The numbers are staggering. Each year in the U.S. alone, some 300,000 minors are victims of sex trafficking.
In Louisiana, state estimates indicate that about 40 percent of juvenile victims are being trafficked by their primary care giver: a mother, father, foster parent, uncle, a mother’s boyfriend.
Father Jeff Bayhi has heard unspeakable stories of sex trafficking victims over the years.
That’s why the pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary, La. has worked to open Metanoia Home, a Baton Rouge-area shelter for sixteen women under age 21.
Caring for the victims are four Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy from India, Nigeria, the Philippines and Madagascar.
“They’re not there as social workers or therapists,” but as mother figures, Fr Bayhi said. “They’re going to be there, and be a safe place for these children to be. To be loved, to be nurtured, to be made felt special again in the sight of God.”
The project is modeled after the initiatives of Sister Eugenia Bonetti. The Milan-based Consolata Missionary sister heads the Slaves No More association. She has trained responders to help trafficking victims. Her former students work around the world.
“We have worked with her a great deal,” Fr. Bayhi said of Sr. Bonetti. “She has been here and addressed our legislature. She’s our model.”
Given the grim reality of human trafficking, thousands more people are needed to follow that model.
Trafficking problems in Louisiana are often attributed to its 15 million annual tourists who visit the state, especially New Orleans. The interstate highway that passes through Southern Louisiana runs across the country from Florida to California.
The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services reported that more than 350 trafficking victims were found in 2015, and nearly 450 in 2016. Half of the victims were children, the CBS affiliate WAFB reports.
Young victims come from families that are not intact and have little supervision. Those raised by someone with a drug or alcohol addiction face some of the greatest risks.
Even so, traffickers target girls and women from all backgrounds.
“We have kids being seduced out of our high schools,” Fr. Bayhi said, citing the case of a 17-year-old senior at a white suburban high school who trafficked two 13-year-old freshman girls.
He said traffickers can target their victims through convincing them to engage in “sexting,” sending sexually explicit photos via phone.
“After that stuff gets out, these people own you,” he said. Other forms of blackmail can involve drugging the victim and filming her in a compromising act.
What do trafficking victims need?
“They need a safe place to be made human again,” said Fr. Bayhi. “When you’re 15 years old, and you’ve performed 3,000 sexual favors, you’re no longer a person, you’re nothing more than a receptacle in your own eyes.”
“Our response is the religious sisters who are there,” he said. “These nuns are the heroes. How do you pay people in eight hour shifts to convince a 15-year-old who has been abused that they really love them? You can’t do it. That’s why the nuns are just so incredibly important to this.”
The nuns of Metanoia Home will have the assistance of other professional volunteers including physicians, nurses, social workers and educators to complement their own expertise in helping victims.
“We need to get them stable, we need to get them to believe in themselves. We need to reconnect these children with God,” Fr. Bayhi said, noting that the house is open to anyone regardless of religion.
The potential beneficiaries could have very different experiences. Recovery for a 17-year-old victim who was trafficked for three months will be much different than for a 14-year-old who has suffered for four years in captivity.
“We will want the children to finally have someone in their life that we trust,” said the priest. Metanoia Home aims to help victims recover from their experience and re-integrate into society.
Increasing efforts are being made to work against human trafficking in Louisiana. Anti-trafficking programs in the state include special training for police officers to help them recognize victims of sex traffickers, rather than treat them as criminals. Fr. Bayhi praised the collaborative work between legislators, the governor, law enforcement, members of the judiciary and state agencies.
In January a delegation of Louisiana anti-trafficking leaders attended Pope Francis’ Wednesday general audience, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards led the delegation, which included Fr. Bayhi.
“It’s really a tragic circumstance and we have to really do much better in Louisiana and around the country,” Gov. Edwards told Vatican Radio in January.
Father Bayhi told CNA that the delegation had a very brief moment with Pope Francis, who thanked them and encouraged them to continue. The delegation spent considerable time with Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, whom Fr. Bayhi described as the Pope’s anti-trafficking point man.
The priest commented on inhuman trends in society that he sees as creating a breeding ground for trafficking.
“The sad fact is, there’s a market,” he said. Older men seek out little girls or boys as young as 12.
“One of the things I think you have to understand: human trafficking is not a problem. Human trafficking is a symptom,” he added. “We live in a society where we determine who has the right to be born. We live in a society where we get to decide who dies and when, with our elderly. And now there’s some recent things about Planned Parenthood, we’re talking about selling baby parts and making $52,000/week on baby parts.”
“For God’s sake, we have so devalued the dignity of human life that by and large as a society we see human life as a matter of profit, pleasure or possession,” he said. “Human life has become a commodity. Human trafficking is one more aspect of that.”
In January Fr. Bayhi told Vatican Radio that internet pornography is not a victimless crime.
“Someone is there making those kids do that stuff,” he said. “They are not there voluntarily and you’re paying the money that makes it worthwhile to kidnap these kids and force them into that. You may have never picked up one of these children on a roadside but you make that possible.”
The priest suggested to CNA that the Church and the U.S. bishops’ conference could engage in more education and outreach efforts to help trafficking victims.
“We need to respond to the needs of these kids,” he said, urging people to recognize the signs of trafficking.
“Someone 35 years-old with four 16-year-olds around him, shopping at Wal-Mart, if they’re hanging on him like he’s the best thing since sliced bread, something’s wrong with that picture. Something’s really wrong,” he said.
A Church response could involve the observance of the Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, an ex-slave from Sudan. Her feast day coincides with the Feb. 8 International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking.
Fr. Bayhi suggested priests should be taught about human trafficking and how to preach about it. For their part, the U.S. bishops’ conference could dedicate more resources to anti-trafficking work.
As for Louisiana’s Metanoia Home, the nuns moved in on May 20. They are prepared to be mothers to young women in need.
Metanoia Home’s website is http://metanoia-inc.org.
By Kevin Jones