Italian priest Don Cesare Lo Deserto managed the Regina Pacis (Queen of Peace) immigrant shelter until he was arrested on 11 March this year. I visited the centre a month before he was arrested, jailed and charged for various offences, including sequestering persons, abusing disciplinary methods and making false accusation. The priest is also under investigation for the embezzlement of funds.
Among the witnesses against him are female trafficking victims who allege that he slapped them, confiscated their travel documents and kept them in the centre when they wanted to go out. The priest wept when he was arrested. In court, he admitted that he had at times behaved ‘like a strict father’ to women in the shelter.
Since his arrest, messages of support have arrived at Regina Pacis from ‘friends in Moldova’ lauding the Don’s work with the poor. The Vatican radio network has expressed its admiration for his work. One immigrant said someone had tried to bribe her to give evidence against him. Others have criticised his work at the centre, particularly in relation to the treatment of asylum seekers who have been detained in the centre in the past. The charges against Don Cesare are serious, and after some weeks in prison, he is now under house arrest as the investigation and prosecution continues.
There are many trafficked women’s shelters in Italy, such as Regina Pacis, which is a seven hour train ride south from Rome, plus thirty minutes drive into the countryside.
Dogs barked welcome as I arrived at the centre’s concrete buildings on 16 February. It was cold and drizzling and the place was surrounded by steel fences. Sixty-four Italian police in red and navy uniforms guarded the place in rotating shifts of thirty-two. The centre was a celebration of grey linoleum. I joined the staff for dinner. The plates and cutlery were plastic (any funds that may have been embezzled had clearly not been spent on furnishing).
After dinner, I interviewed Don Cesare. He was tall and solidly built, in a black turtle neck and trousers. About fifty, he was balding, with a slight moustache and glasses. As he spoke he tilted his head down towards me, pursed his lips and paused for emphasis. He said the centre created a feeling of family for the women; that the women hid their fear behind beautiful smiles; and that to rescue a prostitute from the street was easy, but to make her a woman, a mother, a wife, was hard. I asked if the centre surveyed the sheltered women about their views of the shelter. He said, with some impatience, ‘Yes, Yes, We’ve done all that, now we’re looking at new ways to prevent trafficking.’
There were around fifty trafficking victims at the centre. They usually stayed for three to six months, but there was no time limit. Success was ‘not measured by the time of the stay, but by the progress of the woman’. Don Cesare said nothing he could say about the centre was as important as what the women could tell me.
I was permitted to walk freely through the centre and speak to people there. I spoke to two Eastern European women, Christina and Samantha. They were both gapingly gorgeous. They walked together, shoulders touching, sharing a walkman, one earphone each. Christina said she liked the centre. It was the first time she felt like part of a family. She was grateful to Don Cesare for giving her a hand. ‘He respects us,’ she said.
Samantha grew up on a farm in Romania, suffering beatings from her violent father. After finishing high school, her father would not let her leave the house, but sometimes she snuck out and saw a man in her local village who said he could arrange a passport and a job in Italy picking oranges. She ran away from home and he arranged her trip to Italy where she was to meet his friend. When she arrived in Italy, the friend said she had to do prostitution or he would hurt her mother and sister and that he knew where they lived. She had been sold into prostitution and was placed in an apartment and advertised in the paper, with a phone number for men to call for appointments.
You can buy booklets at newspaper stands in Italy that show photos of barely clad women in various poses: one leg up on a stool; a woman with her head tilted back and her fingers holding back her hair; a woman with her back to the camera, leaning over, weight on one hip, showing her buttocks. Beside the photos are statements like ‘Russian woman waits for you in Porto Sant’Elipido. Not on Sundays’, ‘Novelty, absolutely for the first time in a sweet and beautiful place’ and ‘Hot, sensual, magical girl waits for you at Villa Rosa’. Next to the photographs are phone numbers to call.
The phone rang all the time and men of every age and type came to have sex with her. They paid 60 to 100 euros. All the money went to the Albanian man. She did not trust any of the ‘customers’ enough to ask them for help. After three weeks, Samantha was able to run away, find Italian police and ask for help. The Albanian man and his girlfriend were arrested, Samantha gave evidence against them in court and they went to jail.
Since her escape, Samantha has worked in a restaurant near the centre. She sent her first pay to her mother and sister, who then ran away from her father. She hoped they would be able to come to Italy. She liked it at Regina Pacis.
I spoke with Natalia, who was small and pretty. She was twenty-two, but looked thirty. She spoke quietly and kept her head down. Natalia came to Italy for the first time in 2002 with her then boyfriend. When they arrived, her boyfriend forced her into street prostitution. He said he would hurt her family in Albania unless she complied. He was violent to her and kept all the money she earned. After a few months, the police arrested her because she did not have a visa. Afraid they would tell her family she was a prostitute, she did not ask for help. She was deported back to Albania.
Then followed a cycle of trafficking, deportation and re-trafficking. Four times she was deported to Albania and each time she was re-trafficked to Italy by her boyfriend. The last time, she was arrested passing the Italian border and sent to jail in Italy for disobeying an expulsion order.
After five months in prison, Natalia told the Don about what her boyfriend had done. He was the first person she trusted enough to tell the truth about being trafficked into prostitution.
As I left the centre, a skinny teenage woman kicked a soccer ball around with two policemen. Someone drove me to the station and as we left, a dog stood in the way of the car, barking and trying not to let us leave. The dog was as loyal to the place as the staff, many of whom had worked there for several years and said that Lo Deserto had ‘a computer in his mind’ and described him as ‘a leader who knows where he’s going’.
The Italian government estimates there are 25 000 to 30 000 trafficking victims in Italy. In the 1990s, organised criminals started to traffic Eastern European and Nigerian women to Italy for exploitation in prostitution. Since then, thousands of trafficked women have been prostituted on Italian streets and in private apartments. Traffickers pressure and coerce their victims in Italy to have sex with up to twenty or thirty men a night.
Italy’s social support and visa rights for trafficking victims are the most generous in the world and it has prosecuted more trafficking crimes than any other country. The Italian Government has co-funded more than 289 anti-trafficking projects, including Regina Pacis, which shelters migrant victims of exploitation. The centre’s work was also funded by the Catholic church and private donors. A 2002 Anti-Slavery International report recommended the Italian government introduce public monitoring and evaluation of anti-trafficking programs; this has not occurred.
The fields of prostitution and migration are moral and political minefields. Heroes and villains can change places rapidly. When I visited Lecce, the Don answered all my questions. He appeared to have plenty of passion and a vow of poverty. Perhaps he was alarmingly gung ho, but the women I spoke to had no complaints about him. Following his arrest, sixty women from the centre went on a hunger strike, demanding to give evidence in his favour.
Italians wait to hear the court’s verdict as the trial of the Priest continues. Pressing questions about this case include how anti-trafficking projects and shelters should be independently monitored. Such monitoring could protect vulnerable victims assisted in shelters, and those who work there.
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