About Society of Mary, Marists in the USA, Roman Catholic Priests, Brothers, and Laity
Marist Sister John Paul Chao, SMSM works to stem the tide of human trafficking in San Francisco and beyond

Q. What are the five most important things our readers should know about human trafficking?

A. First, the scale of the human trafficking problem. Most people I meet say they have seen a program on TV or read an article in the newspaper about it, but they don't realize how rampant it is. 

According to a U.S. State Department estimate, human trafficking is a $32 billion dollar per year business worldwide. That's a larger business profit than those of Google, Nike and Starbucks combined. The number of human trafficking victims worldwide is around 27 million. The 2014 estimate of victims in the U.S. was about 1.8 million. One police officer in the Human Trafficking Special Taskforce told me that this is occurring in every county.  Most people think it happens somewhere else far away, maybe in some slum areas.

Second, people should know that the most common forms of human trafficking include: sexual exploitation of women and girls (79%); forced labor, male and female (18%); for the purpose of selling organs (0.2%); forced marriage; forced soldiers; and baby-selling.  Sexual exploitation of women and girls is most common because the profit is much greater than the other forms.

The trend in the past few years has been a worldwide increase in trafficking of children.  Now one in three victims is a child, and two-thirds of child victims are female.

Third, the suffering of human trafficking victims is tremendous.  Traffickers usually lure victims by deception.  If the victim is not willing to do labor or become a prostitute, traffickers will beat and torture the person.  If that doesn't work, they say that they will kill parents or children back home.  That usually works. 

These victims work long hours and live in terror with no hope.  In such conditions, their life span is usually very short.  We thought that slavery had been abolished 150 years ago in this country, but it is very much alive.

Fourth, women religious everywhere have pioneered in fighting human trafficking because it was an Italian Sister, Sr. Eugenia Bonetti, MC, who brought this issue forward. 

Of course, human trafficking had been happening for years, but in 1998, Sr. Eugenia spoke with many Nigerian women working the streets in Rome and discovered they had been duped by the shiploads with promises for employment.  Sr. Eugenia exposed this crime to the media.  The Union of Superiors and Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in this country quickly encouraged anti-human-trafficking actions among women religious.  Then, the U.S. passed a Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 and, in 2003, the United Nations also started bringing nations together to fight this problem.  The progress of prosecuting traffickers, however, has been slow.

And fifth, the Catholic Church has always promoted social justice as an important priority.  Pope Francis stated in World Day of Peace on January 1, 2015:

“I invite everyone... to practice acts of fraternity towards those in slavery.  Do we feel challenged when, in our daily lives, we meet or deal with persons who could be victims of human trafficking or when we are tempted to select items which may well have been produced by exploiting others? I urgently appeal to all men and women including the highest levels of civil institutions, who witness the scourge of contemporary slavery, not to become accomplices to this evil, not to turn away from the sufferings of our brothers and sisters.  Instead, may we have the courage to touch the suffering flesh of Christ, revealed in the faces of those countless persons whom he calls "the least of my brethren" (Matt. 2:40, 45).

Q. What brought you into this work?

A. Back in 2008, I was asked to help out at Mary's Guest House in the San Diego area.  It's a safe house for victims of human trafficking.  Living in the same house with women from different countries opened my eyes to the suffering they had endured.  So, in 2009 when I was sent to the San Francisco area, I looked for ministries involving the fight against human trafficking.

I met a psychologist in San Francisco who was doing international research on human trafficking.  She asked me to join her, so I have helped her with her research, though eventually felt that research work in an office was not enough for me, so I added a ministry working for MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, Serving Sexually Exploited Youth).  It was a new organization, serving children ages 12 to 17 who had been commercially sexually exploited.  I served in fundraising while I underwent training in this field and have become a mentor. 

These children have had very traumatic experiences, so they don't react to people in the usual way.  As a mentor or model, one must be extremely patient.  One moment they are motivated to go to school, the next they drop out or end up in police detention. They have outbreaks of rage sometimes.  But seeing one graduate from high school and another going into graduate school was exciting beyond words.

It's been six years since I joined the Stop Slavery Coalition, (Northern California Coalition of Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking).  Our mission as women religious is to help end human slavery through education, advocacy and action against all forms of human trafficking. 

We are about a dozen Sisters from various orders, and form four committees, but all members participate in hotel visiting which is an important method we use to combat human trafficking. 

Nowadays prostitution is no longer usually done in brothels but in hotels, so we make visits to educate hotel personnel in the fight against human trafficking.  For example, in preparation for the America's Cup international sailing race in San Francisco in 2013, we visited the Starwood hotels (which encompass eight chains, including Sheraton, Westin, and St. Regis) which were the main sponsors of the America's Cup.  The Starwood was willing to set up instructor-based training for all of their hotels in the San Francisco area before the sailing race.  Later, they set up web-based training for all their hotels around the world.  We were thrilled. 

The following year we visited the Choice Hotels (including 10 chains such as Quality Inn and Budget Inn).  They also have a web-based training program for their 620 hotels around the world.  

Q. How has your being a Marist religious contributed to your work? 

A. Marists were called to go out to the South Pacific islands to bring the good news of Jesus.  While Marist Fathers and Brothers were dispatched to that mission territory, the women of Wallis Island wrote to France asking for women missionaries to go to reach the women.  That's how the Marist Missionary Sisters started, so we have had a special sensitivity to the needs of women. 

Among the victims of human trafficking, more than 80 % are female (79% are women and girls forced to be in the sex trade. In addition, there are women who are sold to be laborers). Of course, Mary, our mother in Heaven, has called us to be Marists. To see so many of her earthly children being tortured and living in terror must make her very sad. So, I feel that my work fits in well with the Marist calling.

Q. How can our readers join the fight?

A. 1) Pay attention to things around you.  One morning while a Sister was having a hotel breakfast before a scheduled meeting, she noticed a man accompanied by a few children of different races.  Normally when children see all the delicious foods provided they would get excited in some way, but these children demonstrated no emotions. 

The Sister reported what she was seeing to the national human trafficking hotline (888-373-8888), and the human trafficking taskforce police came, investigated and arrested the man for trafficking.

Victims of human trafficking usually have very few possessions, no documents, no control over money, and receive little or no pay.  They are forced into frequent movements to avoid capture work long hours. They are picked up in cars with opaque windows or live in a place with barbed wires or steel bars like a jail. They often have no address or have a large debt.  They are sometimes emotionally impaired, depressed, exhibit no emotional reaction or are memory impaired.

It's best to report to the national hotline (888-373-8888) if possible, because helping a victim can become very dangerous. Traffickers are often violent, as the victims are their valuable property.

2) Tell everyone you know about the horror of human trafficking.  Many people are completely unaware of this.  You can write to people you know or use Facebook, etc. to spread the word.  The abolition of slavery in the 19th century took many years to reach enough people to make a difference.

3) Put the national hotline number 888-373-8888 on your phone and tell your friends about it.

4) United Nations has a Blue Heart campaign.  You can order some Blue Heart bumper stickers from the website and, when people ask you about it, you can tell them about the sad fate of the victims of human trafficking.

5) Join an anti-human-trafficking coalition.  If there isn't any near you, start one.  Don't think it's very difficult, because I know a 14-year-old boy who started one in his school.  They tell people about human trafficking and do fund-raising like a walkathon or runathon to help anti-human-trafficking organizations.

6) Volunteer at an organization that fights human trafficking or helps victims of human trafficking.

7) Check the foods and products you use at slaveryfootprint.com to find items that are not produced by slave labor.

8) You can write to companies which sell products made from slave labor to change their suppliers.  My coalition wrote to Hershey chocolate company to ask them to sell something that's slave-labor-free.  They came up with the line of Bliss chocolate bars.

9) If you are very ambitious, you can write a story or a song to fight human trafficking.  Or you can write a book, make a video or start an organization. 

Quite a few people have done these successfully, but we still need many more.  Maybe God is calling you to do some of the above things.  God bless you all!



Today's Marist Magazine Winter 2015
This interview appears
in the most recent issue of
Today's Marists Magazine



What is the Seamless Garment of Life?

"When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with Jesus' cloak remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom."

(John 19:23)

Eileen Egan (1922-2000), a co-founder of the peace organization Pax Christi, coined the phrase seamless garment of life in 1973, also known as the Consistent Life Ethic. Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin further developed this idea to express an ethical, religious, and political ideology based on the premise that all human life is sacred and should be protected by law.

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.


Human Dignity (Dignitatis Humanae)
(Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965)

Safeguarding Life for Human Dignity

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Life and Dignity of the Human Person
(U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

The Marist District of Africa

WOLA-Washington Office on Latin America


Contact your U.S. Elected Officials

Africa Faith & Justice Network

Download Pro-Life App


To protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called, so that the star of hope will shine brightly. Let us protect with love all that God has given us!

Pope Francis
St. Peter's Square
March 19, 2013


















Human Trafficking

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Call: 888-373-8888

Text: HELP to BeFree (233733)