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Latin America
Women & Children at Risk
Title:  Myers Raises the Cry Against Slavery
  In Voice and On Paper, Newark Archbishop Becomes a Leading Figure in Fight
Publisher:  (c) 2004 Star Ledger (New Jersey)
Author: Jeff Diamant
Publish Date:  2004-09-03
Additional Stories: Mexico to New Jersey Sexual Slavery



Only months after learning the crime of human trafficking exists in New Jersey, Newark Archbishop John J. Myers has become a national spokesman in a government awareness campaign against the national problem.

Federal agencies this spring enlisted Myers to speak publicly on the crime of keeping others as slaves for prostitution or labor, giving him a keynote address slot at this summer's National Conference on Human Trafficking in Tampa, Fla.

Myers has since written about human trafficking for the archdiocese newspaper, slotted $250,000 of archdiocese money to open an anti-trafficking center in downtown Newark later this year and pledged to house future victims in church shelters.

He also has asked priests at the archdiocese's 235 parishes to talk about the problem in sermons and has won praise from federal authorities as a rare clerical voice asking the public to help identify victims whose captors often take pains to hide them from society.

"By raising his voice on the issue, he has become something of a national spokesman," said Steve Wagner, who works on trafficking cases for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "He is talking about this issue in a way that other (clergy) haven't."

Last week in Newark, as federal agencies and nonprofit groups announced a plan to alert the public to signs of human trafficking, Myers spoke out about the need for people to pay closer than usual attention for possible signs of trafficking.

"Most victims of modern slavery live out of plain sight, behind doors locked by those who exploit them," he said. "If we are to find these victims and restore them to freedom and health, we must search relentlessly for what we hope in our hearts we will never find."

The most notorious case of human trafficking in New Jersey occurred two years ago in Plainfield, where four Mexican teenage girls being enslaved as prostitutes were freed after neighbors alerted police to suspicious activity. Their captors received long prison sentences.
Federal officials estimate that between 800,000 and 900,000 people are trafficked worldwide each year, with 18,000 to 20,000 of those arriving in the United States. About 4,000 people are engaged in forced labor in New Jersey, most of them women, law enforcement officials say.

Because they're usually hidden, victims are hard to find. Federal authorities have prosecuted cases against 110 traffickers in the last three years, a threefold increase over the previous three years, authorities said.

There are 175 open investigations, including several in New Jersey, authorities said.

In speeches and writings, Myers frames human trafficking as a moral issue, calling it evil and grouping it with abortion and racism as things that are "always and everywhere wrong."

"To make of any person a commodity, to use the sweat of their brow, the strain of their muscles, the abuse of their sexuality for the benefit of others, is the most base and basic form of exploitation," he said at the Tampa conference, according to a transcript. "It abuses attributes that are in themselves gifts of the Creator given for the good of human beings: gifts of the ability to work, to love and to build families."

Myers learned about the issue earlier this year while talking with a friend, Robert George, a political science professor at Princeton University who served on the national Civil Rights Commission in the 1990s.

"He mentioned this was a problem," Myers recalled this week, "and like most people, I presumed that when they talked about human trafficking, they were talking about other continents and other parts of the world. He said, 'No, no, no, the United States of America has a problem, too, and New Jersey shares in it.'"

On behalf of Myers, George contacted a public relations company working for Health and Human Services to raise public awareness of the problem so people can provide tips to law enforcement.

The company, Capital City Partners, has contacted several high-profile clergy, but none has made the sustained commitment Myers has, said Jeff Bell of the firm.

Authorities view efforts by clergy and churches to stop trafficking as especially important, saying victims are generally more inclined to go to them than to police or the FBI. Churches may be their only contact with the public.

"We're dealing largely with women and children from immigrant communities from countries where they're much more accustomed to turning first to the church rather than to law enforcement," said Alex Acosta, assistant attorney general in the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department. "They're going to tell their priest or local faith-based group ... much more readily than law enforcement."
For Myers, time for new causes has been limited by his work on the archdiocese's reorganization of parishes and schools, the clergy sex abuse crisis and routine tasks of being an archbishop. But speaking and writing about human trafficking does not take too much of his time, he said.

Still, his level of involvement promises to be helpful, said Wagner, praising the archbishop for promising to let Catholic Charities, the social services arm of the archdiocese, shelter victims.

"His willingness to deploy that agency to be a responder when victims are found is extremely important, because when victims come forward, you've got to have a place to take them."

Religious leaders are as important as police in stopping trafficking, he said, adding he hopes more follow Myers' example.

"Faith community leaders know a lot about what goes on around them," he said, "so they are classic intermediaries who if they knew about trafficking would be able to bring it to our attention."

Jeff Diamant covers religion. He can be reached at jdiamant@starledger.com or (973) 392-1547.