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)
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
Jeff Diamant covers religion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (973) 392-1547.