Sister Bridget Nwaankwo has witnessed firsthand the trauma experienced by human trafficking victims. For nearly 10 years, she ministered in a Nigerian shelter for young girls from several countries who were sold as sex slaves. She has accompanied these girls, some as young as 10 and 11 years old, on their journeys, and has held their hands during their darkest hours.
“They are so traumatized,” said Sister Bridget, a Sister of St. Joseph. “These children have been battered, shattered so much so that they have lost trust — in God, in people, even in themselves.”
Many are surprised to learn that such experiences are neither isolated nor rare. Rather, the scourge of human trafficking, which includes both sexual exploitation and forced labor, affects millions of victims worldwide.
“The lack of awareness of the enormity of the amount of human trafficking is incredible,” said Father Jeffery Bayhi, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and chaplain of Bishop Robert E. Tracy Council 10080, both in Zachary, La.
Father Bayhi, a priest of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, worked tirelessly with law enforcement officials and government leaders to establish Metanoia Manor, a residence for juvenile victims of sex trafficking, in 2018. Staffed by the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy and secluded among rolling hills in southeast Louisiana, the 12,000-square-foot home provides girls with a refuge where they can begin to heal physically, mentally and spiritually from their trauma and attempt to reclaim a youth robbed of its innocence.
But the 78 girls served so far by Metanoia Manor are a tiny fraction of sex trafficking victims in the United States, noted Father Bayhi. On any given night, he said, at least 20,000 children are being sold on the streets nationwide.
In response to this tremendous need, Father Bayhi arranged for dozens more religious sisters to receive training this past fall to minister to young victims of trafficking. Sister Bridget Nwaankwo was one of 27 Nigerian religious sisters from various congregations to come to Louisiana for the training program, which was made possible by a $75,000 donation from the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council.
“Brother Knights have always been so helpful in responding to human suffering,” Father Bayhi wrote to Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly. “We appreciate your help in this, which is one more of the many areas where the Knights continue to serve.”
On the local level, members of Council 10080 and St. John the Baptist Council 10744 in Brusly, which have provided support to Metanoia Manor from the start, helped to welcome the sisters and prepare meals for them during their stay.
The sisters spent several weeks in the Baton Rouge area, becoming more familiar with American culture and learning Trust-based Relationship Intervention, a new approach to working with people who are severely traumatized. They also spent time at Metanoia Manor to learn about its various programs. In addition to receiving individual and group therapy and spiritual counseling, residents are taught life skills such as cooking and helped to earn their high school diplomas.
Father Chuck Swanson, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha and longtime Knights of Columbus chaplain who has been working with Father Bayhi for several years, noted that in addition to a lack of education, many young victims of trafficking have never received moral or spiritual formation.
“The sisters have to build on practically nothing,” said Father Swanson. “They really rehab these girls back to their youths.”
By early January, which is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, some 23 of the sisters who participated in the training are expected to be working in trafficking shelters around the United States.
Although no state is immune from the problem, authorities say the Interstate 10 corridor, which runs from Houston through Louisiana to Florida, is among the worst in the country for trafficking. Cities along that corridor often host major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and NBA All-Star game, and research has shown that sex traffickers tend to follow male-dominated sporting events.
Of the nearly 80 girls who have lived at Metanoia Manor, only one has not been a Louisiana resident. According to Father Bayhi, 42% of young girls sold into sex slavery in Louisiana have been done so by their primary caregivers.
“I think it’s important to realize human trafficking is a symptom,” the priest said, noting the extensiveness of the pornography industry. “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.”
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a member of St. Helena Council 10911 in Amite, has previously spoken about Louisiana’s special obligation to combat trafficking and reach out to victims.
“We have a lot of victims that traverse our state,” said Edwards, who supported the creation of Metanoia Manor and was present at its dedication. “As perverse as it sounds and as ugly as it is, we just look at the reality that where people gather, these victims will be brought in. 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.”
Religious sisters are essential to this work, Father Bayhi said. “Everyone, from civil to government and church authorities, knows that the most successful programs are faith-based,” he said. “And among the faith-based, the most successful are run by religious sisters.”
“No one does this for the money — only for the love of God,” he added, noting that the average employment duration for people in human trafficking shelters is four months. “Initially, the sisters must take it as a vocational aspect, as a calling from God.”
Sister Norma Nunez, the director of Metanoia Manor, said that though the young girls have suffered a traumatic loss of freedom and innocence, such wounds are not irreparable.
“Our vision is to provide underage survivors a home life environment where freedom is regained 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.”
For more information, visit metanoia-inc.org.
RICHARD MEEK is the editor The Catholic Commentator, the newspaper of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
THE KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS recently established a partnership with the Arise Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that fights various forms of human trafficking and modern slavery around the world. Arise opened an office in the Philippines in October 2020, working directly with religious sisters on the ground to raise awareness about the prevalence and danger of trafficking and child exploitation and to build resilience in high-risk communities. A grant from the Supreme Council is currently helping to combat the surge of online child sexual abuse, particularly in the Philippines, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a growing understanding of this social scourge, the immediate goal is to help affected individuals and families while working to prevent child exploitation and other forms of modern slavery. For more information, visit arisefdn.org.
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