Today’s Abolitionists

Late last month, 33 sisters from 26 countries met in Rome at the invitation of the U.S. embassy of the Holy See and the Italian Union of Major Superiors. The weeklong meeting was no ordinary gathering of nuns; it was the launch of an international, intercongregational religious network of sisters to counter the scourge of human trafficking.
Spearheaded by Consolata Missionary Sr. Eugenia Bonetti, whose “call within a call” led her back to her native Rome, the meeting was an opportunity for sisters to bond and equip themselves with practical skills.
Many observers — including the U.S. Department of State — consider Sister Eugenia a pioneer in the arena of modern slavery. After 24 years as a missionary in Africa, she discovered a greater, more hidden poverty in Rome, where many of the same poor she met in African countries were cut off from family and subjected to forced prostitution:
The first girl who introduced me to this world changed my life. She ran away from her captors and came to us to ask for help. She was Christian, and asked us to pray. Hearing her story, the sufferings she endured, opened to me this world of modern-day slavery.
The U.S. State Department issued the first official report on Trafficking in Persons in 2000, when the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was established. In 2006, they estimated that at least 800,000 people were bought and sold that year across international lines, while millions more were traded within their own countries.
Sister Eugenia has been working with women and girls in the streets and detention centers for 16 years, and has watched a steady influx of youth in the sex trade, mostly from Nigeria and Romania. Currently in Italy, her congregation of Consolata Missionaries has 250 sisters devoted to the task of providing safe havens and rehabilitation for people caught in the web.
But governments have been slow to recognize the problem. Eleanor Gaetan, senior coordinator for public policy outreach at the U.S. State Department, said that it was in fact women religious and faith-based groups who brought the issue to the attention of lawmakers and government officials. As numbers swelled in detention facilities, they were the ones who consistently listened and ministered to troubled youth and women and followed them upon release, often across borders, through contacts with other congregations.

A Sisterly Touch

The U.S. and now the Italian governments have come to appreciate religious sisters as uniquely suited to counter global trafficking. Present in virtually every corner of the world, sisters have ministered to the poor and marginalized for centuries and recognize their needs in ways others do not.
More immediately, sisters have a welcoming and comforting maternal presence, the result of devoting themselves entirely to love of God and neighbor. Victims trust sisters more than the suspect promises of law enforcement. Indeed, Sister Eugenia said the girls she has helped know her as “Mamma” — someone who sees beyond their shame and guilt.{mospagebreak}
“We are the modern day Good Samaritans. It is easy for all to pass by a prostitute on the street and turn the other way,” Sister Eugenia said.
But the sisters are not naïve to the complexity of human trafficking. While their availability to victims is essential, the sisters have also been the impetus behind new measures. They’ve chided police for being harsh with victims and letting consumers of street sex off the hook, and have called on priests and male religious to stop turning a blind eye to the problem of pornography.
According to most of the sisters, poverty and demand are the main culprits in the booming slave trade. Sr. Susan Mahoney, Holy Name Sister of Jesus and Mary based in California, said the growing divide between rich and poor creates untenable moral choices. “For many it comes down to a choice between feeding their children daily by prostituting themselves or remaining in abject poverty.”

Hostage to the Devil

Pornography is legal, and where prostitution is not, it is often ignored or accepted. Moreover, the problem is hidden: Most people view prostitutes or pornographic models as victims by choice, and some in the trade maintain that they are free.
But Sr. Patricia Ebegbulem, a missionary sister of St. Louis from Nigeria, paints a very different picture. She described in detail the way traffickers strip victims of dignity through rape and abuse first, then deprive them of spiritual consolation through rituals that are directly contrary to the gospel. Girls from Nigeria, most of whom are Christian, are taken to a shrine where they are forced to perform rituals and swear oaths never to reveal the identity of their traffickers.
“I am dealing with one girl now,” Sister Patricia related. “She was deported from Rome, where other sisters were working with her. Terrible things were done to her. We try to show her a new way of life, give her hope for a different future. But she wants to go back, to run away again. There is hope, but it takes time.”


Irene Lagan is the general manager of Guadalupe Radio in Washington, DC. She is a former collaborator for the English language section of Vatican Radio, has written for several publications, and holds a Masters degree in philosophy. She served as managing editor at the National Catholic Bioethics Center while in Boston, and has been published in Ethics & Medics, the National Catholic Register, Zenit, Franciscan Way, the Arlington Catholic Herald, and The Boston Globe. In addition, she has taught university students as an adjunct professor and has consulted in the area of communications and development for non-profit organizations.

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