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Sisters on Task Force Offer Presentation on Church Teaching against Human Trafficking

January 22, 2020, Adrian, Michigan – Human trafficking – slavery – has been in existence for thousands of years, and the modern version of this insidious, evil practice must be recognized and prevented.

That was the core message Sisters Marilyn Winter, OP, and Patricia McDonald, OP, brought to an assembly of Adrian Dominican Sisters January 16, 2020, during Human Trafficking Awareness Month. The month begins on January 11, 2020, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, and concludes on February 8, 2020, the Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of human trafficking victims.

Both Sister Marilyn and Sister Patricia are involved in the Lenawee County Regional Anti-Trafficking Task Force, one of 130 member organizations of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.

Human trafficking is “a crime against humanity, pure and simple,” Sister Patricia said. “It’s a matter of misuse of power and control. … We’re dealing with a sick society at a lot of levels. The more we know the more we can help people grow in their understanding."

Sisters Marilyn and Patricia spent much their presentation reminding the Sisters of the widespread practice of modern-day slavery, its insidiousness, and its impact on victims and on our society.

Sister Marilyn noted the work that the Catholic Church has done to prevent and end human trafficking. For example, the Vatican hosted an international meeting of law enforcement officers working to end the practice, as well as similar meetings in April 2019 and September 2019.

“One of the first principles of Catholic social teaching has to do with human dignity,” with the rights of all human beings to respect and dignity, Sister Marilyn said. “That’s the very basis for what we do in human trafficking work.” She cited the 2007 statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration: “Human trafficking is a horrific crime against the basic dignity and rights of the human person. All efforts must be expended to end it.”

The Scope of Human Trafficking

Sister Patricia McDonald, OP, presents background information on human trafficking.

An estimated 40 million people worldwide are entrapped in sex trafficking and in forced labor in restaurants, agricultural sites, sweatshops, domestic servitude in homes or hotels, construction, and nail salons, while another 15 million are trafficked into forced marriages, Sister Marilyn said. Human trafficking also involves the removal of internal organs from a victim, she added.

Sister Patricia noted that people are not always trafficked as a result of kidnapping or other forms of violence. “There are many ways to entrap people,” she said. Human trafficking involves any process in which the trafficker gains control of another: recruitment, transportation, coercion, fraud, deception, and the abuse of power, she explained. 

To illustrate various ways that people can be trafficked, Sister Patricia cited several case studies: Irene, who came to the United States as the employee of a company that supplies housekeepers and whose living expenses were deducted from her $1 per hour wages; Eddy, who came from another country and, with his father, was forced to work on a blueberry farm under dangerous conditions with little rest or food; and Allison, a 12-year-old girl in foster care who befriended an older man. He invited her to live with him and forced her into prostitution to pay back what he had spent on her.

Often, Sister Patricia said, trafficked people don’t understand that they’re victims with rights. They might remain in their slavery because they’re “afraid of being imprisoned or deported, fearful of putting family in danger, and mistrustful of authorities” – police officers who can free them. “They could be physically isolated or guarded by traffickers.”

While anybody can be the victim of human trafficking, Sister Marilyn noted, they tend to be vulnerable people who are dealing with poverty, homelessness, disabilities, abuse in their family, foster care, or neglect. Many vulnerable people are groomed – treated kindly by a stranger or acquaintance and lured into slavery, she said.

Our Role: Identifying Victims and Preventing Human Trafficking

Both presenters noted the hidden nature of human trafficking and pointed to signs that a person could be trafficked. “We don’t want to ignore the signs,” Sister Patricia said. These include the inability to leave the worksite, limited contact with family and friends, the tendency to avoid eye contact, and unexplained injuries, she said. Sister Marilyn said that medical professionals might especially notice if another person repeatedly answers questions aimed at the patient – a possible sign that the patient is being trafficked.  

Sisters Marilyn and Patricia also outlined steps that the general public can take to prevent human trafficking:

  • Buy ethically. “Especially if we look for a bargain, we could end up buying things made with slave labor,” Sister Marilyn said, encouraging her audience to watch for and purchase fair trade products such as coffee, tea, and chocolate. The website www.slaveryfootprint.org can help identify items made by human trafficking victims.
  • If you come upon a situation and suspect that human trafficking might be involved, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. The center is open all day, every day.

“I think we have to focus on prevention,” Sister Marilyn said. She recommended creating a culture that respects each human being and recognizes the value of each human life. As a nation, we can prevent human trafficking “by the way we raise children in the family to care for one another to keep them from bullying or pornography,” Sister Marilyn said. “It would help in the future to let people know as adults that they can’t control others.”

Feature photo (top): Sister Marilyn Winter, OP, speaks on the Catholic Church’s teaching on human trafficking.


Sisters attending the talk pray for an end to human trafficking. In the front row are, from left, Sisters Joan Baustian, OP, Angela Susalla, OP, and Marie Luisa Vasquez, OP.

Sister Mary Ellen Leciejewski, OP, Participates in Laudato Si’ Challenge

December 19, 2019, Vatican City – Sister Mary Ellen Leciejewski, OP, System Vice President of Environmental Sustainability for CommonSpirit Health, was one of 70 leaders to participate in the 2019 Laudato Si’ Challenge. 

The event, which was December 3-5, 2019, in Rome, takes its inspiration from the 2015 encyclical by Pope Francis on the environmental dangers the world is facing and the devastation that climate change is causing to all, especially vulnerable people. The challenge is sponsored by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson of Ghana, Prefect of the Holy See Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. 

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson, back right, presides over the meeting of the 2019 Laudato Si’ Challenge. Photo by Sister Mary Ellen Leciejewski, OP

The 2019 Challenge “seeks to address forced displacement by empowering one million families by 2021 – supporting the vision of the [United Nations’] Sustainable Development Goals,” Sister Mary Ellen explained. “What the participants of the challenge are trying to do is help people stay in their homes and to find ways to empower them if they are forced to migrate."

Sister Mary Ellen was invited to the conference by Eric Harr, Co-Founder and CEO of The Laudato Si’ Challenge, because of her long-time involvement in environmental sustainability, first with Dignity Health and now with CommonSpirit Health.

Sister Mary Ellen explained that the event brings together leaders from the public, private, and faith sectors to make specific commitments to empower one million vulnerable families facing forced migration to “be the protagonists in their own solutions” by 2021 – supporting the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals “as a human dignity narrative, that leaves no one behind.” 

About 20 organizations made commitments during the Challenge, she said. Commitments included opening schools in Jordan for the children of Syrian refugees and providing migrants and refugees with simple but livable homes made from 3D printing. The Challenge provides an opportunity for organizations to make specific commitments with partners. 

CommonSpirit Health's Sustainability Efforts and Human Trafficking Prevention

Sister Mary Ellen said she was invited to the event, in part, to give a presentation on the sustainability efforts of CommonSpirit Health. Along with helping people to deal with the effects of climate change, she said, “we are moving upstream to mitigate its effects. This includes reducing our own climate footprint, empowering our health care leaders to speak out about the connection between our health and climate change, and working to ensure that not only are our buildings strong and resilient in the face of extreme weather events, but that our communities and the populations we serve are strong and resilient as well. 

She also announced CommonSpirit Health’s own commitment “to expand our Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention Response Program to an additional 10 to 15 families in the next one to three years,” she said. CommonSpirit’s program trains doctors, nurses, and staff members to recognize the signs of human traffickers and their victims and to make sure that the victims receive “trauma-informed care” in a safe environment.

Human trafficking incidents tend to increase during disasters caused by climate change and environmental degradation, Sister Mary Ellen said. Climate change can also result in conflict, poverty, droughts, and forced migration – all of which make people more vulnerable to human trafficking, she said. 

CommonSpirit hopes to add another component to the program, Sister Mary Ellen said. “We want to expand our community-based, community-owned program focused on preventing vulnerable populations from being victims in the first place,” she said. Ideally, the program would draw people from law enforcement, health care, and schools, as well as local politicians and concerned citizens and survivors, who would work together to address an area of concern to the community: human trafficking, domestic abuse, or child abuse, she said.

While organizations have already been working on helping people who are displaced, Sister Mary Ellen believes that the 2019 Challenge’s connection to Pope Francis and to Cardinal Turkson brings these efforts to a new level. Cardinal Turkson will send out a challenge to the Catholic community including parishes, schools, universities, and hospitals to become involved in these efforts. 

Sister Mary Ellen said attending the Laudato Si’ Challenge and watching the development of partnerships brings her hope. “If we work together, our communities will be healthier and more resilient,” she said. “We’re going to be a much stronger community because of the relationships we’ve built up, more respectful of one another. Everyone will be at the table so everyone’s voice will be heard.”



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