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EDITOR:
Steve Van Nattan

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PRIESTS AND PROSTITUTES STIR UP DEBATE

ROME LETTER from Paddy Agnew
The Irish Times


One of the most curious aspects of rural Lazio life concerns the sudden, unexpected vision of young, coloured women standing at the side of a lonely country road, seemingly miles from anywhere.

The women in question tend to be scantily clad and do not appear intent on a day's birdwatching or mushroom-picking.

My part of rural Lazio is only 40 minutes from central Rome and, inevitably, city life spills out into the country in the shape prostitution. You drive past these women and wince.

You know their story, their hardships and the mixture of deceit, criminality, slavery and misery which underpins their hapless status.

Just in case we had forgotten about these - mainly African and East European - immigrant prostitutes, two things happened last week to remind us. The first occurred in Rome and went almost unnoticed, while the second broke in Genoa and, for a day or two, became nationwide news.

Last Tuesday, eight Romanian men and one Ukrainian woman were arrested in Rome, charged with having organised a prostitution ring. Nine apartments, several large cars, numerous mobile phones and about £11,000 in cash were also sequestered in the police operation which started in August. Police believe that in 10 months of "business", this Romanian-run prostitution ring had realised more than £1.2 million pounds.

The young women involved, aged between 17 and 27, are lured to Italy with the promise of a regular, legal job such as a babysitter or an au pair and for a price between $500 and $700 dollars, the women buy themselves a trip to Rome. The "package trip" often includes false passports and false entrance papers. Once in Rome, their documents - legal and illegal - are taken from them by their "work organisers" who assure them that they want the documents for safe-keeping.

Then the nightmare begins. The women are kept under virtual house arrest, they are denied all freedom of movement and are only allowed out to walk the streets.

At around half-past-nine each evening, their keepers arrive to drive them to the selected "work site". At six next morning, the keepers return and transport the women to their apartments.

Each woman must hand over the night's takings, which must come to at least $250. In the case of this Romanian ring, all the women were strip-searched nightly (the Ukrainian woman served to this end) to ensure that they were not hiding money, while a condom count was taken to double check on each woman's takings. (All the women were provided with a limited number of condoms.)

Those women who attempted to escape, to hide money, to hide condoms or, indeed, to fight their way out of their situation, met with summary, often violent treatment. At the same time as the police in Rome were arresting the Romanians, a Genoan priest, Father Don Andrea Gallo, found himself at the centre of nationwide controversy because of his admission that, in the past, he had helped Albanian prostitutes seek abortions. Fr Gallo is well-known in the Genoa area, with a long involvement in outreach programmes. He founded a drugs rehabilitation centre and sponsors a night-bus which distributes needles, condoms and drinks to the city's drug-addicts, prostitutes and down-and-outs.

Father Gallo said he had tried to persuade the young women not to terminate their unwanted pregnancies but that when some of them insisted, rather than abandon them, he had referred them to reliable local doctors:

"What should I have done, left them to go to back-alley abortionists, or wait for their pimps to do the job?" he told reporters.

Inevitably, Father Gallo's action has not met with Church approval. A spokesman for the Genoa diocese described Father Gallo's actions as "unacceptable", adding that it was "immoral, regardless of the circumstances, to help someone commit evil". Avennire, the daily run by the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI), reminded the faithful that abortion is an "abominable sin".

Father Oreste Benzi, who has campaigned to save prostitutes from what he calls their "slave-like conditions" and who runs a home for ex-prostitutes in the Rimini area, was also critical of Father Gallo, arguing that by helping them have abortions, he was only ensuring them a speedy return to prostitution. The Mayor of Genoa, Giuseppe Pericu, however, took Father Gallo's side, admitting candidly that Father Gallo, and voluntary workers alongside him, often filled in where local authorities missed out. The vision of young, coloured women on the Lazio roadside, the Romanian prostitution ring and Father Gallo are all expressions of a fast-changing Italian landscape which continues to throw up complex problems for which perhaps neither Church nor State has a wholly satisfactory solution.

 

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