By Edward Pentin

Participants at a summit at the Vatican looked to build an international effort to eradicate the global scourge that has more than 40 million victims.

VATICAN CITY — Lawyer Yonette Buchanan recounted a common way criminals groom young girls for trafficking.

An adult male, pretending to be a 16-year-old boy, wrote hundreds of messages to girls in an Internet chat room asking them to respond if they were interested in receiving gifts and favors from him.

In return, he would ask for photos of them, then their telephone numbers, and once he coaxed them into sharing a revealing photo, he would send text messages day and night asking for more.

He would then escalate the pressure, threatening the girls with exposure and even violence, to them and their families, unless they engaged in sexual activities with other people.

In this particular case, recounted by Buchanan, chief of the major crimes section of the U.S. Department of Justice in Atlanta, the perpetrator’s crimes then descended even further. Ultimately, he raped some of the girls he had met in the chat rooms, including one 11-year-old and two 13-year-old girls. Two of his victims attempted suicide.

“They were true victims in every sense of the word,” Buchanan told the Register. “Many of those kids fortunately were identified and able to get counseling as part our case. Some kids we never identified.”

She warned that new technologies are “making it easier for traffickers to ensnare and enslave our children and then, on top of that, to do it anonymously.”

Many times, she added, “it is almost impossible to figure out who these people are and we really need as a society to collaborate across international borders in the process of trying to investigate these crimes, especially when they involve the victimization of children.”

Buchanan recounted the story at a June 3-4 summit hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences at the Vatican. The meeting of judges from around the world aimed to help raise awareness among justices and lawyers of the extent not only of child slavery but also all modern forms of slavery and trafficking in terms of forced labor, prostitution, organ trade and drug trafficking.

Titled the “Judges summit on human trafficking and organized crime”, it was just the latest in a series of conferences aimed at those who can make a difference in helping to eradicate the global scourge. Two previous summits have been held, including one with leaders of major world religions in 2014, and a second with mayors of the world’s major cities last year.

Human trafficking deeply concerns Pope Francis, who has frequently called it a “crime against humanity” and a consequence of a “globalization of indifference” (he most recently brought up the subject of child enslavement at his June 12 Angelus address, calling for the causes of child labor to be removed).

The extent of the problem, involving often vulnerable people of all ages, is far more extensive than many think. According to the Pontifical Academy, 40 million people are victims of these modern forms of slavery and trafficking. Furthermore, tens of millions of the world’s displaced persons and refugees have become “a breeding ground for traffickers.”

And yet many victims and perpetrators are hidden in today’s Western societies making human trafficking unlike most criminal cases.

“Other crime victims come forward to law enforcement but human trafficking victims stay behind the scenes,” said Susan Coppedge, the U.S. State Department’s ambassador-at-large for monitoring and combating trafficking in persons. “So law enforcement, in finding these cases, has to be proactive while other cases tend to be reactive.”

Coppedge was therefore grateful that the Vatican would host such a conference aimed at raising the awareness of the crime among justice professionals.

“When they get one of these cases, judges don’t understand why the victims didn’t cooperate, why they didn’t come forward, and so you need to educate judges on what these cases look like because they’re so different from other criminal cases that we have.”

Another factor in preventing justice in these cases is corruption, a point made by David Rivkin, president of the International Bar Association, and other participants.

Pope Francis, in his address to the summit, urged judges not to become “entangled into the web of corruption” which he described as “one of the greatest social ills” that “weakens any government” and democracy.

The Pope also highlighted the courage judges need to have in fighting the “structure of sin” of organized crime, and the freedom the state should give judges to rule on such cases.

He called on nations to collaborate in creating “waves” that can affect society “from top to bottom and vice versa, moving from the periphery to the center and back again, from leaders to communities, and from small towns and public opinion to the most influential segments of society.”

He warned of the pressure to dilute the power of judges, and, while stressing judges should focus first and foremost on victims and their rehabilitation, the Pope also urged that they seek to reinstate in society those responsible for such crimes against humanity.

The “subtle interplay of justice and mercy, with a view to reinstatement, applies to those responsible for crimes against humanity as well as to every human being,” he said. He further recommended that states emulate the Italian practice of rehabilitating victims through proceeds from “confiscating the ill-gotten gains of traffickers.”

Coppedge welcomed the Pope’s remarks. The State Department, she said, “has a microphone and Pope Francis has a bullhorn” that is “so important” in helping to raise the issue globally and giving a moral voice to those who have been victims of crime. But she also valued his attention to the traffickers who are abusing others because they are “also losing a piece of their soul.”

The Pope’s words were also the highlight for Buchanan because it allowed her to “go back with a new sense of energy.” Along with other participants, she valued the opportunity at the summit to exchange views and experiences from other parts of the world. But she said there is an “awful lot more to be done” in this area, despite many being made aware of the scourge in recent years.

“We have to do more to raise awareness and, in the context of children, to educate them about the dangers of the Internet and all these mobile phones and apps they use because they’re not aware of it.”

In their final declaration, the participants listed 10 goals that included increasing resources in order to bring traffickers to justice, to have every nation recognize that the plague in all its forms is a crime against humanity, and ensure assets received from convicted traffickers be devoted to victim rehabilitation and compensation.

Michael Shank, who as well as being head of communications for the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network also helped the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences with communications at the conference, said the series on human trafficking at the Vatican “won’t end until the trafficking ends.” He said the Pope and the academy aim to convene “every leader and every sector” that has a role in “ending the awful and inhumane exploitation of people and our planet”, and the “Judges Summit” was just the latest effort to put the conclusions of those discussions into effect.

What was discussed at the summit will be “put into practical effect by the various leaders we invited ultimately creating a movement throughout all of society from the bottom to the top and from top to bottom,” said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the pontifical academy. The Argentinian bishop has been tireless in this area as one of the Pope’s strongest allies in the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery, as well as other areas of global exploitation including Francis’ push to combat climate change.

Shank said the Pope’s presence at the summit and his support for the academy’s work to end exploitation of people and the planet “is deeply consistent with the Pope’s own platform and it’s essential for globalizing awareness and action on this issue.”

“When the Pope weighs in, the world listens,” added Shank, who also handles communications for the economist Jeffrey Sachs, also a participant at the “Judges Summit” and now a regular attendee of events sponsored by the academy.

The Pope’s speech and time spent at the summit “is a clear testament to his compassion and commitment to both the big policy agenda at the U.N. with the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals, which call for the end to trafficking and slavery, and to the more personal human agenda of embracing and empowering each trafficking and formerly enslaved survivor,” Shank said.

Looking to the future, he stressed that “with tens of millions of people still trafficked or in bonded labor,” the Pontifical Academy “will keep convening until those numbers diminish.”

“They’re in it for the long haul,” Shank said. “Until each person is freed.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
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