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Catholic church leader vows to battle modern slavery

Published 10/05/2016

Cardinal Vincent Nicols has pledged to tackle modern slavery
Cardinal Vincent Nicols has pledged to tackle modern slavery

The most senior Catholic in England and Wales has said the battle against modern slavery is an opportunity to "put the victim at the centre" in the wake of child sex abuse scandals which have rocked the church.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who described the crime as a "huge problem in the fabric of society", has overseen a pioneering project to bring police, nuns and bishops together to tackle it.

In frank comments to the Press Association, he admitted the Catholic Church's child sex abuse scandals have left some doubting its credentials.

But he said the Church's past has motivated him to do all he can to work for the victims of modern slavery, many of whom end up being trafficked and sold into sex work.

Cardinal Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said: "What in this work we try to do is keep the victim right at the centre.

"So yes it is a terrible crime, and yes there is prosecution to be pursued, and yes it is fascinating listening to people talk about developing instruments that can help banks be aware of where money might be coming from. But we want to keep the victim at the centre of this.

"That is partly because over the last 15 years in my life, and I think in the life of the Catholic Church more broadly, there has been real difficult lessons to learn about understanding victims and opening your heart to victims, and realising how early experiences and experiences of total vulnerability can have a lifelong impact on a person.

"So while for us the most dramatic expression of that has been with childhood abuse, it has, I think, challenged me to understand the perspective of the victim much more."

The cardinal said that whereas victims of abuse by the clergy were "understandably angry" and suspicious of the Church, the issue of modern slavery gives Catholics an opportunity to take up a cause that can radically improve lives.

He said: "So that in a way is a motivation. Here is a huge group of victims and their anger is not directed to the Church - unlike people who have been abused in Church circles, which makes it difficult for us to be directly assisting victims of abuse because they are understandably angry with us.

"But here there are people who are desperately caught and trapped and we can help them. And the learning from one, we can bring to this work."

The issue of modern slavery has been steadily rising up the political agenda in recent years.

According to the International Labour Organisation, 21 million people are victims of forced labour, and in Britain an estimated 13,000 people work as modern slaves in fields, factories, fisheries, nail bars and prostitution.

The Modern Slavery Act was passed last year and introduced a life sentence for those found guilty of the crime.

Cardinal Nichols, a vocal supporter of the act, has made tackling modern slavery one of his focuses.

Inspired by a group of nuns who worked with the Met Police in helping women trafficked to London and forced into prostitution, he has set up the Santa Marta group which brings clergy and police chiefs from around the world together to tackle modern slavery.

Cardinal Nichols said his work got a powerful endorsement from Pope Francis who told him to "keep this going". The UN has recently pledged to end modern slavery by 2030 - something Cardinal Nichols thinks is ambitious, but doable.

But with no end in sight to the turmoil in the Middle East and the accompanying migrant crisis, some fear more people could be driven into the hands of traffickers and enslaved.

Cardinal Nichols said that while many slavery victims come from Nigeria, Eastern Europe and other foreign countries, no part of Britain - however genteel - is immune to it.

"The very first person I met who suffered this was an English girl who was trafficked and deceived by a relationship with an Italian lad who invited her to Italy", he said.

"She went and within no time was in to enforced prostitution for six years.

"So it's the fact that it's here, it's around us, that is most startling. We like to think of Britain on the whole as reasonably genteel and proper, but we are exploiting and being exploited."

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