Mass. Bishops urge passage of anti-trafficking legislation

WEST END -- In a letter addressed to members of the State Senate and House of Representatives, the four bishops of the commonwealth urged legislators to finalize the passage of a bill to prevent human-trafficking on a state level.

In the Oct. 11 letter, the bishops thanked legislators for the passage of separate versions of an anti-trafficking bill, but urged them to reconcile the two as soon as possible so the legislation can be enacted.

"As you know, traffickers seek out and exploit the most vulnerable members of society; undocumented residents, runaway teenagers, homeless individuals, and people with alcohol and drug dependency," the letter read.

"Traffickers often confiscate documents, threaten to deport individuals, and make threats against family members to exploit immigrants. Children without a parent or legal guardian are especially susceptible to commercial sexual exploitation. The promise of love, security and belonging can be deceptively appealing to a child who lacks a stable home environment or has left a family experiencing violence."

The bill, An Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People, exists in two versions with discernible differences. The 14-page house version focused on prosecution of criminals who engage in human trafficking, while the 26-page senate version added a focus on the victims of trafficking. S01951, from the senate, used the word "victim" 84 times, while H03483, from the house, used it only eight. Currently, the versions require revision by a joint committee of both branches to resolve differences and finalize legislation.

The bill's author, Senator Mark Montigny, chair of the committee for the senate side of deliberations, confirmed the sense of urgency put forth by the bishops.

"The passage of this bill is long over-due," he said in an email. "I commend the bishops that have been so instrumental in making this such an important social justice priority, in addition to all the clergy whom have spoken out against human trafficking and become activists themselves."

"We owe the survivors of this insidious crime a comprehensive bill that will protect future victims and allow law enforcement officials to bring traffickers to justice," he said.

The chair of the committee on the house side, Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty, invited The Pilot to a face-to-face interview on the matter. He spoke to the urgency of passing the legislation in Massachusetts to facilitate efficiency through local rather than federal enforcement.

"In order for legislation to get attention around here, oftentimes something dramatic needs to happen. And in this particular instance the dramatic thing that happened, I think, is just a bursting of information on this subject matter, both the news media reporting on it as well as folks saying, 'What are we doing about it?'" he said.

"The layer that was missing was the ability to statutorily identify human trafficking, and penalties, and start defining the conduct so that law enforcement here locally, not federal law enforcement, but the attorney general and the district attorneys would be able to point to a Massachusetts statute, so they wouldn't have to refer things to the feds."

To further explain the position of the bishops, Kathryn M. Davis, the public policy coordinator for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, explained that the bishops' concerns on the devastating consequences of human trafficking are rooted in the Gospel message that "we are to care for the stranger among us, that we are to look out for our brother and sister and be his or her keeper," Davis said.

"How we treat the least among us is how we treat Christ among us. To those that are in vulnerable situations right now, whether because they are here from another country, or whether they are homeless youth that have no one to support them and look out for them, we as Catholics are called to see Christ in them, and to respond to their needs, and protect them," she said.

In a phone interview with The Pilot, Davis detailed the Catholic calling to pursue these matters as an integral part of the faith. She said the teachings of the Gospel provide the framework of the calling.

"We are called to create a just world. If we want peace we must work for justice. These are criminal acts that are taking place here in Massachusetts that are unjust and need faith and legislation in order to rectify that injustice."

According to a January press release from Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's office, the creators of the bill intended to break ground establishing human trafficking for sexual servitude or labor as a crime in Massachusetts. At the time, Massachusetts numbered amongst five states in the country without human trafficking laws. Hawaii reduced the number to four, by passing legislation in April.

Chairman O'Flaherty restated the legislative commitment to passing the legislation quickly and was hoping to have the process completed before Nov. 17, when they recess.

"The few differences that exist between the two documents are being reconciled in a timely fashion, and before long the district attorneys and most importantly the attorney general will have a new apparatus in place so that they can concentrate some of their efforts to thwarting what we know exists in Massachusetts, which is large networks of both labor and sexual-servitude traffickers."

After the committee reconciles the two bills a united piece of legislation will go before the executive branch.

The bishops accompanied the letter with a brochure titled "Sex Trafficking: The New Slavery" produced in 2010 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In it they state the case for the Church, saying "Human trafficking is a horrific crime against the basic dignity and rights of the human person. All efforts must be expended to end it."