Given at the service to commemorate the work of William Wilberforce and to launch the office of the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner at Westminster Abbey on 12 October 2016.
Human trafficking and modern slavery are ‘grievous wounds in the flesh of humanity’.
These words were spoken by Pope Francis in April 2014 at a meeting in Rome bringing together representatives of law enforcement agencies from around the world and leaders of the Catholic Church from those same countries.
Pope Francis went on to add: ‘They are a grievous wound in the flesh of Christ himself.’
This second, Christian, sentiment would have been profoundly shared by William Wilberforce whose work we honour this evening. He too drew all his motivation for the fight against slavery from his Christian faith. Yet in his day, as I read, religious enthusiasm was generally regarded as a social transgression and was stigmatised in polite society! But that did not put off this great reformer.
The words of Pope Francis marked the launch of the Santa Marta Group, an international effort of police forces and the Catholic Church world-wide, working together with the Church of England and other religious and civic groups, to tackle this most ancient yet modern of criminal activities. In this the Office of the Anti-Slavery Commissioner plays a crucial part. In the eighteenth century human slavery was a hugely profitable ‘trade’. It is so today. Then, as now, it disfigures our society and calls for an unremitting effort to bring it to an end.
Human trafficking and modern day slavery are perpetrated by large, criminal international networks. Slowly the Catholic Church, among others, is mobilising its considerable, international networks, contacts and resources in this struggle. Direct and immediate cooperation with the forces of law and order is key, for it combines the rigour and power of the law with the compassion and selflessness of Christian dedication. For example, hundreds of religious sisters, working through their network, Talitha Kum, put their lives at risk every day to get close to the victims of human trafficking in the most dangerous of circumstances. Talitha kum means ‘get up little girl’. It is the command of Jesus which brought new life to the dead. And those caught in slavery are often the living dead.
Today there are many situations where little children are at risk of being ruthlessly exploited by traffickers. This is so in every refugee camp, but most closely in Calais. I hope our Government, known rightly for its leadership in opposing human trafficking, and the Government of France, will very urgently improve the effectiveness of the asylum-seeking procedures, especially for children there, who may well have a right to be here and are certainly at terrible risk in the coming weeks.
In two weeks’ time, the Santa Marta Group will present its progress reports to Pope Francis. He, I am sure, will be encouraged. Progress is measurable and effective. He will bless our efforts and assure us of his prayers. We are only just beginning. There is so much to be done. May the prayers of this congregation also strengthen this work, to which this evening we commit ourselves anew.