised by the group, a former Premier-League footballer, Al Bangura, gave an startling account of how as a teenager, he was lured from West Africa to Europe by men who offered sporting opportunities but in fact wanted to exploit him sexually.

According to Lorenzo Bagnoli, a researcher and writer on migration issues who contributes to a European investigative reporting project, religious charities such as Caritas have played a unique role. They are the only agencies that have seriously tried to quantify and mitigate the sex trade between Nigeria and Italy, which accounts for a high percentage of the prostitutes working on Italian streets. By comparison, in Mr Bagnoli’s view, efforts by governments and inter-governmental bodies (including the European Union) have been somewhat spasmodic and half-hearted.

While the percentage of trafficked Nigerian women and girls who are rescued from this trade is depressingly low, any successes in this area are often achieved by Catholic charities who can offer the victims protection and hence the ability to denounce the people exploiting them. With its international reach, Caritas is able both to succour and shelter exploited women in Italy and to lobby the Edo government to stem the trade. 

Whatever motivates the individuals involved in these Christian charities (who may be religious professionals or lay-people, devout or otherwise), it is probably not the desire to improve the Holy See’s image, or even to put into practice some theological principle about the dignity of the human person. There is simply a job to be done and they get on with it. 

When history makes its assessment of the current papacy, the determination of Francis to combat human-trafficking, including the sexual sort, will surely be recorded on the positive side of the balance-sheet.

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