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Catholic Vancouver Jan. 23, 2019

Sex with minors sting a ‘wake-up call’: anti-trafficking group

By Agnieszka Ruck

VPD Deputy Chief Laurence Rankin announces the arrest of 47 men seeking to pay underage girls for sex in 2018. Those charged include a school teacher, a school trustee, and a firefighter. (Agnieszka Ruck photo)

Editor's note: story updated Jan. 24.

The Vancouver Police Department’s arrest of dozens of men for trying to pay minors for sex is a wake-up call for Vancouver families, schools, and communities, says Sister Nancy Brown.

Vancouver Police Wednesday announced the arrest of 47 men for trying to pay minors for sex in 2018. Seven have been charged so far, including a school teacher, a school trustee, and a firefighter. Among them, according to some media reports, was a former Little Flower Academy teacher, though police did not confirm this by press time.

“We’re very encouraged that our police unit is starting to diligently look at underage girls (in the sex industry),” Sister Brown told The B.C. Catholic.

But, she added, “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Sister Brown spent 20 years serving homeless youths aged 16-24 through Covenant House, a charity that offers housing, addiction counselling, and other services. She said there are many abused youths, including 19-year-olds who have aged out of the foster care system, who are vulnerable to sex traffickers. “This is happening in our city.”

The news was timely for Catholics; only six days before the arrests were announced, the Vatican released guidelines on the Church’s response to human trafficking. The lengthy document supported the mindset of going after buyers and exploiters, rather than often-victimized adults and minors.

“People who generate the demand share real responsibility for the destructive impact of their behaviour on other human persons, and for the moral values violated in the process,” it states. “The buying of so-called sexual services, in all forms … is a serious offence against human dignity and human integrity.”

Evelyn Vollet, a member of the archdiocese’s Anti-Human-Trafficking Committee, has been waiting for arrests like these and has been raising awareness of the issue since 2013.

Sister Nancy Brown (centre) and Evelyn Vollet (right) say the arrest of 47 men for trying to pay minors for sex is welcome but only the first step. With them is Sandra Harrison, a citizen concerned about the trafficking issue. (Agnieszka Ruck photo)

The arrests are “a huge opportunity for us to speak to people of faith in the diocese and all people of good will. People really need to take an interest in this grave issue. These were young girls (that the police officers) were posing as, but we know it’s much greater. We know it’s rampant in the Indigenous community. We know it’s rampant in the Asian community.”

Vollet and Sister Brown say that while Wednesday’s news was encouraging, they hope to see Vancouver police do more to target buyers of sex.

Under current Canadian law, it is illegal to buy sex from anyone, anytime, not just from minors under age 18. Since the law was introduced in 2014, the Anti-Human-Trafficking Committee and others have been calling on the Vancouver police department to enforce it.

So far, the police force has only announced efforts targeting men who prey on underage girls.

Sister Brown hopes police will go after all buyers, but for now, the news is good news. “This is the beginning, and this is huge, but we need to continue to work hard,” said Sister Brown.

“These 15- to 17-year-olds are going to grow up and become adults. If they are deterred at a younger age, it eliminates the harm that comes to them.”

The covert police operation began with officers posing as 15, 16, or 17-year-old girls in escort chat rooms and on social media. They then communicated with interested buyers by text message, made them aware of their age, and confirmed the sexual act and fee before giving any interested buyer the address to a hotel. When the man arrived, he was met with a contingent of police officers.

“This criminal activity concerns police immensely,” Deputy Chief Constable Laurence Rankin told media Jan. 23. “I have huge issues with johns and pimps getting gratification or financial benefit of the exploitation of young people in our city.”

He added there were many more potential buyers responding to the police decoy ads than his investigators had time for, and had to turn some away.

“Given the success that we have had, we anticipate that we will continue this type of project,” he said. However, he mentioned these sting operations were “not about the sex trade in general” or about “sexual relations between consenting adults.”

The men his team arrested were a from a wide variety of ethnicities, education levels, and careers.

The Anti-Human-Trafficking Committee has partners across the province and the country, including 10 other Catholic dioceses, trying to inform their members about the relatively new law criminalizing johns.

“I refuse to say, ‘purchasers of sex,’” said Sister Brown. “It’s not sex. It’s exploitation.”

She also hopes parents and communities stay aware of what their children do online.

Related: read a recent opinion piece by Sister Nancy Brown on Canadas current prostitution law here.