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Pope Francis asks prayers for victims of ‘perverse plague’ of trafficking

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Human trafficking is “brutal, savage and criminal,” Pope Francis said, but often it seems like people see it as a sad, but normal fact of life.

Dutch police search a Spanish truck at the border after nine immigrants were rescued from the freezer of the vehicle in early February in Hazeldonk, Netherlands. The truck driver was arrested as a suspect of human trafficking. (CNS photo/Marcel van Dorst - MaRicMedia, EPA)

Dutch police search a Spanish truck at the border after nine immigrants were rescued from the freezer of the vehicle in early February in Hazeldonk, Netherlands. The truck driver was arrested as a suspect of human trafficking. (CNS photo/Marcel van Dorst – MaRicMedia, EPA)

“I want to call everyone to make a commitment to seeing that this perverse plague, a modern form of slavery, is effectively countered,” the pope said July 30, the U.N.’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.

After reciting the Angelus with thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis asked them to join him in praying a “Hail Mary” so that Jesus’ mother would “support the victims of trafficking and convert the hearts of traffickers.”

In his main Angelus address, Pope Francis focused on the parables from the day’s Gospel reading: the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price.

Both parables involve “searching and sacrifice,” the pope said. Neither the person who found the treasure in the field nor the merchant who found the pearl would have made their discoveries if they were not looking for something, and both of them sell all they have to purchase their treasure.

The point of the parables, he said, is that “the kingdom of God is offered to all.It is a gift, a grace but it is not given on a silver platter. It requires dynamism; it involves seeking, walking, getting busy.”

Jesus is the hidden treasure, the pope said, and once people discover him they are called to put following him before all else.

“It’s not a matter of despising all else, but of subordinating it to Jesus, giving him first place,” the pope said. “A disciple of Christ is not one who is deprived of something essential, but one who has found much more, has found the full joy that only the Lord can give.”

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Maryland’s bishops denounce human trafficking, set information sessions

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The Catholic bishops of Maryland issued a joint statement against human trafficking April 3 and have announced information sessions to be held in the state to address the issue.

The information session on trafficking scheduled for the Diocese of Wilmington will be at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Salisbury, Md., April 22, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in English and Spanish. Read more »

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Pope calls out apathy, greed preventing the end of human trafficking

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Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Indifference, criminal networks and powerful economic interests still pose a challenge to those fighting against human trafficking, Pope Francis said.
While much has been done in recognizing the seriousness and extent of this “true crime against humanity,” he said, “much more needs to be done on the level of raising public awareness and effecting a better coordination of efforts by governments, the judiciary system, law enforcement officials and social workers.” Read more »

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Analysis: Church urging nations to address ongoing issues related to drugs

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Catholic News Service

Heroin and painkillers plague the streets of U.S. cities and small towns. Mexican drug cartels have turned swaths of that country into battle zones. In South Africa, young people are getting hooked on a drug made from a medication meant to fight HIV.

Around the globe, a worldwide addiction to illicit drugs is fueling violence, human trafficking, a proliferation of guns, organized crime and terrorism, the Vatican has said.

å sign marks the entrance to the Neonatal Therapeutic Unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital in West Virginia, where staff members have acted to treat an increasing number of drug-dependent newborns. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

å sign marks the entrance to the Neonatal Therapeutic Unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital in West Virginia, where staff members have acted to treat an increasing number of drug-dependent newborns. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Now, as the U.N. General Assembly prepares to meet April 19-21 for a special session on the issue, the church is calling on governments and civil society groups to address a problem that has existed for decades but continues to morph and pose new threats.

“From poor rural workers in war-torn zones of production to affluent metropolitan end-users, the illicit trade in drugs is no respecter of national boundaries or of socioeconomic status,” Msgr. Janusz Urbanczyk, Vatican observer to U.N. agencies in Vienna, wrote in the statement. “International solutions require therefore, that effective efforts be indeed focused in zones of production but must also address the underlying causes for the demand in illegal drugs.”

The Vatican position puts it at the center of a tense policy that will play out at the highest levels of the United Nations.

On one side, governments like Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico, which requested the U.N. session, are pushing for new policies, such as improved treatment, providing assistance to grow different crops for farmers who cultivate illicit drugs and alternatives to incarceration for drug users. On the other hand, powerful U.N. members, including China, Russia and Egypt, remain in favor of the prohibitionist war on drugs.

“The Catholic Church is clearly calling for a public health approach, which is similar to the position the U.S. government has taken,” said Coletta Youngers, a former church worker in Latin America and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, which is in favor of reforming drug policy. “At the same time, I find a lot of the language inflammatory, particularly that it still maintains support for criminalizing drug use.”

On March 29, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated that his administration wants more treatment options.

“The most important thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to provide treatment, to see it as public health problem and not a criminal problem,” he said.

RISING HOMICIDE RATES

Meanwhile, drug addiction and violence related to drug trafficking is affecting nearly every area of the world, including Central America and Mexico, where spiking homicide rates are pushing residents to flee to the United States.

Mexico launched a crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime 10 years ago but has been plagued by violence ever since, with more than 100,000 dead and 20,000 people missing. Criminal groups have gotten smaller as their leaders are captured or killed and such groups subsequently have taken up activities such as extortion and kidnapping.

The groups also get into small-time drug dealing, another source of violence as they dispute territories. Father Robert Coogan, prison chaplain in the city of Saltillo, a northeastern Mexican city near Monterrey, recalls having a stream of new inmates, previously involved in small-time drug dealing, arrive in the late 2000s with stories of the police raiding their homes and planting evidence.

Drug use increased in Mexico at around the same time, he said. Analysts attribute that to cartels paying their underlings in drugs to be resold.

“I wish people would look more at the society have that makes people want to do drugs,” Father Coogan said. “Rather than try to prohibit from doing certain things, I would want a society where people wouldn’t feel the urge to do these self-destructive things.”

A WORLD ADDICTED

Governments and civil society groups are grappling how to deal with the scourge: from Argentina to Afghanistan, where poppy, the heroin opium precursor, has become a cash crop for the Taliban; from South Africa to Lake Orion, Michigan, where Robert Koval runs Guest House, a residential rehabilitation facility that has been treating clergy and men and women religious for 60 years.

“I think attention to the issue has spiked in recent years because there’s this question on how to get your arms around a problem that is so rampant,” said Koval, the facility’s president and CEO. Guest House treats about 70 people a year.

Koval said the problem has morphed in recent years as more people have become addicted to opioids, including prescription painkillers, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has led to an epidemic of drug overdoses. In 2014, more than 28,600 deaths were caused by opioid overdoses, triple the number from 2000, according to CDC figures.

Those being treated are also becoming younger, Koval said. “It’s what you see in the general population, with drug abuse increasing among young adults.”

Drug addiction among young adults is a problem Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban sees across South Africa, where HIV patients are being robbed of their medications, which are used to make an addictive drug called whoonga.

“The brokenness of the people I saw recently in an outreach clinic and the fact that most of them were teenagers or in their 20s hit me hard,” Cardinal Napier said of a trip to the coastal city of Durban, where drug abuse is the largest problem after disease related to malnutrition and HIV.

The Vatican’s call to improve health care services would help in places like Kenya, where there are too few practitioners to serve the country of 44 million, particularly in rural areas, said Bishop Emanuel Barbara of Malindi.

“Kenyans have become obsessive about taking drugs as the only way to heal,” he said. That’s a problem because medication widely banned in other countries is fully available in Kenya and many “fake drugs” can be found on drugstore shelves.

Luis Lora said there were few treatment options in Ozama, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Santo Domingo, when his alcoholism gave way to a crack cocaine addiction that cost him his marriage and his job as a bus driver.

“There was nowhere to go for help, and it was an embarrassment for me to talk about it with the people I knew,” he said.

Lora, who eventually entered a rehab facility, said that others he knew, “never got help.”

CALLS TO LEGALIZE

While countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands have long since decriminalized drug use, the debate has only more recently come to the Americas. In recent years, nearly half of U.S. states have passed laws legalizing marijuana use in some form, predominantly for medical use. And Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras have debated liberalizing drug laws or decriminalizing drug use.

When the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in November in favor of four petitioners seeking an injunction to grow and consume marijuana for recreational reasons, Catholic leaders condemned the decision as putting Mexico on the path to legalization. An editorial in the Archdiocese of Mexico’s weekly magazine said it would move the country “toward individual destruction.”

Pope Francis has taken a hardline approach against any forms of drug legalization, including recreational drugs.

“Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise,” he said at the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome in 2014.

In the pope’s home country, Argentina, Father Jose Maria di Paola, who works with drug addicts in the shanties of Buenos Aires, said drug legalization would do further harm to the poor.

“Why is this our position on legalization? Because we live in marginal and poor environments impacted by drugs. In these places, it’s synonymous with death. It has nothing to do with recreation,” he said in a 2015 interview. “It has nothing to do with morality. It has to do with an analysis of the reality.”

Contributing to this story were David Agren in Mexico City and Bronwen Dachs in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Suit challenging contract with bishops’ agency awaits decision

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A lawsuit pending in a Massachusetts federal court may determine if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can allow religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services in agreements with private agencies to provide social services.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Boston in January 2009, stems from a now ended five-year contract that HHS signed with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to provide case management services to foreign-born victims of human trafficking through its Migration and Refugee Services.

ACLU claims that the bishops’ conference dictated terms of the contract it received from the government to serve trafficking victims in violation of the separation of church and state provisions of the U.S. Constitution. ACLU attorneys maintain that the government, because it is spending taxpayer dollars, must set the terms of the contract.

The headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is seen in Washington Nov. 4. Staff with the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services said they were shocked and mystified in September when HHS notified MRS it had denied a federal grant for the MRS program aiding foreign-born victims of human trafficking. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Michael O. Leavitt, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, was named as the chief defendant. Since then Kathleen Sebelius, current health and human services secretary, has replaced Leavitt as the government’s defendant.

The USCCB joined the case as an intervenor and, through its attorney, argued that its intention under the contract not to fund abortion or contraceptive services was permitted because of religious freedom and conscience provisions in federal law.

The parties submitted final arguments to Judge Richard G. Stearns Oct. 18. He is expected to issue his decision early in 2012.

The contract in question, which expired Oct. 10, permitted MRS to adhere to church teaching and restrict agencies subcontracted to work with trafficking victims from providing services that were contrary to church teaching.

ACLU attorney Brigitte Amiri told CNS the case was filed because it is not the government’s prerogative to restrict access to health services that are legal.

“We believe it’s a violation of the separation of church and state to allow a religious entity to dictate the terms of a federal contract on how money should be spent,” Amiri said. “Not all trafficking victims need such services, but they need a host of reproductive services including contraception and, if pregnant, abortion.”

She added that the civil liberties organization found it “disturbing that the Catholic bishops forced this on the case managers even if they themselves have no objection to referring for such services.”

Attorney Henry C. Dinger, representing the USCCB, told CNS that a key argument focused on whether the ACLU was permitted to challenge the provisions of the contract because it was not an injured party.

The judge ruled that ACLU was within its rights to file the suit.

“If they have standing, then we’ve argued that the decision to award the contract was not a violation of the Establishment Clause (in the Constitution),” Dinger said.

“Health and Human Services awarded the contract in spite of the conscience exemption over abortion and contraceptive services,” he explained. “They didn’t view the unwillingness to fund abortion and contraceptive services as an impediment and that the other positives (MRS provided) outweighed that.”

U.S. Department of Justice attorneys argued that the contract had expired, making the case moot.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the case.

Dinger and Amiri said it was in both organizations’ interest to get a decision because it is likely the issue will surface again. An appeal is expected no matter how Stearns rules.

The suit has moved slowly because of numerous freedom of information requests filed by the ACLU to obtain public documents related to the contract award and subsequent motions by both parties.

Among the documents cited in the lawsuit was the church agency’s Feb. 23, 2006, technical proposal to the HHS office that administers human trafficking programs. It said, “As we are a Catholic organization we need to ensure that our victim services funds are not used to refer or fund activities that would be contrary to our moral convictions and religious beliefs. … Specifically, subcontractors could not provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials.”

The HHS office then asked the USCCB, according to the lawsuit, whether a “‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy (would) work regarding the exception. What if a subcontractor referred victims supported by stipend to a third-party agency for such services?”

In response, the lawsuit said, the USCCB explained it “cannot be associated with an agency that performs abortions or offers contraceptives to our clients. If they sign the written agreement (the subcontract), the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ wouldn’t apply because they are giving an assurance to us that they wouldn’t refer for or provide abortion service to our client using contract funding.”

The USCCB program received slightly more than $19 million during the five-and-a-half years of the contract, assisting nearly 2,783 trafficking victims and family members.

MRS officials have maintained that requests for services the church opposes were rare during the contract term.

 

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