Updated July 31 at 10:04 am MT: A spokesperson for the Walk Free Foundation has responded to this article, telling CNA: "We welcome any religious initiative dedicated to ending modern slavery. While Bishop Sanchez has stepped down from the Board, the Global Freedom Network (GFN) and its initiatives remain in place. At absolutely no point in time was this a business initiative and Walk Free Foundation provided the seed funding to the GFN, which in its first year was over 1million Euros."
Faithful to its commitment against human trafficking, the Holy See has left the board of an initiative it helped to found, as questions have been raised around both its effectiveness and its chairman's possible use of the Pope to raise funds.
Together with Anglican and Muslim leaders, the Vatican launched the Global Freedom Network in March 2014, hoping to eradicate human trafficking by 2020.
But it has been noticed in recent days that the Global Freedom Network's representative from the Holy See, Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, had left the group's executive board.
A July 27 program of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) drew attention to Archbishop Sánchez' resignation from the initiative. The program focused on Andrew Forrest, the Australian billionaire businessman and philanthropist who chairs the network.
Archbishop Sánchez, who is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, confirmed the news July 29 and said, “the Holy See does not want to be instrumentalized. A businessman has every right to make revenues, but not by exploiting the Pope.”
The archbishop did not go into detail, but his decision to leave Forrest's organization was made some time ago, and without fanfare. Accessing Global Freedom Network's website through “Wayback Machine,” an internet archive, reveals that Archbishop Sánchez was listed on its board on Feb. 15, but had left by May 1.
Forrest has dedicated much of his charitable work to combat human trafficking, and set up the Walk Free Foundation to this end in 2010. CNA has previously reported the Walk Free Foundation's goals as including securing government endorsements of the Global Fund to End Slavery and business' commitments to eliminate slavery from their supply chains.
However, the approach of his Global Freedom Network and the Walk Free Foundation has been criticized by experts in the field. Anne Gallagher, a human trafficking expert at the United Nations, told ABC that “the trouble with the approach of Walk Free and of the Global Slavery Index is that it assumes this problem can be fixed by pushing governments, by getting a lot of young people to sign up to petitions that go to corporations.”
Besides the criticism regarding how his charities fight human trafficking, Forrest may have fallen out of the Vatican's good favor for reasons linked to financial difficulties.
As Archbishop Sánchez did not give details about why the Vatican has left the board of the Global Freedom Network, his mention of “exploitation” of the Pope can lead one to surmise a misuse of the Holy See's involvement to help fund raise for Forrest's charitable efforts.
The ABC program also discussed the financial loss Forrest’s charities have had to face. According to ABC, “the Minderoo Foundation, the umbrella body for Andrew Forrest's charities, has watched its wealth fall by around $50 million — representing around 50 percent of its total investments — over the past 12 months.”
The charity is linked to Forrest's Fortescue Metals Group (FMG): some 40 percent of the charity's investments are in the form of shares in the company. With the fall in iron ore's price, FMG's share price has fallen too, and the charity’s value has fallen in its turn, from about $103 million one year ago to $53 million today.
According to ABC “about half the fall is a direct result of the declining value of Fortescue's shares.”
A source who works in the Vatican told CNA July 30 that given the fall in the charity's value, “it is likely that Forrest had used the name of the Pope to convince donors to replace what was lost and to invest in his initiatives.”
The Global Freedom Network's homepage currently features two prominent images of Pope Francis. Near the top of the page is a video of the Pope and other religious leaders signing its Declaration Against Slavery on Dec. 2, 2014. Below the video is found a series of tweets, the most prominent of which are one from Pope Francis, and one which includes a photo of him at the December event.
The Global Freedom Network has been lauded by such prominent figures as the Clintons, Bill Gates, Bono, and Tony Blair, but while speaking with ABC, the UN expert Anne Gallagher added, “we have someone who’s got a lot of money, who’s got access to global power, who can actually do things, but while his understanding of the problem is so basic, so unsophisticated, that power, that money is not being used how it should be.”
Janie Chuang, who teaches at Washington College of Law, commented during the ABC program that “it's frustrating to see the rise of this organization that seems not to know what it's doing, yet captures media headlines left and right with its grandiose claims.”
CNA has reported the Global Freedom Network's work as including mobilizing faith communities, examining business supply chains to ensure ethical products, more care for victims and survivors of slavery, legal reforms and better enforcement, and more education about the crimes.
The publicity surrounding the Vatican's decision to leave the Global Freedom Network comes as the World Day against Trafficking in Persons is celebrated. The event was observed at the Vatican last year with a conference co-hosted by the Global Freedom Network and the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences.
While the Holy See has ended its relationship with Forrest's organization, it remains committed to ending human trafficking, which has been a priority for Jorge Bergoglio since he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he established an annual Mass for its victims. The International Labour Organization estimates that nearly 21 million persons are victims of forced labor worldwide.
At his first address to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, in December 2013, Pope Francis said it is a disgrace that persons “are treated as objects, deceived, assaulted, often sold many times for different purposes.”
In November 2014 the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences held a workshop on ‘Trafficking in Human Beings: Modern Slavery,” which resulted in proposals for media, religious institutions, civil organizations, and the business sector to work together in order to combat human trafficking.
This was followed by an April conference on the trafficking of children, co-hosted by the pontifical academy and by Sweden's embassy to the Holy See.
And earlier this month, Archbishop Sánchez chaired a meeting of worldwide mayors to examine the link between human trafficking and climate change.
Archbishop Sánchez told CNA last year that Pope Francis had personally emphasized that his pontifical academy should focus on the issue of human trafficking.