BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) — Pope Francis has targeted eradication of human trafficking as one of his papacy’s highest priorities, and the popular pontiff is hoping the solution runs directly through the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
As testimony to the importance he places on what he calls modern “human slavery,” the pope dispatched one of his top advisers, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez-Sorondo, to Baton Rouge for the dedication of Metanoia Manor, a one-of-a-kind shelter for young trafficking victims.
Staffed by four Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy, with Sister Normita Nunez as director, the home is the vision of Father Jeff Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary and will provide a safe haven for female victims under age 18.
It will house 16 girls who will be home-schooled as well as taught life skills and job skills. They also will be allowed to stay as long as necessary.
“We need to recognize this crime against humanity and to combat this crime,” Bishop Sanchez-Sorondo said at the April 26 dedication, which drew more than 50 supporters on a sun-splashed spring day. “I think this is a grace of God to do all we can do to resolve and eradicate this form of slavery.”
“Father (Bayhi) is the soul of all this. Not only does he understand the problem, he is trying to resolve the problem,” added the bishop, who along with being the pope’s point man on human trafficking also is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome.
Human trafficking has become an international concern, Bishop Sanchez-Sorondo noted, forcing an estimated 50 million victims into prostitution, sex slavery and other abusive behavior. He said 80 percent of the $32 billion generated annually through human trafficking is rooted in prostitution, with some of the girls as young as 12 and 13.
“Can you imagine?” asked Mike Edmonson, who recently retired as superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, during a brief address at the dedication. “What does a grown person want to do with a small child?”
Edmonson pointed out how trafficking has mushroomed in the past several years, saying that prior to 2008, there were only five or six cases in Louisiana. However, since then, the state police have worked more than 500 trafficking cases, and from 2014 to 2015, the agency reported an 86 percent increase in the cases it investigated.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said Louisiana has a special obligation to not only combat trafficking but to reach out to victims because it is such a significant problem in the state. He cited two reasons to its prevalence: the first is interstate highway systems connecting major population centers, like Dallas, Atlanta, Houston and Florida cities, to Louisiana.
Secondly, Edwards cited the large number of big sporting events that come to Louisiana, including the Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Game and the Sugar Bowl, among others. Traffickers tend to follow male-dominated sporting events because men make up the majority of the consumers, research has proven.
According to recent statistics, the I-10 corridor from Texas to Florida has been identified as the busiest trafficking corridor in the United States. During the Super Bowl, which was played in February, Houston police made 214 arrests related to trafficking.
In Louisiana, an estimated 40 percent of trafficking victims are juveniles, and of that number, another 40 percent are being trafficked by their primary caregivers, such as parents or other relations.
“So we have a lot of victims that traverse our state,” Edwards said. “As perverse as it sounds and as ugly as it is, we just look at the reality where people gather these victims will be brought in.
“So we need to do what we can to end human trafficking and in the meantime do what we can to aid the victims, emotionally, physically and spiritually. All of that is going to happen in this building.”
Metanoia Manor has been Father Bayhi’s vision for the past 12 years. He was first made aware of human trafficking several years ago while filming a television show in Rome. During that visit, he met Sister Eugenia Bonetti, a Consolata Missionary, who has made it her ministry to rescue girls being trafficked in Italy and help women escape the prostitution industry.
He has worked tirelessly with law enforcement officials, government leaders and others to help make his dream a reality and even donated money from Metanoia, a charity organization he founded to assist youth in Louisiana, to help establish the 12,000-square-foot home.
“I think it’s important to realize human trafficking is a symptom,” he said. “We’ve been getting to this point. We get a kid that is 14 years old and has already performed over 4,000 sexual favors. There is nothing left. It’s a brutal, brutal way of life.”
“What scares me more is we are living in a society where people are willing to do that,” he added. “We have got to deal with this problem. We have to understand how we got here, how we became a society that now sees human life as a commodity, property or pleasure. When we start viewing human life like this, there is something wrong.”
Father Bayhi noted that pornography is a $42 billion industry, with 98 percent of it tailored for consumption by men. He said pornographers and consumers are using other people for their pleasure, but more disturbing is that there are so many individuals willing “buy this stuff. The devaluation of every human person has gotten us to this point.”
“This is a great ministry of the Diocese of Baton Rouge,” he said. “We need to make sure we are a shelter for children in need. We are not a Catholic shelter. It’s an opportunity to address children in need of services.”
Meek is editor and general manager of The Catholic Commentator, newspaper of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.