Shelter safe haven for trafficking victims

By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

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 April 26 dedication of Metanoia Manor, a one-of-a-kind shelter for young trafficking victims. The home, which will be staffed by four Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy and is the vision of St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary pastor Father Jeff Bayhi, will provide a safe haven for female victims under the age of 18.

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Local dignitaries and government leaders and even a papal envoy gathered on April 26 to dedicate Metanoia Manor, a unique shelter for young victims of human trafficking. Bishop Robert W. Muench cut the ribbon. Included in the ceremony were Bishop Sanchez-Sornondo, who is Pope Francis’ point man on human trafficking and is standing to the left of Bishop Muench; Gov. John Bel Edwards and his wife, Donna, standing to the bishop’s right. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

The home will house 16 girls who will be home-schooled as well as taught life skills and job skills. They will also be allowed to stay as long as necessary.

“We need to recognize this crime against humanity and to combat this crime,” Bishop Sanchez-Sorondo, who along with being the pope’s point man on human trafficking is also the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome, said at the 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,” he added. “Not only does he understand the problem, he is trying to resolve

the problem.”

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- to 13-years-old.

“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 the interstate highway systems connecting Dallas to Atlanta in north Louisiana and Houston with Florida in the south.

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 have a tendency to follow male dominated sporting events because men make up the majority of the consumers, research has proven.

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Bishop Robert W. Muench blesses Metanoia Manor, which will serve as a safe haven for young girls who are victims of human trafficking. Several local and state dignitaries, including Gov. John Bel Edwards and Bishop Marcelo Sanchez-Sorondo, who is Pope Francis’ point man on trafficking, attended the ceremony. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

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 the vision of Father Bayhi for the past 12 years, first made aware of human trafficking several years ago while filming a television show in Rome. It was during that visit he was introduced to Sister Eugenia Bonetti MC who has made it her ministry to rescue girls who are 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 found for the purpose of helping 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.”

The fact that the Holy Father sends a papal envoy to Baton Rouge underscores the priority he places on this societal scourge, Father Bayhi said.

“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.”

Sister Normita Nunez SOM, who will direct the house, thanked Father Bayhi for his vision to reach out to the young girls so that they might have life and said he is the reason the shelter will soon be opening. She said the freedom of the young girls has been stolen, their innocence taken advantage of and their hopes and dreams shattered.

“Our vision is to provide underage survivors a home life environment, transition into healthy lifestyles, a place where freedom is gained, and souls are healed through love, schooling, social therapy,” Sister Norma said. ‘This is our hope and our mission to have God do all of this.”

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Bishop Sanchez-Sorondo blesses a plaque that was placed at the front of Metanoia Manor. The shelter will house up to 16 young girls.