To end human trafficking, Catholic colleges lead the way

The mission to protect human dignity is a central part of the Catholic faith.
Peace & Justice

Jamie Pizzi remembers the lunchtime meetings. They would take place in a college classroom. There, people would discuss their work, work not just happening on campus but in the community.

Pizzi, then 23 years old, was a first-year student at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Her classes had rigid curricula with a lot of reading on law and its foundations. There was little room to see the law in action, she says, and not much space in the initial coursework for specific law interests. That’s why Pizzi loved the weekly meetings.

“I would go to these meetings during my lunch hour, and I was just thrilled,” the now 27-year-old remembers. “It was the most interesting thing I had heard in law school all week.”

Those meetings are part of the law school’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, one of several projects focused on human trafficking at Catholic universities across the country. Pizzi entered the legal field knowing she wanted to do work related to social justice and feminism. She knew Villanova’s law school had strong business and tax programs, but the institute was the reason she enrolled, she says.


What was a weekly joy for the first-year law student became a job by Pizzi’s second year. She worked for the institute, writing reports, collecting data, and drafting policy related to trafficking and prostitution cases in Pennsylvania. She learned about the disparity in how people caught selling sex are often charged more harshly than those buying sex. The policies and reports she wrote worked to reverse long-held beliefs about trafficking and prostitution.

“The people buying sex are using disposable income to have sex with people who are trying to or are forced [in]to selling sex to eat, to have a house, to make sure their children can eat,” Pizzi says. “That’s injustice to me.”

Sexual exploitation is one form of trafficking, an international problem affecting millions of people and one that continues to grow. Trafficking occurs around the world, even in developed countries and well-off parts of the United States. The problem is everywhere.

Pope Francis called human trafficking a “crime against humanity” during an April conference hosted by the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The conference was designed to coordinate efforts across the religious world to help stop the problem.


People in religious life and faith-based organizations have long been working on the front lines of the trafficking issue—prosecuting cases, offering resources to survivors, and changing laws. In recent years Catholic universities have joined the movement by raising awareness, campaigning for the rights of trafficking victims, and training the next generation of advocates.

The trafficking problem

Trafficking human beings, the buying and selling of people for sex or labor, has existed for centuries. The majority of trafficking victims are women and girls. In 2016 alone, nearly 25,000 victims of trafficking were reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime according to a report by the UNODC. This is a 40 percent increase from 2011, although the report acknowledges its inability to fully measure the population of victims.

The full scope of the problem is unclear despite the staggering estimates, says Mary Leary, a law professor at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.

“Any numbers that we have on human trafficking have to be understood as an estimate,” Leary says. “It’s very hard to measure this type of crime, because it occurs underground and it really turns on definitions, which vary the measurement country to country. But whatever measurement you use, it’s several million and it’s always increasing.”


Leary says the growing number is the result of increased awareness about the issue, leading to more people being defined as trafficking victims as well as simply a growing number of people being trafficked.

“It’s safe to say [the numbers are] increasing, because all of the factors that contribute to trafficking are still there,” she says. “The push factors of poverty, desperation, and corruption are all still very active as well as the pull factors of perpetrators offering hope or being able to utilize that corruption to succeed in their criminal endeavor.”

But Catholic schools across the country are working to end trafficking.

A 2018 report from Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities found that more than half of the 200 U.S. Catholic colleges and universities surveyed conducted some form of anti-trafficking work. Of those schools, more than 60 percent hold formal meetings or have informal conversations about the issue, such as social media campaigns or student-led discussions. About half have academic opportunities for anti-trafficking work.


“The prevalence and complexity of human trafficking requires a response from all sectors of society,” the report reads. “Preventing human trafficking and protecting victims and survivors cannot fall solely to legislators, social workers, and law enforcement. . . . Students and faculty at U.S. Catholic colleges and universities are engaged and active in the fight against trafficking, particularly as agents of awakening and education.”

The study included surveying school websites for information on anti-trafficking work, a shortcoming, the report recognizes, as the total is likely an undercount; every university may not publicize all organizations or events engaged with the topic.


Campuses are well positioned to work on the issue, says Kathleen Kim, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Schools are raising awareness and training the next generation of advocates, whether at the undergraduate or law school levels, she says.

Trafficking harms victims physically as well as mentally. Victims are often oppressed, even if they escape their immediate danger. They may become marginalized from society because of their experiences, Kim says. “There’s a multilevel phenomenon of power imbalance that these individuals exist in. It has to do with race, gender, class, noncitizen status.”


Catholic—and at Kim’s school, Jesuit—education is committed to teaching social justice and ethics along with standard university coursework, she says. The idea is to inform students morally and to shape their practical skills so they can make an immediate impact after graduation. At Loyola’s law school, that preparation involves having students work together on real cases.

Having a well-rounded education, one that extends beyond a student’s desired career field, helps create advocates in all sectors, Kim says.

“When there’s a curriculum addressing those kinds of things and students are well informed . . . they really know the issues and not the prevailing rhetoric, which is false,” Kim says, referencing narratives about immigrants, often victims of trafficking, being criminals or stealing American jobs. “If students are equipped with the right knowledge, they can carry that knowledge wherever they go.”

Higher ed responds

Pizzi worked at Villanova’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation through her graduation in 2018. The Massachusetts native still works there as a Justice for Victims fellow, helping victims vacate criminal offenses they received while being trafficked, such as charges of prostitution or drug possession. In Pennsylvania, victims can vacate these charges from their record and sue people involved in their trafficking.


The institute was founded in 2014 to educate the community and change laws related to trafficking, says Shea Rhodes, the institute’s director.

“We believe that prostitution is gender-based violence, and we need to educate all the stakeholders, our legislators, our law enforcement, our prosecutors and lawyers, and judges on why commercial sexual exploitation exists in the first place,” Rhodes says.

The advocacy and policy drafting by the institute helped pass amendments to further protect child victims of sex trafficking during the state’s 2017–18 legislative session. The bill granted immunity for minors against charges of prostitution and created resources for them. The institute spent years working on the legislation, Rhodes says.

Students help with every part of the work. The institute involves at least a dozen students each year, Rhodes says. Even students in the university’s undergraduate program help in various ways, such as designing communications strategies or social media campaigns to raise awareness.

The Project to End Human Trafficking at Carlow University takes a more international approach to the issue. The Pittsburgh-based university works to raise awareness and create infrastructure to stop trafficking and protect victims and those at risk of being victimized, says Mary Burke, a professor of psychology, who cofounded the project in 2004 and remains its director.

While it started local, around three years after the project began its scope went international, Burke says.

“The work around trafficking looks different depending on what country you’re standing in, how many resources they have, whether they’re primarily a country of origin, transit, or destination,” Burke says. “All countries are all three but how advanced their economy is determines which one you lead with.”

The project’s members were interested in helping countries of origin, places where trafficking victims are forced into the system. Countries with high rates of poverty and political instability are typically places of origin, Burke says.


The project has worked in Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, and Liberia. It is currently working in Uganda. Those involved in the work have started schools and health clinics equipped with staff trained to identify trafficking and resources for those victimized by the problem. Students at Carlow have interned with the project and coauthored research with Burke, she says.

Students at Fontbonne University’s Center Against Human Trafficking and Exploitation are focused on raising awareness and training people whose local influence can save lives. The program began in late 2017 with training for people in the Missouri area, says Laura Beaver, the center’s founder and a professor of social work.

“What was interesting was that we had a really big mix of individuals,” Beaver says. “About half of the people were working with survivors of sex trafficking on a daily basis. The other half had no idea what sex trafficking [is].”

Since the first training, staff members at the center have developed various educational tracts for people depending on their knowledge about trafficking and their professional fields. The annual trainings involve dozens of community members and help focus the city of St. Louis and the state’s efforts to combat trafficking. Coordination is important to create major changes, Beaver says.

“We have five or six different social work programs in the St. Louis metro area, and we also have three different counseling programs,” she says. “There’s a ton of people in the social services field in our area. What happens is people get really passionate about something, and they start working to end a social issue, but they don’t talk to anybody else.”

Communication among social work organizations and advocates is helping to fill another hole in understanding trafficking: data collection. Trafficking is a hidden problem, Beaver says. There is no way to conduct a census of trafficking. Even relying on the number of hotline calls seeking help is inaccurate, because those calls only involve victims who are aware of the resource or who have the ability to call, she says.

Students at Fontbonne can become involved in the center through its fellowship program. Since the center is connected to the department of social work, other students get involved through volunteering opportunities or their work-study placements throughout St. Louis, Beaver says.

“We talk a lot about Catholic social teaching and what that means,” she says. “How can you integrate your faith into your work in a way that’s not trying to convert people or preaching or going into ministry, per se? How can you incorporate Catholic social teaching into what you’re doing? I think that this is a perfect fit for that because [trafficking is] such an ignored problem.”

The work that remains

The global movement to end trafficking is in a second phase, Leary says. The first was raising awareness on the local and international levels. Some laws have changed to focus justice on people who buy sex or labor rather than those who are selling it. The burden is now on the legal system to enforce these new laws.

But while some changes have been made to the legal system, these shifts were often the easiest things to fix. The movement now faces tougher challenges, Leary says. “The easier steps have been done. Now we’re getting to things that are going to hurt a little bit,” she says. “And if we’re serious about combating human trafficking, we will be prepared as a society to do that.”

Legitimate businesses have used advancing technologies to expand their reach and profits. Those engaged in human trafficking are doing the same. The legal system and advocates need to address the demand side of labor trafficking, Leary says. Consumers must be aware of how their purchasing decisions can affect labor trafficking. There will be costs, she says, such as paying more for certain items such as produce or cell phones.

Corporations have paid a lot of lip service to ending trafficking but often resist laws to change labor practices, Leary says. “This next phase of fighting trafficking involves fighting very big corporate interests that do not want their bottom lines affected,” she says.

Catholic schools and other faith-based groups will continue the fight, Leary says. The mission for justice is a central part of the Christian faith. “Human dignity and human rights are central to who we are in many contexts, in the unborn and the elderly,” she says. “It certainly applies to people who have been so discarded from society. If we don’t speak for them, nobody will.”

This article also appears in the October 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 10, pages 24–28). Click here to subscribe to the magazine. 

Image: Flickr cc via Villanova Law

About the author

Wyatt Massey

Wyatt Massey is a journalist based in Maryland. He covers poverty, housing, immigration, and religion.

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