The illicit proceeds from human trafficking and exploitative labour crimes in 2018 are estimated at $150 billion (up from $32 billion in 2011). Sexual trafficking provides a significant part of these proceeds, $99 billion, going into the hands of criminal gangs. The dark underside of globalisation, the trade has been the subject of both documentaries and thrillers. But what is far less well known is the extraordinary role nuns, Women Religious, have played in caring for its victims and combating it.
I was recently privileged to interview Sister Imelda Poole, about her experience of working with trafficked women. But before watching, you may need a few acronyms and words explained.
CARITAS - the international arm of the Roman Catholic Church for aid and development with branches in different countries. CAFOD - the UK branch of CARITAS. CIIR - the Catholic Institute for International Relations, an independent radical organisation founded during the Second World War. Conference of Religious - the national body for men and women Religious. Congregation - a particular association of men or women Religious (Sister Imelda for example belongs to the English congregation of the IBVM, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as Loreto or Mary Ward Sisters, who share Ignatian Spirituality with the better known Jesuits. Currently 23 different congregations in England and Wales have members engaged in anti-trafficking, over half providing properties for safe-houses and shelters).
Here is Sister Imelda explaining what brought her into this work....
Sister Imelda was then profoundly influenced by meeting trafficked women awaiting deportation in an Italian detention centre . She describes what sexual trafficking means for its victims. Sister Eugenia Bonnetti, mentioned below, is a founder of the movement to combat trafficking in Italy.
Work in Albania gave her considerable experience of the criminal gangs that flourished in post-communist countries. Many of these have found human trafficking safer, so more lucrative, than the drugs trade. The gangs operate across borders. But this is also true of Women Religious whose congregations are found in many different countries.
An important part of the mission of Women Religious involved in combatting sexual trafficking is setting up and maintaining Shelters for women who have escaped their traffickers. This has become an ecumenical effort in the UK involving the Salvation Army as an important partner. Below she describes the formation of the Medaille Trust which cares for trafficked women in a number of Shelters in the UK.
* CLARIFICATION: The founder of the Medaille Trust is Sr. Teresa Ann Herrity, a Sister of St. Joseph, living with her comunity in Newport.
In the video footage, we mistakenly named the Founder of the Medaille Trust as Sr. Teresa Helm, who was in fact a key lay worker in Chigwell, Surrey, UK. Sadly, Teresa is now deceased.
After pioneering work combating sexual trafficking in Europe, Women Religious successfully engaged the Catholic hierarchy in their mission. This engagement went up to the level of the Pope and Vatican with meetings in Rome and is now an international movement, (see santamartagroup.com which includes police and www.renate-europe.net which is a network of Religious in Europe). I discuss with her the tension between protecting trafficked girls suffering from trauma and the police's need for the girls to testify in order to obtain convictions.
Finally we discussed what impact this work, which many would not associate with nuns, had on her religious life. In a moving personal testimony, at times struggling to put her experience into words, she places it squarely in a tradition of Christian spirituality.
Thanks to Steve Pierce, Oxford Film Shed, who filmed and edited a long interview, Edmund Ross who embedded the clips in my blogsite, and the Las Casas Institute, Blackfriars, Oxford, (https://bfriars.ox.ac.uk/study/research/Las-Casas-Institute-for-social-justice for more of the interview) who invited Sister Imelda Poole to Oxford. And, of course, to Sister Imelda herself.