Battling sex trafficking | Women religious join fight against multi-billion trade, St. Louis ranks among top 20 trafficking cities

Photo Illustration: Lisa Johnston | @aeterusphoto

At 15 years old, she lived in a loving household, homeschooled by her family. Young and curious, she decided to study abroad. With her parents, she did some research and found a program. When she arrived at her destination, she quickly discovered she had been lured into a sex trafficking ring. Her father eventually flew overseas to rescue her.

Sex trafficking remains a scary reality, overseas and domestically. In the United States, sex trafficking is big business, generating an estimated $9.5 billion a year, according to the United Nations. In the Catholic Church, women religious have come to the forefront in the efforts to stop trafficking and bring healing to victims.

Sister Gladys Leigh is among them. A Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 42 years, Sister Gladys has spent much time working with the poor and oppressed in her native Peru. When she moved to St. Louis 20 years ago, she worked as a doula and a massage therapist. Now she's transitioning into a new phase of her life as "Grandma Laly," a volunteer grandmother figure for The Covering House, a new St. Louis-based organization that provides refuge and healing for girls who have become victims of sex trafficking.

Sister Gladys has been preparing for her role since she learned about the issue of sex trafficking when she and 900 Sisters of St. Joseph met in St. Louis for the community's U.S. Federation meeting in 2011. She's taught herself to bake cookies and decorate cakes and has talked to other grandmothers to learn what they like to do with their grandchildren. "I want to spoil them, in the good sense," she said.

Being from Peru, "I thought it only happened in poor countries. But it's happening here immensely. I thought, 'That's the kind of ministry I am called to do.'"

Sex trafficking statisticsThe U.S. Department of Justice reports that approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in this country, and the average age of a child victim entering prostitution is 13 to 14. However, sex trafficking does not discriminate against age -- young girls, teens and adult women are among the many faces of trafficking victims -- and statistics can be difficult to compile, given the complexity of the situation, advocates have said.

St. Louis has become a prime area for sex trafficking, primarily because of the growing online marketplace for the sex trade as well as easy access to interstate highways and its position as a hub for large-scale conventions and sporting activities. The Department of Justice has identified St. Louis among the top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions in the country.

Anna Sandidge, justice coordinator with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, explained that religious communities, many of whom have spent their lives working with vulnerable and marginalized people, seek to have a role in community outreach efforts to stop trafficking and to restore the human dignity of those who have become victims.

For the Sisters of St. Joseph, the issue traces back to the sisters' founding charism of "serving the dear neighbor without distinction," said Sandidge. "In the constitution of our founding we were charged by Father Jean Pierre Medaille, to serve the women of the street. This really is an anchor to our founding."

The influence of women religious

As part of her job at Nix Conference and Meeting Management, Kimberly Ritter works with corporations, religious groups and other organizations to plan conferences. The company contracts with hundreds of hotels every year to organize these conferences. In 2008, the Sisters of St. Joseph approached Ritter about organizing its U.S. Federation meeting at the Millennium Hotel Downtown. That's when Ritter first learned about sex trafficking.

She and the company's principals, Jane Quinn and Molly Hackett, had daughters who at the time were about 12 and 13, the average age for a child sex trafficking victim in the United States. Ritter learned how sex trafficking victims were likely being sold out of the very hotels that they often worked with in organizing conferences.

As mothers and professional businesswomen, "that was something we couldn't stand for," Ritter said.

Nix worked with the sisters to get the Millennium Hotel to sign the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. Developed by an international non-government organization called End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking Children for Sexual Purposes , or ECPAT, the code of conduct has been implemented by many tour operators, hotels, travel agents and others worldwide. Known as "The Code," it calls participating companies to commit to establish an ethics policy regarding commercial exploitation of children, train personnel, introduce clauses in contracts with suppliers stating repudiation of commercial sexploitation and provide information to travelers and local "key persons" at destinations.

Ritter said Nix realized it could do the same with the hotels it works with. And the company's efforts took another twist -- as Ritter researched sex trafficking, she discovered that with her knowledge of the hotel industry, she could assist law enforcement in its efforts to rescue girls.

"We found that girls are sold online on a page called -- it's kind of like Craigslist," said Ritter. "We would be able to look at these girls' photos and figure out what hotels they were being sold out of. Because we have been in so many hotel rooms, we know what the rooms look like with their similar bedding and color schemes. We worked with law enforcement and located some of these girls. Then we started getting phone calls from across the U.S. from FBI agencies, law enforcement, advocates -- groups were coming to us. It started taking up a lot of our time."

In 2013, Nix announced at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious' annual assembly that the company was forming the Exchange Initiative, a new organization to provide resources, information and networking opportunities to combat sex trafficking in the United States. As part of the effort, Ritter said a database is being developed where the public can share photos of hotel rooms to assist law enforcement rescue victims of sex trafficking.

Ritter said the Exchange Initiative was formed through the influence of women religious.

"I have worked with the women religious for almost 10 years now, and these women have compassion and love for all human beings," she said. "Anything that affects a woman or a child they're going to stand up and they're going to take action, because that is what makes the sisters so amazing. I am thankful they took this on an issue -- it ended up being my calling in my life to work to fight this with them."

From the front lines

Christine McDonald was 15 when she was sold for $2,500 to the owner of a strip club. The young teenager was a runaway and doing everything she could just to survive. The man who sold her was two to three times her age, someone who had lured her in with the promise of work, food and a roof over her head. To cope with life as a stripper and later as a street prostitute, McDonald turned to drugs.

"I'd been branded like an animal, stabbed, held at gunpoint, chained to a leash in a closet," she said. With a life like that, "all you can do is pray for death."

After a release from prison in 2004, McDonald sought help for substance abuse and found employment. Today she serves as the director of community outreach and advocacy for Magdalene St. Louis, a new organization in St. Louis that provides a two-year residential program for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and substance addiction. Director Tricia Roland-Hamilton said the residence, located in Old North St. Louis, is currently undergoing a gut rehab and is expected to open in early fall. The program will provide therapy, medical care, education and job training, among other services.

Roland-Hamilton said many in the St. Louis community, including women religious, have been supportive of the initiative.

The Covering House plans to open its residential facility this spring at an undisclosed location in Jefferson County, according to executive director Dedee Lhamon. The organization will provide long-term therapeutic services with the goal of helping girls connect with a loving support system, such as family or foster care.

Through their work on the front lines, Lhamon and Roland-Hamilton said that the definition of sex trafficking is much broader than the general public realizes. No longer is it a conversation of whether someone is being trafficked or a prostitute.

"It's considered trafficking if force, coercion, manipulation takes place in any sense of the word," said Lhamon. "If you're under the age of 18, it's trafficking regardless. What I always tell people is most women don't wake up at the age of 25 and say I want to be a prostitute."

Many girls and women -- and there are even males who become victims, Lhamon added -- find themselves stuck in situations where they don't have the education or resources or the assistance of a network of family and friends. "You don't have anybody who's going to help you," she said. "They become addicted to drugs, since that's a means to control them. So then where do you go? How do you get out of that?"

Get involved

Support legislation: U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, is sponsoring legislation to initiate the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, which would close websites, such as, that promote sex trafficking. The bill is HR 4225.

Raise your voice: Staying at a hotel during vacation? Here's a letter, courtesy of Mercy Investment Services, you can share with hotels to raise awareness of sex trafficking. Mercy Investment Services, an organization founded by the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, works to enhance the community's financial resources through socially responsible investing. More resources can be found at

Volunteer: The Covering House and Magdalene St. Louis both have opportunities to volunteer and donate resources. To learn more, see or

Sponsor a girl: Sponsored by the Covering House, The Cover 13 Campaign invites donors to give at least $13 a month to provide services to victims of sex trafficking, including long-term therapeutic housing and programming and opportunities for education and mentoring. See 

Other women religious fight sex trafficking

Sisters of Mercy | Mercy Investment Services

Through its social investment program, Mercy Investment Services, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas are using their collective voice to influence corporations that might encounter trafficking, including hotels, airlines and the tourism industry. Pat Zerega, senior director of shareholder advocacy, said the sisters collaborate with others through the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of faith-based organizations who manage their investments with a focus on social responsibility.

"There are probably 25 to 30 groups who are working on trafficking issues, both Catholic and other denominations," she said. "It's becoming more and more of an issue as people begin to realize that trafficking is happening in our own backyards."

Zerega said for the Sisters of Mercy, the issue of trafficking goes back to the dignity of the human person. "Within that, (the sisters) have core values that include a special focus on women and poverty."

Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word | Incarnate Word Foundation

The Incarnate Word Foundation also has taken on an interest in human trafficking. The foundation uses its resources to collaborate with other organizations and stakeholders to improve the quality of life of the poor and marginalized, educate others and pool resources, among other goals.

With the issue of trafficking, "it really goes back to the original call of our sisters," said executive director Bridget McDermott Flood. "Our sisters' original call was our Lord Jesus Christ suffering in the multitude seeks relief at your hands. If you look at it from that perspective, who needs that more than the people who are marginalized and despised in many ways, or blamed for their situation in many ways?"

Daughters of Charity

In 2009 at their general assembly in Paris, the Daughters of Charity raised the issue of trafficking.

"We have such a large network around the world, we thought we might be able to work together on this issue," said Sister Louise Gallahue, provincial superior of the St. Louis-based Province of St. Louise. Each of the provinces worldwide was asked to look at the issue.

In August 2013, provincial leaders from five countries met at St. John's University in New York City to discuss aspects of trafficking, including legal, political, social and economic, and created a working plan to better engage the sisters.

"One of the things we already had in place was an advocacy and social justice committee in the U.S. ... and developed a social justice e-newsletter to inform our sisters about legislation concerns and action steps they could take," said Sister Louise. The newsletter also occasionally includes a Stop Trafficking newsletter produced by and sponsored by dozens of religious communities.

The Daughters have collaborated with Nix Conference and Meeting Management to work with hotels to get them to sign the ECPAT code and have sisters who individually work with those victims of trafficking.

"We want to help those who are victims of any kind of abuse," said Sister Louise. "It's a justice issue and dignity of the human person that calls us out. And we're trusted in that regard. We don't have anything to gain from this other than to help the people involved. Some of them are so filled with shame and guilt over this. When women religious work with them and treat them with dignity, it's a God thing. There's a transference there that they are worth something." 


More information:

See the attached pdf at the bottom of the page, or go here for more statistics of sex trafficking.

Related stories:

Editorial | Women religious are vehicles of compassion for trafficking victims.

Pope praises police-church network to stop trafficking, meets victims

U.S. bishops launch "Become a Shepherd" campaign to help Catholics learn more about trafficking. 

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