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Priests hear about human trafficking
A Fairfax County detective seeks cooperation from local churches.
Mike Flach | Catholic Herald
Michael F. Flach | Catholic Herald
Fairfax County Police Detective Bill Woolf tells a group of priests gathered at St. John Neumann Church in Reston May 20 that the 300 gangs in the diocese control most of the area’s human trafficking and they prey on church youth groups.

Human trafficking is not just an international problem, but one that exists in the quiet, suburban neighborhoods of Northern Virginia.

That was the message delivered May 20 by Fairfax County Police Detective Bill Woolf to priests in the Arlington Diocese at St. John Neumann Church in Reston.

Woolf, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville, is a member of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force and Gang Investigation Unit. He was invited to give the talk by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde.

Woolf said that human trafficking is a crime that involves force, fraud or coercion. It is a $32 billion industry worldwide that involves 12 million victims, only 0.4 percent of whom are identified.

Criminals are starting to shift their focus from drugs to sex trafficking because it is a low-risk effort that yields high rewards, he said. Plus, unlike narcotics, there is an infinite resource available to them.

“They (criminals) look at women as a product,” Woolf said, “because they are easy to get their hands on.”

It is a common misconception that most victims are foreign nationals, he said. One-hundred thousand children born in the United States fall victim to these predators.

“They look for individuals who have low self-esteem and are vulnerable,” he said. “It is not always about economic need.”

Many of the victims aren’t abducted, but continue to live with their families while they are being used in the sex industry, he said.

“These victims deal with emotional and psychological issues for the rest of their lives,” said Woolf.

The most vulnerable victims are youths with a history of abuse or sexual assault, he said. Others are homeless, runaways or throwaways. The majority lack healthy relationships or support structures at home.

“They crave attention from a positive male influence in their lives,” Woolf said.

Anyone is a potential victim.

He said that warning signs include: frequent runaways; changes in attitude; older boyfriends; and new clothes, shoes or jewelry.

Gangs control most of the human trafficking that takes place in the diocese, Woolf said, and members of the Hispanic community are especially vulnerable. Woolf said there are 300 gangs operating in the Arlington Diocese, with 5,000 members.

Criminals often recruit and groom their victims through social media such as Facebook, he said. They also use bus stops, shopping malls and church youth groups.

The criminals gain control and then maintain it through violence, fear and threats to the girls’ families, he said.

Gangs use this “sense of family” to recruit young men as members and their female victims. “They replace the girl’s family by giving them positive reinforcement,” Woolf said.

Societal influences such as pop culture, the entertainment industry, fashion and advertising give young men and women a false understanding of the purpose of sex, he said.

Pornography plays a big role in human trafficking by creating the demand for sex among men, which causes them to seek out the victims, he said.

“One in 10 men will purchase sex at some point in their life,” Woolf said.

He said the church can play a key role in battling this growing problem by training and educating its communities, collaborating with ministries and groups, and implementing victim services and prevention programs.

One successful partnership between the church and police took place a few years ago in the Culmore area of Fairfax County. The Hispanic gang MS-13 used violence, rape and murder to instill fear in the neighborhood.

The police held joint community meetings with clergy from St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church. By gaining the trust of the community, the police were able to gain some key information that eventually led to the arrest of 13 gang members.

“We made the community safer,” Woolf said.

“Detective Woolf alerted us to a grave social evil that does untold damage to young women and families,” said Father Paul D. Scalia, the bishop’s delegate for clergy. “But he also revealed how the culture’s departure from the truth about human sexuality enables this societal ill. The sexual license that most people call a matter of ‘private morality’ contributes to the atmosphere in which these crimes are committed. So when priests proclaim the truth about marriage and the family, they articulate what is sane and healthy not only for individuals but for societies.”

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