‘Sound of Freedom’ Offers Opportunity to Highlight a Catholic Approach to Helping Victims of Sex Trafficking Heal From Trauma

Two priests and an adviser to the United Nations have been fighting this scourge for decades.

(L-R) Movie poster of 'Sound of Freedom. Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, a former critical-care nurse and a special adviser to the ambassador on human trafficking for the Order of Malta’s Mission to the United Nations, surrounded by her team and religious sisters that play a key role in helping children overcome trauma.
(L-R) Movie poster of 'Sound of Freedom. Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, a former critical-care nurse and a special adviser to the ambassador on human trafficking for the Order of Malta’s Mission to the United Nations, surrounded by her team and religious sisters that play a key role in helping children overcome trauma. (photo: Courtesy photo)

The horrors of human trafficking are dramatized in the box-office hit movie Sound of Freedom about a real-life story of saving children trapped in sex trafficking. Two Catholic priests and an adviser to the United Nations who have been fighting this scourge for decades spoke with the Register about the movie and explained a Catholic approach for healing victims. 

“From the moment the movie started to the end, my stomach was in knots,” said Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, a former critical-care nurse and a special adviser to the ambassador on human trafficking for the Order of Malta’s Mission to the United Nations. “It was gut-wrenching and powerful.”

Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski poses with some of her colleagues after training sessions.
Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski poses with some of her colleagues after training sessions.

O’Hara Rusckowski co-founded Global Strategic Operatives for the Eradication of Human Trafficking (GSO) in 2018; the entity conducts training for health care and other front-line entities, such as airlines and the service industry, on how to identify survivors and take appropriate actions. It concentrates on the health sector, based on evidence that an estimated 88% of victims seek medical care while being trafficked. GSO thus created a pilot project in six large health care systems in six U.S. cities and five internationally — in India, the U.K., Italy, Ethiopia and Nigeria — to institute programs through entire hospital networks while simultaneously establishing relationships with local shelters, law enforcement and Homeland Security agents.  

“On average it takes seven visits to a medical facility until the victim is ready to be rescued and get help,” she said. There’s a myriad of reasons that delay this help, she explained, such as the fear that can come from a trafficker being in the waiting room or a threat of harm to one’s family for leaving. O’Hara-Ruskowski witnessed a situation where women were intentionally impregnated so that escaping would mean leaving their babies behind. 

“It’s pure evil,” she said. 

According to O’Hara-Ruskowski, the Sound of Freedom’s dramatization of former Homeland Security Special Agent Tim Ballard rescuing kidnapped children reflects an international problem. 

“In the U.S. there’s more likely to be grooming,” she said. “With girls, it’s a fake romance. He says, ‘I love you and I want to marry you, but we need more money.’ He is able to get her under control and manipulate her, which can lead to the Stockholm syndrome, where victims fall in love with their traffickers.”

For boys, O’Hara-Rusckowski explained that there is a lot of luring through video games. She noted that the isolation at the height of COVID was especially conducive to this, when kids were lonely from not seeing their friends. The perpetrator pretends to be a teenager and wants to meet up, but then the boys are taken into a van and not seen again, she explained.

The United States is one of the top destinations for victims of child trafficking. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in the U.S., more than 350,000 children go missing each year, with an estimated 100,000 being trafficked. Stranger abductions account for 4,000 to 20,000 missing children. Many are never reported, so there is no way to get specific numbers. 

 


Desperate Need for Safe Houses

O’Hara-Ruskowski explained that when the health care training is done well, the numbers of rescued victims go up, but so too does the need for safe houses. “There are only around 700 beds available in the U.S.,” O’Hara-Rusckowski said. “It’s important not to put them into a typical homeless shelter where their trafficker will find them and lure them back. It’s critical for homes with proper treatment to restore their dignity and keep them safe from their perpetrator.” 

O’Hara-Ruskowski is currently working in the Archdiocese of Boston to convert a Catholic rectory, with 15 bedrooms and bathrooms that is no longer needed for church purposes, into a safe house. Creating places for victims has become a mission she is partnering on with the Order of Malta, a lay religious order of the Church begun in 1113 and active in 120 countries, that has permanent observer status at the United Nations. Its mission is caring for forgotten or excluded members of society. O’Hara-Ruskowski, who is a member, is coordinating with the order on an important meeting in Rome to propose creating treatment homes from Church properties no longer needed and to adopt a unique Catholic approach to recovery. The model example is Metanoia Manor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, using a proven “sister-care model,” where religious sisters from other countries help care for victims. Catholic teaching is followed, which means no abortions and no contraception.

“Victim survivors need to abstain from sexual activity for their healing,” she said. “Abortion is often a big issue. We will not participate in taking them to another abortion. Forced abortion is part of the trafficker’s tool kit.”

“The sister-care model is the secret sauce to success,” she said. “These sisters are trained and offer a loving presence like mothers. The Catholic Church has this great opportunity. If every diocese gives a home for this, that would be a big dent in helping people go from victim to survivor.”

 


Metanoia Manor’s Proven Model

Father Jeff Bayhi, a priest of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the founder of Metanoia Manor, a residential facility for girls. He promotes a Catholic approach to healing victims of sex trafficking.

Father Bayhi described the movie Sound of Freedom as “very well done,” but what he sees firsthand is that the majority of victims are groomed and trapped by boyfriends or social media and, shockingly, even family members. 

“A misconception people might get is that you have to be a trained professional to rescue someone,” he said. “Rescue operations on a daily basis are by ordinary people noticing things that are not right. We need to be aware of and acknowledge what exists right under our nose and then have the courage to fight it.”

His own fight has included founding Metanoia Manor; soon, a second home will open. “This was a God thing,” Father Bayhi recalled. “In 2015, I was doing priest continuing education in England, and I received a card from the papal household inviting me on Feb. 9 to the morning Mass celebrated with Pope Francis.”

While at the papal Mass, Father Bayhi saw his friend Sister Eugenio Bonetti, an Italian nun who has waged war against sex trafficking for decades. He shared with her that as a young priest he had published a book of sermons and had set up a tax-free corporation called Metanoia, with an eye on setting up a retreat center but that didn’t work out. His fundraising, however, had accumulated $1.6 million through books and producing CDs of music with five-time Grammy-winner Aaron Neville. (The CD is still available. 100% of proceeds go to Metanoia.)

Sister Eugenio encouraged him to open a home for adolescent girls. Father Bayhi had previously worked in Third World countries and shelters fighting human trafficking. “Once you sit down with a 15-year-old, raped 3,000 times, who was trying to buy her freedom, you don’t walk away from that,” he shared. Father Bayhi told Sister Eugenio, “I’m not doing this without religious women.” 

Sister Eugenio committed five sisters from the Italian order of The Hospitaller Sisters of Mercy to work at Metanoia Manor, which opened in 2018 and is named after a Greek word that means “change of heart.” It is a 16-bedroom estate in a safe location, licensed in Louisiana to serve biologically born girls ages 0-18. Because they don’t accept biological males identifying as girls, they are denied federal money. The average age is 13. Metanoia also accepts pregnant girls, which many shelters do not, thereby often leading girls to abortions to get a bed at a shelter home. Metanoia has served 85 young women in the last five years. Donations are crucial since it takes a half-million-dollar budget to run Metanoia.

'The sister-care model is the secret sauce to success...'
'The sister-care model is the secret sauce to success...'

Besides the sisters, Metanoia has a staff of therapists, educators and a program director. There is therapy for trauma and addictions, and they participate in equine therapy. All children have education requirements and learn life skills, including: cooking, cleaning and hygiene — the things that mothers and fathers teach. The sisters are the house mothers and house directors and provide a loving presence. “The national average of stay for shelter employees is less than six months,” Father Bayhi said. “Our sisters have been here five years and are still going strong.”

 


Other Support

Father Bayhi, 70, a priest of 44 years, will work full-time helping victims of sex trafficking when he retires from parish work in September. Father Chuck Swanson, 83, a retired priest from Omaha, Nebraska — who has served the Church 57 years as a priest — is the house chaplain and has worked with Father Bayhi since the beginning. 

The two priests have brought in religious sisters from Nigeria, the Philippines and India to support this work. Local bishops give permission and parishes agree to accept them and offer support for the sisters, who currently work in shelters in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Colorado and Massachusetts. The Order of Malta has helped finance their transportation, training and legal work for immigration at a cost of $7,500 per sister. 

In 2021, they brought in 24 nuns from Nigeria. Father Swanson was in charge of the eight-day training with a one-month internship. The sisters went to Boston, Pittsburgh, Houston, Denver and Jacksonville to serve disenfranchised women who have been traumatized, many in human trafficking. “We would love American orders for this work but have not found any yet,” Father Bayhi said.

When asked about successes, Father Bayhi said, “Some might see success as going off to college. We see success as a girl no longer sleeping in a closet, not afraid anymore; learning how to take care of themselves and hygiene. So many haven’t been to doctors and dentists.”

“Their trauma is very deep,” he explained. “For example, they can be having a birthday party and having a good time, then in the corner is one of the girls in the fetal position because something happened at the party, and she reacted that way. Flashbacks and triggers can shut them down or send them into a tailspin. We had a girl that came out of a gang out East. She was tough. But she shows up with her pacifier, a teddy bear and a baby bottle that she drank her water from.”

Metanoia receives placements from hospitals in New Orleans, the Office of Juvenile Justice or through the FBI. Father Bayhi said that around 30% of the residents are runaways, usually from an abusive family situation where often a parent, grandparent or other caretaker did the trafficking. Out of the 85 children served, 82 were U.S.-born, with 78 from Louisiana, and only one resulted in family reunification. 

Father Swanson said that education is part of his mission. He has been in contact with the U.S> bishops about it. “A large part of education is to inform priests and bishops,” he said. “If you have the internet in your town, you have human trafficking.”

Father Swanson desires for priests to take this on the fight to combat trafficking. “By getting to priests talk about it at the pulpit, you have no idea how many people will come forward,” he said. “There’s a need for them to get educated and to get the face of the Church involved in this scourge on humanity. We are hoping to increase realization that it’s not just foreigners — it’s local. This isn’t some political issue; it’s one of human dignity. Fighting it is a response to the Lord, ‘When did we see you hungry and naked?’ In this post-Dobbs world, caring for all of God’s children is very important.”  

HOW YOU CAN HELP

To make a donation go to: Metanoia-inc.org 

Father Bayhi can be contacted at: [email protected]

Deb O’Hara Ruskowski can be reached at: [email protected]

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