By Irene Lagan
ROME, MARCH 29, 2007 ( Zenit.org).- There is a side to the Eternal City that most of us are loathe to acknowledge.
Passing through certain parts of Rome and its surroundings, one is likely to see women — or often, girls — lining the streets. Via Guilia is one such street known for prostitution, but there are others.
To much of the world, these women and girls are mere prostitutes, but to Sister Eugenia Bonetti, they are victims of the most dehumanizing and crippling type of slavery.
Sister Eugenia, who is also the head of the Italian Union of Major Superiors, was recently presented with the Woman of Courage award by the U.S. State Department for her efforts to combat trafficking in persons.
The work of the religious was also acknowledged in 2004 when she was named one of six Heroes Acting to End Modern Day Slavery in the annual Trafficking in Persons report published by the State Department.
First in Rome, and now throughout the world, Sister Eugenia has trained women religious to provide shelter and rehabilitation to women rescued from prostitution.
According to the woman religious, the young women are the ones punished for the crime of prostitution. Sometimes, she said, they are arrested, thrown in jail where they might be mistreated, and then cast back out, while the men who use them walk away free.
The women are bought and sold, traded and discarded at the whim of their traffickers and those who abuse them sexually, she said.
“The statistics are staggering,” said Sister Eugenia. “Sexual slavery is problematic worldwide, it happens here. It is in our face.
“This problem is destroying women, and families. When I see a car stop with a baby seat in the back, I know this man has a wife and baby at home.
“When we ask police to help, they often arrest the girls, and let the men go.”
According to Sister Eugenia, most of the women who are bought and sold for sex in Italy come to the country under the pretext of a job. In Italy, many are from Eastern Europe or Nigeria.
“The girls are tricked into this,” Sister Eugenia said. “They are offered what they believe to be good jobs.”
Once beyond the safe bounds of home, their documents are taken away and they are forced to sell their bodies for money. Many of the girls are just barely teenagers when they are forced into prostitution, she said.
“It takes a Nigerian girl an average of 4,000 sexual encounters before she is released,” the woman religious said. “Who can survive that? If a girl manages to survive physically, it is a miracle is she survives psychologically.”
Nevertheless, Sister Eugenia said there is hope for these women. Once they are safe, many recover and learn to support themselves. The Consolata Missionaries provide respite and rehabilitation for girls courageous enough to leave their traffickers.
The religious said: “Our sisters leave the safety of our convents at night to reach out to these girls who know no safety. But there is always a danger.
“When a girl leaves her captors, her family at home is often threatened. Many girls are afraid to leave their traffickers.
“In some ways, we are fortunate in Italy because our laws offer some protection for these girls. When they cooperate with authorities, they receive other benefits and can be granted citizenship.”
Together with other religious sisters, the Consolata Missionaries have established an international network of shelters among women religious of various denominations.
“Sisters can do this work,” said Sister Eugenia. “When the girls see us, they know they can trust us. They see us as mothers, and they know they are loved. When I visit my girls, they call me ‘Mama.'”
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Benedict XVI’s “Curriculum”
Seminarians, students and other eager listeners gathered recently at the University of the Holy Cross in Rome listen to American professor Scott Hahn expound the theological vision of Benedict XVI.
The weeklong mini course was just one of several meetings, formal and informal, during which Hahn, a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, spoke with laity and religious on a range of topics.
Foremost on Hahn’s agenda was the Holy Father’s “curriculum” for Catholics, which Hahn believes will also lead many Protestant theologians to discover the answers they have been searching in the Catholic liturgy.
But even more, Hahn said that Benedict XVI’s “clarity and classic style of theologizing” make his teaching accessible to the average lay person.
“One of the remarkable things about Benedict XVI,” said Hahn, “is that he is almost too straightforward. With a little bit of effort, those who are not schooled in theology will grasp treasures of biblical wisdom in the context of liturgy and the sacraments.”
The Pope’s writing, Hahn said, has been significant in his own faith journey.
“I started reading Joseph Ratzinger before I realized he was Catholic, let alone a cardinal, now Benedict XVI,” he said. “That was 25 years ago; I’ve only been Catholic for 20.”
At a casual reception at the home of a former student now working in Rome, Hahn encouraged old and new students to take advantage of their proximity to the Holy Father as a time of preparation for their own service to the Church.
He said: “This is the hour of the laity. It is a tremendous privilege to be so near Benedict XVI who is a teacher par excellence.
“Those of you who have the privilege of learning from him so directly will be called upon to serve others.”
During a visit to the North American College, Hahn encouraged seminarians to remain rooted in prayer and Scripture.
American seminarian Johnny Burns was enthusiastic about Hahn’s talk: “He spoke about the priesthood in a biblical context and then talked about priestly fatherhood by building on lessons he’s learned from being a father.
“His personal stories were quite moving. And when he shared with us what he truly thought of the priesthood, that was also moving, indeed unforgettable.”
Scott Hahn was joined by his wife, Kimberly Hahn, who spoke informally with groups of students. She is an author, speaker and home schooling mother of their six children.
Kimberly Hahn, also a convert to Catholicism, is her husband’s partner in producing materials for a parish-based Bible study program, as well as helping would-be converts to navigate their entry into Catholicism.
But in addition, she is often a keynote speaker on family issues.
On one occasion during her visit to Rome, Kimberly Hahn held an informal discussion about challenges to Christian marriage, which, she said, is suffering from a divorce rate in the United States that is nearly equivalent to non-sacramental marriages.
“A major culprit in failed marriages is cohabitation,” she said. “People fail to recognize that living together prior to marriage is absolutely a recipe for failure. You can’t ‘try on’ a marriage because without sacramental grace, it really is impossible.”
Kimberly Hahn said that another challenge is pornography: “Without question, pornography is a major culprit in many failed marriages in the United States.
“It’s really a type of infidelity. When a man has been unfaithful to his wife through pornography, it is very hard to recover a foundation of trust. Women are often at a loss to express the sense of betrayal.”
She said she sees signs for hope, especially among the many lay students pursuing degrees in theology, and marriage and family studies.