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Bishops condemn human trafficking

  • December 3, 2021

In a new pastoral letter on human trafficking and sexual exploitation, Canada’s bishops are calling for the continued criminalization of prostitution while also decrying treating sex as work.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Justice and Peace on Nov. 22 unveiled the pastoral letter “For Freedom Christ has Set us Free: Pastoral Letter on Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in Canada.”

The’ letter draws a clear connection between human trafficking and sexual exploitation, particularly through prostitution. It draws attention to the “inherently exploitative and abusive nature of the purchase of sex and insists that in order to protect the vulnerable, this practice must continue to be criminalized.” It goes on to say that “Treating sex as ‘work’ masks the physical, psychological and sexual violence inflicted on the prostituted person.”

One of the overriding conclusions of the letter is that prostitution is violent and exploitative and that moves by nations like New Zealand and Germany to legalize or decriminalize prostitution “isn’t the answer.” The buying of sex has only increased in these nations, with the hands of criminal organizations all over the situation, and “this demand is being filled by trafficked women from the poorest regions of Europe — particularly Romania and Bulgaria — as well as China, Nigeria and other parts of Africa.”

While the legalized prostitution model is not available in Canada, the bishops do note that since 2014 Canada has decriminalized “all those who are prostituted” while providing support services to help them exit the field. The purchase of sex remains a criminal act.

“Stopping the demand for buying sex is the only way to prevent more crimes and the harm caused to the victims of prostitution,” the bishops say.

The 10-page pastoral letter has several different sections, detailing the  problem in Canada. It outlines several principles of Catholic social teaching including life and dignity of the human person, and dignity of work and the rights of workers. 

Sr. Sue Wilson, CSJ, is co-director of the Office for Systemic Justice for the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada. She has worked extensively on anti-trafficking efforts.

While Wilson is agreeable to some of the principles presented throughout the document, she says it is not attuned to the on-the-ground complexities of the issue.

“It’s just hard to square (the letter) with the complexity of the lives people are leading, especially those that end up in a situation of trafficking or exploitation,” she said.

One drawback in Wilson’s view is how the bishops “conflate sexual exploitation and human trafficking,” which is an inaccurate appraisal because “not all sexual exploitation is human trafficking and not all human trafficking is sexual exploitation.” She particularly cites the manipulation of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as a device to execute trafficking for labour exploitation.

Ultimately, she says, for the letter to be truly pastoral by definition — providing spiritual care and guidance for people — there needs to be more face-to-face engagement with a broad spectrum of individuals who have experienced trafficking or exploitation.

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