Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Combating Modern Slavery: Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald

There was a rare treat for Hull last Wednesday evening when one of Britain’s most senior Catholic clergymen was in town to give the prestigious Wilberforce Lecture in this the 200th anniversary year of the abolition of the slave trade.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Apostolic Delegate to Cairo and the Arab League (formally President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue under Pope John Paul II), celebrated Mass at St Charles Borromeo before giving the lecture on “Combating Modern Slavery” in the Guildhall.

The senior Brtish cleric was the centre of attention in March last year after Pope Benedict to sent Archbishop Fitzgerald out to Eygpt. The move was seen by many as a "demotion", signalling a change in the Vatican's approach to dialogue with Muslims in particular. But others think the archbishop was simply too liberal to be involved in the Pontificate of the German pontiff.

During the celebration of the Mass, he signed the “Join the fight for freedom” petition, calling on governments and international bodies to work to end slavery for all time.

In his address to hundreds of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the archbishop paid tribute to the determination of William Wilberforce (Hull’s most famous son) in leading the campaign against the slave trade in parliament.

“Results were long in coming but Wilberforce persevered perhaps endowed with Yorkshire stubbiness,” he said.

He went on to describe in some detail the state of modern day slavery in its various forms and suggested ways of addressing the tragic situation.

“In today’s world slavery still exists in its classical form,” he said. “It is set to remain an accepted way of life in places such as northern Nigeria and Sudan.

“But there are also many other forms of slavery and I am sure that William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson had they been alive today would be campaigning against these forms of modern slavery.”

He highlighted the tragedy of trafficking for slave labour and sex transportation from Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia.

A UN report says trafficking is taking place in 137 countries. The archbishop quoted figures of between 600,000 and 800,000 trafficked internationally across boarders each year.

Focusing particularly on the transportation of women for prostitution, he said we needed to change attitudes towards sex to curb the “oldest profession in the world”.

“We need to reduce the demand of sexual services. What is required here is good sex education for the young which impacts on the spirit that marriage gives rather than passing on information about safe sex,” Archbishop Michael said.

“It [prostitution] is not going to be stamped out but it can be discouraged through a more positive approach to sex education.”

Afterwards, we went into a posh reception room where I found myself busy conducting several shortish interviews.

The most fascinating of these was with Father Gerard Wilberforce, a Catholic priest in Exeter, whose great great grandfather is the man himself. He told me that some of Wilberforce’s sons became Catholics, and the family has been mostly Catholic ever since.

I briefly interviewed the Archbishop after his address at the Guildhall but didn’t get much out of him as he was quite tired and only really wanted to answer a few questions.

There were lots of people there I knew and I responded enthusiastically to two or three shouts of, “Oy, Marsden, I’ve got a story for you!” Always a welcome thing to hear.

For a more comprehensive account of the evening and related matters, read the Catholic Times and Universe this week and next.

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