Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Clarion Herald Commentary
You have spoken often about human trafficking being a pro-life issue. Could you explain why that is?
Human trafficking is an affront to human dignity. It is a modern form of slavery. It is an economically motivated crime in which a victim – through force, fraud or coercion – is compelled to engage in commercial sex acts or labor. Government reports indicate there are between 14,500 and 17,500 individuals in the U.S. who are trafficked every year. The most recent Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services report notes that 52 percent of the human-trafficking victims in the state were minors, and 11 percent of them were under the age of 12. The three states with the most human-trafficking activity are California, New York and Texas. Because New Orleans is a tourist hub, our city is magnet for those who are trafficked for sex. The Federal Human Trafficking Report in 2018 indicated that 95 percent of all active criminal trafficking cases at the federal level were sex-trafficking cases. The reports also indicated that “the vast majority of business models involved internet-based commercial sex.” So, social media is an indispensable tool in fueling human trafficking.
What is the archdiocese doing to combat this evil?
People may not know it, but right before their eyes on Bourbon Street and on Tulane Avenue, women are being bought and sold for sexual activities. Debbie Shinskie, the director of our Respect Life office, has made inroads into what is going on. Debbie and a few other women regularly and anonymously walk Bourbon Street and confidentially engage women they see who are showing obvious signs of being trafficked. They simply talk to the women and ask them if they need any help to break free of what they are doing. Debbie has resources available to the women if they are willing to listen. They go on different days and at different times of the day because the trafficking victims are always working. On Tulane Avenue, Debbie has teamed up with the Assembly of God Church to do outreach. Just before Christmas, the Archdiocesan Human Trafficking Committee and the Respect Life office collected needed supplies for the women who are being trafficked on Tulane Avenue. Students from Loyola’s Wolf Pack for Life group provided backpacks for the items, and Debbie went with the Assembly of God representatives, who know the victims well, to hand out the backpacks. Debbie says not many people realize that most of the trafficking victims along Tulane Avenue are homeless and may be worse off even than the women on Bourbon Street. It’s rare that a woman decides to walk away, but it does happen. A lot of these women have never felt loved before. It’s really hard for them to walk away because their pimp has such psychological control over them. They fear their pimps, and they fear they can do nothing else.
What happens on the law enforcement end?
We, of course, are not a sting operation. We want to offer women a lifeline. If a woman wants help, we can certainly bring law enforcement into it. One of my dreams is to have state law address this issue. Right now, if someone is arrested for selling sex, that’s a felony charge. But for those purchasing sex, the charge is a misdemeanor. That is grossly unfair. The buyer is trafficking in the selling of another human person, which is an affront to human dignity. I believe that should be a felony. You can’t legalize prostitution, so there has to be some kind of charge for the transaction. But when we talk about criminal justice reform, we should talk about giving these women an exit strategy. We need to treat victims as victims and give them something that does not legally scar them for life. There are so many women whose mother maybe sold her to a pimp. Her mother or father may have been a drug addict. Many times trafficking is familial. A lot of times their mother was trafficked. We need to have some kind of exit strategy because right now they don’t know how to move from Point A to Point C.
Friday, Feb. 8, the Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, is an International Day of Awareness and Prayer Against Human Trafficking that calls for “silence” on social media and awareness of human trafficking. The archdiocese also is celebrating a liturgy that day. Can you tell us about that?
We know that traffickers use social media to lure young people into victimhood, and they use it to advertise their girls and their boys. Buyers use social media to buy victims. Social media is a tool of commerce. So, on that day, we ask people, “Don’t post – pray.” Social media is noisy, so we are bucking that system. We are going silent in solidarity with the victim. So, instead of posting that picture in Instagram, say a prayer. The archdiocese is making available the rosary, confessions, Mass and a human trafficking prayer service on Feb. 8 at St. Edward the Confessor Parish, 4901 W. Metairie Ave., in Metairie. It begins at 5 p.m. and concludes around 7. Even if you can’t attend that Mass, you can participate in an archdiocesan novena to end human trafficking Feb. 9-17. The link is https://nolacatholic.org/novena-to-end-human-trafficking. We also will host a large human trafficking symposium on Feb. 8, 2020. Please offer your prayers and support to Debbie and her colleagues for the important, pro-life ministry in which they are engaged.
Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to email@example.com.