A Discussion with Professor Mary Leary, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
April 19, 2019
Background: Professor Mary Graw Leary spoke with Katherine Marshall and Ruth Gopin (WFDD Project Consultant) on April 19, 2019, in advance of the G20 Interfaith Forum, an annual platform for religious actors to meet with policy leaders, academics, and other civil society actors. The context was work to prepare recommendations for G20 leaders and religious communities on critical topics shaping global agendas. The discussion centered on human trafficking and, more specifically, on the religious dimensions of the issue, drawing on Professor Graw Leary’s extensive experience in addressing the topic. She focuses on the gaps between the law, theory and practice, and the related cultural norms that shape practice affecting sex trafficking, as well as child sexual assault and abuse. See also Leary, Mary, “Religious Organizations as Partners in the Global and Local Fight Against Human Trafficking” (May 1, 2018). CUA Columbus School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN.
“Religions are uniquely situated to respond to this global and local problem.”
How did you become involved in human trafficking issues?
I started at the state and local levels, working as a local prosecutor in urban settings in the United States. I started in Philadelphia, then worked in Boston, and then here in Washington, D.C. The focus of that local work was primarily sexual exploitation of women and girls. Of course, in that capacity I encountered the issues of child abuse and child sexual assault, but also those more related to fighting the demand side and cultural acceptance, as well as related issues. When I then stepped out from the courtroom, I was the director of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. I then went over to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and became able to look at these issues through a little bit more of a 30,000-foot lens. That gave me an entirely different perspective, and I became really drawn to working on these trafficking issues more directly. As an academic, I'm trying to bring into the literature a practical discussion about some of these issues, focusing again on shifting cultural norms, even a little bit. There's the legal response, what laws are on the books, and then the world response, what are we doing with those laws. And there's a gap in between the two. So that's a focus of my work.
Where the religion piece comes in is that this is one of the few historical issues where I think religions have been on the right side of history, most of the time. We can't say that about many cultural issues. But the power of working with local religious groups was apparent to me as a prosecutor and then, certainly, from where I sit now, I see that with even greater clarity. Religions are uniquely situated to respond to this global and local problem. And I'm interested in looking at those places where partnerships make a lot of sense because I think that can be really effective.
Can you speak more about the history of the intersections between human trafficking and religion?
When I teach my trafficking class, one of the themes is that no matter what the subject is, when we say, "Okay, what are the causes?" it's often the same list. It involves, of course, a vulnerability to being exploited. The push factors are economic vulnerability, migration, disaster, conflict, etc. Louise Shelley talks a lot about the push-pull factors of trafficking. Then, when one looks at who has been working with those most marginalized groups, it is often faith-based groups. If you look at migration, certainly on the southern border of the United States, it's often been Catholic, Pentecostal, and other religious groups that are at the forefront.
I've done work with Talitha Kum and their folks, as well [Talitha Kum is an international organization of anti-trafficking networks created through a collaboration of the International Union of Superiors General and the Union of Superiors General, organizations of the leaders of Catholic religious congregations of women and men, respectively]. When I look at victims of human trafficking I often think, “Who was working with prostituted women and children before we came up with this word ‘trafficking’ in 2000?” It was religious groups, and women religious primarily. My favorite example is the Santa Marta group and that partnership with British law enforcement and Catholic sisters who come from Spanish-speaking countries. It's a beautiful example of exactly what I'm talking about.
That's what I mean when I say “on the right side of history”. Working with the poor and marginalized, being very concerned about migration, etc, it is often religious organizations, and specifically religious orders—women religious are big leaders in this—working with those people because nobody else was. That's what I focus on when I talk about the history.
Now, as I say in a 2018 piece I wrote, religions can also cause these problems. And I think that's a valid point, particularly given the news of the last six months. I think that's going to be on everyone's mind.
Very often in these kinds of issues, you can see fairly clearly the Christian perspective. What about non-Christian perspectives and work?
That's a great question. I think part of the challenge there is the diffuse nature of what many religious institutions are doing. For the Holy See and Caritas International, they have a website with their programs listed. Part of the issue for the religions that are less centralized is that it's harder to find the specific programs and approaches. The way you're going to find them is by talking to the people who are involved. And they will say, "Oh, we've done this. Oh, I know of a group that's done this." That's the best way I've found things. But I think it's a little bit more of a deep dive than for the better-documented work of Christian organizations.
You mentioned the fact that religions can cause these problems. Could you speak a little bit more to that?
I think if we go back in our history to things like less than noble missionary work, it's bad actors or it's other things that become compounded. In the nature of conflict, it seems that the social norm is that military victory involves the freedom to sexually exploit the most vulnerable people who are there. And I certainly think that if we were to look at the Crusades or what have you, we wouldn't see any difference between the religious and non-religious norms and attitudes. Again, with some missionary work and conditioning, including colonial support to faith work, I think we find elements there that are less than the ideal.
I am a practicing Catholic. The news of the last six months is highly disturbing, especially if we were to look at what I understand happened to some of the sisters in third world countries, I think you could call it trafficking.
But I think also religion is no different than any other major organization. Like the UN. The UN is an active participant in trafficking. And we don't say, "Let's not engage the UN on these issues." In my limited experience dealing with international diplomats, who perhaps come from a more secular position on this, I find it always useful to bring a sister with me. I represented the Holy See at the World Conference on Child Abuse and Exploitation in Brazil. This was a long time ago now. I was met with a lot of hostility until they met the sister I had with me who was doing the work in Thailand with the Cambodian refugee women. So that's a key, I think.
When did you first start working with the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD), and what has been the outcome of that, from an operational sense?
Judd Birdsall asked me to write “Religion and Human Trafficking” (2015) as separate and apart from his role as executive director of TPNRD. Later, he asked me to address a TPNRD meeting in Vienna via video link. From that, he asked me to publish “Religious Organizations as Partners in the Global and Local Fight Against Human Trafficking” (2018). They were looking to discuss an interface with the UN, I believe, about this very issue. The informal goal there, as I understand it, was to start facilitating that and reconfiguring how one thinks of religion in these settings. The outcome was that 2018 article, as well as just giving them food for thought. I presented my thoughts, and they read the draft and presented comments. We had some discussion, and then I refined it for the final draft.
What recommendations would you make to religious organizations on what they can do to combat human trafficking?
I'll give an example of some work that's going on here in the United States. There is a service for sexually exploited women that's out of Baltimore, called the Samaritan Women. And their director, Jeanne Allert, has created an umbrella group called the Shelter Alliance, which is an alliance across the country of faith-based service shelters for people, almost exclusively women, who have been sex-trafficked. One of the goals of that organization is to work on best practices, standards, etc. because they recognize that being faith-filled and wanting to help is not quite enough. So there's an example for you of taking people who might be motivated by a faith-based perspective, but providing them with concrete examples of standards and protocols in place.
Another analogy would be things like background checks on every parent before they can go and set foot in the school. Catholics have been doing that because they had to. And now other organizations are coming to them, saying, "So what did you implement?" A lot of what Catholic organizations implemented didn't work, but a lot of it did. That's a sort of example of best practices and standards to go along with faith-motivated assistance and service provision.
Can you expand on the global-local nature of human trafficking and efforts to combat human trafficking?
Human trafficking is a gendered crime, and there are millions of people doing it. I sometimes get pushback when I only cite the International Labour Organization (ILO) numbers because there are questions around how they count, so I usually include both ILO and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. The point is still the same; as the Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report points out, I don't care if you triple the numbers in the TiP report; we're not doing enough. The theme of this year's TiP report is what can local groups do, and pointing out we can't have a cookie cutter solution. I personally was thrilled to see that because that's what I've written about.
The one great challenge is that this kind of exploitation transcends geographical borders, which is an obstacle, even with Interpol, even with the Palermo Protocol—it’s just a reality. But what organization transcends those same borders? Religions. That means they're a player. But also, they are local. It can help to look to the rudimentary level of the “three Ps”: prevention, protection and prosecution. How can religions help with prevention? Well, we're really focused on demand these days. Having your religious and cultural leaders trying to shift that social norm is a great example. If you look at education, I’m sure there are overall numbers of people educated by religiously affiliated organizations, but I just was able to get some statistics on how many children are educated by a Catholic-affiliated institution, and even that alone, what could that do for prevention, if we were just educating those hundreds of thousands of folks?
So prevention and protection with the services religious groups provide offer important potential. And then there is prosecution. The Santa Marta Group is a great example of successful partnerships between religious actors and law enforcement. It is so essential to understand that those people are already working with these affected populations. As a former prosecutor, that's who I'd want to be friends with. Those are the relationships I would be making anyways. So when trafficking cases comes up, either religious actors are coming to me for what they've heard on the street, or I'm going to them saying, "Hey, I think this thing's happening there. What do you know?"
We see that on the local level, but also on the global level. I remember talking to the ambassador at the Holy See a couple of years ago, or their staff I should say, and they were telling us about how closely they were working then with the Obama administration. When they were trying to put together the TiP report, there were many countries where the U.S. did not have good access to information. But the Holy See had a presence there and was able to get that information. Those are some things that I can think of and suggest to you.
What are your reflections on the debates and tensions involving prominent religiously motivated anti-trafficking actors and human rights groups who are evangelicals and others who might be uneasy about their approach?
I have not focused directly on this topic myself, but am keenly aware of the debates and tensions. There has been something approaching a negotiation between different approaches so that seeming tensions are less prominent and thus have less negative effects. I think it speaks to the local nature of the issues. John Cotton Richmond did IJM (International Justice Mission) work in India. The work he did, from what he has shared with me, is filling a gap in what the state does not do. No one was prosecuting these cases. So the work they did, dropping in and functioning as a government, is hugely important. I think that, again, it is a country-to-country question, where some approaches work better in certain situations. That's always good for all the actors to keep in mind.
What are your thoughts on encouraging governments to work on anti-trafficking and modern slavery efforts through public procurement commitments? Is this a good and practical place to bring in the religious dimension?
It's nothing I've really come across, in terms of religion, other than in adding a voice to that dialogue. I wouldn't focus on that because I don't see what religion adds other than a moral voice, if that could be the right thing to do. I think that where one can get the most traction in increasing this dialogue is places where religion and religious organizations have a proven track record. That would be my strategy.
What would be your recommendations to G20 countries?
I think the main challenge is many of theses countries is that they do not ever really consider religious organizations as a legitimate ally because of the perceived secular approach. I would point to the Santa Marta Group example. I use this all the time in my class. When you have a Protestant country at the Vatican (the United Kingdom, for example) singing the praises of working with a religious order, which is Spanish in its origins, saying "This was an essential partnership for us, and it made all the difference," that’s a really powerful partnership. I don't mean to make it sound like it's a secular-nonsecular thing, but for professionals who are not used to turning to religious organizations for support because of their own perspective, getting them to do that I think is really the essential thing. Because once you do that, I think then you see and appreciate the amazing work that organizations such as Talitha Kum are doing. Whether it's fully religious or places like Covenant House [a Washington, D.C. organization supporting homeless people], the examples are inspiring. I'm so glad you're having Sister Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service at the G20 Interfaith Forum because they service so many people and nobody knows about it. I think that simple appreciation may be a rather vague and loose thing, but that's the essential first step.