BY Daniel Harkins | February 8 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


British ambassador to Holy See praises Church’s moral leadership

Religious Sisters are filling a gap left by nations states in combating modern slavery, the British ambassador to the Holy See said as she praised the Church’s moral leadership ahead of a world day of prayer for the victims of human trafficking.

Sally Axworthy, the UK Government’s representative to the Vatican, said religious congregations are often ‘the ones on the front lines working with victims, responding to need where they see it.’

“They are often the people who see the victims first and are the first response in many parts of the world,” the Rome-based senior diplomat said. “In Italy for instance there are lots of people trafficked from Nigeria and the sisters here are Nigerian so they understand the trafficking routes better than would otherwise be possible.”

She added: “The victims are often more comfortable approaching religious Sisters than they are approaching law enforcement. They have greater trust in them so they are more likely to come forward to religious Sisters. I have seen that in Italy—I visited a convent who are looking after Nigerian girls who had been trafficked and it was impressive.”

She said the British Government recognised the ‘important role’ of the Church in combating modern slavery and violence against women. She said the government is funding training schemes involving religious women leaders in Cameroon and Burkina Faso and that the role of the UK and the Church in combating the problem is ‘complimentary.’

“We’ve been working with one White Father who works in the DRC and we funded training and they got together with a network of Sisters in the region,” she said. “They planned pastoral training and we added in training on gathering evidence to allow prosecution. So they did the pastoral work and we added in the international legal framework to allow victims to get justice. So you can see the synergy there.”

The UK government has also been supporting the work of the Santa Marta group, an initiative of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales which networks with police and law enforcement agencies to look at how they can work with the Church to help victims of modern slavery.



In June, the SCO revealed that Bishop Brian McGee of Argyll and the Isles had met with Scotland’s Justice Minister and Police Scotland as part of the Church’s efforts to combat trafficking. On Friday February 8, Bishop McGee will celebrate a Mass in St Margaret’s, Lochgilphead and pray for an end to modern slavery.

Speaking ahead of the Mass, Bishop McGee said: “I have attended two Santa Marta Conferences in Rome which has been very enlightening and inspiring. The majority of those being trafficked come from poor countries where the police are often corrupt and brutal. In response, across the globe local Churches encourage the law enforcement agencies to change their ethos and approach and this has borne positive results.

“Even here in Scotland those trafficked from abroad and desperately seeking to escape, will sometimes choose to seek sanctuary in churches rather than with the police. The Church then builds up the victim’s confidence in our police. Indeed throughout Britain several police forces recognise the trust that such people place in the Church and so it is not uncommon for rescued vulnerable women to be entrusted with female Religious.”


Press coverage

Mrs Axworthy (above) has been British Ambassador to the Holy See since 2016. Though not a Catholic, she said she has witnessed the great contribution of the Church to society since taking on the role.

“I am not a Catholic so this job is a learning curve for me,” she said, adding that while ‘most of things you read in British press’ about the Church are ‘around clerical sexual abuse or financial scandals,’ there is a huge amount of good that often goes unnoticed.

“There needs to be a bit more balance in press coverage of the Catholic Church,” she said.

“Many things the Catholic Church does are unique but there is often not a press angle and it’s the nature of the organisation that people don’t want to blow their own trumpet.”

She said that the Church could help broker peace around the world. “The Church in some countries represents a relatively stable institution in situations of instability, and through that and its moral leadership it can help find ways to resolve conflict,” she said.

“We did quite a bit of work on South Sudan which is a dangerous place for NGOs to operate, but the Church is there often because the religious orders are South Sudanese so they stay when perhaps others go.”

The diplomat added that while the UK government disagrees with the Church on some issues, they try to always discuss issues, citing UK nuclear policy—the UK opposes unilateral disarmament—as an issue on which the two disagree but have had discussions over. And she said the government recognises the powerful voice the Pope has on moral issues.

“We talk a lot about soft power [in diplomacy] and the Vatican is the ultimate soft power. It has three billion Catholics worldwide and 670,000 religious Sisters—it’s a unique global organisation that ­exercises moral leadership so it’s important for us to have a relationship,” she said. “The Pope’s role is almost unique in that he is a global moral voice and has enormous influence throughout the world.”

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