(Crisis Magazine) — At the rise of the moon, shadows will move across bedroom walls at Metanoia Manor like choruses of demons. Screams of children here pierce the silence of the backcountry, where they get smothered by thousands of live oaks that drip silvery-grey moss like Louisiana tinsel.
But this house of unspeakable memories is no House of Usher; it is holy and salvific. Metanoia is a place of resurrection for God’s most bullied children. It is where trauma goes to die and blood-curdling screams in the night are answered by religious sisters sent by God to love His ruthlessly hurt ones.
“Metanoia is no insane asylum,” said Father Jeffrey Bayhi, its founder. “It is a type of hospital of peace, built by God for His hurt angels. It is where girls, at last, learn they are loved for who they are and not for what they do.”
The eleven teenage girls living at Metanoia are escapees of human trafficking. The shelter is one of the very few homes in the United States for victims of sex slavery. It is the only safe house in the country licensed to care for children from birth to 18 years. It is not uncommon for slavery to begin at an age when children still believe in Santa Claus.
The United Nations estimates there are as many as five million slaves in the United States. It is also estimated that more than 60 percent of America’s sex slaves are juveniles trafficked by their own parents or primary caregivers.
“I know of parents who’ve taken their children out of school and into the parking lot,” Fr. Bayhi said, “where a man is waiting for them in a car for sex. A short time later, after the act is performed, the parent brings the child back to class. This is unspeakable, but it is true. This is the face of evil.
You cannot sanitize it. Some will tell you that trafficked children offer sexual favors. No – they don’t; they get raped. Some as many as fifteen times a day. I’m sorry for the candor, but rape is what is happening… Tell me, what’s left in the heart of a little girl who’s been raped by several hundreds of men?
For more than twenty years, Bayhi has stood as a bulwark and rescuer in the dead center of sex slavery. Satan marinates in the wicked stories Bayhi’s been told. Although he knows the depths of evil as well as any person on earth, you wouldn’t know it by his way. He is one of those types who seemed to emerge from the birth canal as a bright Alleluia of Southern allure and hope, pulling folks to him in the manner a sunflower bends toward the sun’s rays.
Over the course of his 69 years, the husky, silver-haired priest has become a colossal presence in Louisiana, as he’s ambled into hundreds of rooms to tell tales that bring tears, laughter, or shame depending on the mood of the evening. Speaking in a drawl that coaxes four syllables out of two-syllable words, he merges a dark-edged Flannery O’Connor wit with a slow-paced mannerliness and easy joy. He’s never used a scrap of paper for his thousands of sermons, favoring instead proclaiming what the Holy Spirit revealed in prayer.
Bayhi enters the rear of restaurants to hug it out and chew the fat with short-order cooks, shuckers, seafood preparers, and dishwashers, each of whom he’s helped in some way in his 44 years as a priest. “Fr. Bayhi is good people,” said a non-Catholic cook at Tony’s Seafood in a hardscrabble section of Baton Rouge. “Been knowing him for 30 years. There’s no other man like him.”
It is that all-important way of his that’s helped him soften the hearts of state legislators, governors, Vatican officials, and worldwide politicians in his crusading work for the trafficked. Pro-abortion legislators, wary of a priest working closely with children, walk into his presence dubious and then step away wringing effervescence from their clothes. He doesn’t barrel through governmental red tape in his work to free sex slaves; he slow walks it, outmaneuvers it, and then scissor-cuts it away.
From his own pocket, he’s helped finance the opening of safe homes in Nigeria and Italy, as well as in Zachary, Louisiana, at his own shelter for the trafficked, Metanoia. In June, Bayhi retired as pastor from St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, in Zachary, and its sister church, Our Lady of the Assumption. In many ways, though, his life has just begun. Smiling, he said,
It is my aim to spend the remainder of my life traveling wherever I can as a priest to educate folks on trafficking and how to open shelters… and I won’t charge a dime to do it. I’ll just ask for some gas money and a place to lay my head.
He draws from his honey-scented pipe and holds the aroma in his mouth for the time it takes to pray a Glory Be. He exhales and poses an urgent question in a slow drawl.
How many more children need to suffer, endure years of slavery, and die before churches, legislatures, federal and state governments, and the public decide to answer the question posed in Matthew 16: ‘Lord, who is my neighbor?’ My God – millions of Americans are buying and selling God’s children. Every single one of us should be on our knees in prayer. Every one of us should be outraged and ask the only question that matters, ‘What is my part to relieve the agony of these children?’
Bayhi’s life changed in 2001 when, on a trip to Rome, he was introduced to an Italian nun, Sr. Eugenia Bonetti, one of the Catholic Church’s first crusaders, rescuers, and rehabilitators of sex slaves. He sat saucer-eyed as the pioneering nun began to tell him stories of horror.
“She broke it wide open. The first girl she introduced me to was a 15-year-old who had been raped three thousand times,” Bayhi said. “I went home to Louisiana as a changed priest. Sr. Eugenia showed me that trafficked children have no voice – no one to speak for them. And I have a big mouth. I figured I could use it.”
With support from Louisiana Democrat pro-life governor John Bel Edwards, Bayhi used the money he saved from his tax-free corporation – which amassed more than $1 million after the success of a musical collaboration called “The Stations of the Cross” he recorded with Louisiana legend Aaron Neville – to open Metanoia Manor in 2017. He spent $1.6 million of his own money to finance the residential facility, which he built in the deep woods of the countryside. The estate provides a homey setting for female victims, supporting them with mental, physical, and spiritual health, as well as instruction in academics, life skills, and job training.
Metanoia has 16 private rooms where adolescents – the average age of a trafficking victim is 13 years old – live and attempt to unshackle from memories as they psychologically work to untangle themselves from the mental stains of their bondage. It is Bayhi’s goal to bring every child to healing, peace, and joy and to send them out with a desire to live an ordered and full life.
Metanoia’s residents are mothered back to health by five Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy from Nigeria, the Philippines, India, and Madagascar. “These sisters are angels,” Bayhi said.
They are the face of Christ to these broken ones. They are mothers, nurturers, and healers – but we also have a first-class program director, therapist, and a teacher. Everyone is involved here. Each of them needs to be heroes and angels for these girls, and each one is. The heroes in today’s Catholic Church in the fight against human trafficking are these women. It’s not the bishops, it’s not the priests. It’s these religious women, the workers here, and those like them.
The five sisters recently sat shoulder-to-shoulder and told horror stories as calmly as if they were smoothing a hem in their habit. The physical monstrosities the girls have endured have caused unnatural patterns of behavior at Metanoia. It is not uncommon for some to sleep in closets, bathtubs, or beneath their beds. A few teens eat beneath dining room tables and suck pacifiers. Some carry teddy bears or dolls close to them throughout the day. Dressers and beds can be overturned and ransacked. Mirrors can be punched through.
Sr. Norma, the local superior who heads Metanoia, recently walked into a bathroom where a resident was attempting to hang herself. “I stopped it, grabbed her, and held her close to me. I let her scream, but I hugged her very tightly and stayed calm. After some time, we went outside and walked. Then she opened up about the pain,” Sr. Norma said.
They’ve been pulled into a world where they’ve experienced little else but evil, so they can begin to hate the world, hate their life, and begin to hate everyone. They’ve experienced a kind of horror few understand, so it’s not surprising some try to take their life.
Exorcists have been brought to Metanoia, where the sisters say oppressions and the presence of the devil can come on like sudden, invisible gasses. In halting and clumsy fashion, the sisters quietly agree that some girls have demonically manifested in their presence. Former and current residents were brought into the occult world. Often, after listening to stories of its unspeakable practices, the sisters will retreat unnoticed to their bedroom, lock the door, and cry.
“You can lose your mind,” Sr. Ruth said. She continued:
I am not a holy person. I say to myself after hearing another nightmare from a girl, ‘My God, what can I do for this anguished child? I am broken, Lord. I beg you, Blessed Mother, help me to help this child.’… and then often, I find my soul becomes filled with words of hope and joy. Then I begin to speak to the pain from the gift God gave me.Hearing the evil inflicted upon the girls has helped me to see the wickedness of humanity. I don’t look at anything the same anymore. If I am in a store and see a young girl, I find myself vigilantly looking at who is with her. Even at Mass, I have found myself thinking, ‘I hope that’s her father next to her in the pew.’
Nightmares and disrupted sleep are nightly occurrences. When a sister hears a knock on the other side of her bedroom wall, she knows it is from the hand of a girl seeking consolation after a nightmare. In an instant, she rises from bed, enters the bedroom – often with holy water – and attempts to calm the anguished girl. Often, she will quietly kneel and pray the Rosary by the teen’s bedside. Whispered Hail Marys at Metanoia have become elixirs and lullabies that – literally, on many nights – scatter demons.
There is a broken-hearted pattern to the trajectory of Metanoia’s escapees. After suffering repeated physical and sexual abuse at home, a girl will run away and into the streets, where they fall quickly into the lure of traffickers’ promises of money, food, clothing, and a place to sleep. Thereafter, girls are sucked into the grip of sex slavery. Human trafficking generates an estimated $150 billion annually in America. The latest spike in trafficking involves the selling of young boys.
Because most teenagers fear retribution or being killed by their captors, most do not risk fleeing. But even when a child does manage to successfully escape, he or she has virtually no safe place to go to. It is a kind of satanic math in America: there are more than five thousand animal shelters that feed and care for more than one million animals. But for sex slave escapees, only Metanoia and a handful of other homes exist.
Trafficking is on the rise in America and throughout the world. Fr. Bayhi said governmental lockdown measures at the start of COVID produced a spike of an estimated ten million slaves. He explained:
Children who were kept from school were on their cell phones. They became easy targets for predators. And kids who were suffering from this type of thing on their cell phones were unable to access social service help. All the help was shut down, no home visits – nothing. So troubled children didn’t have people or help to go to – so traffickers moved into their lives.
The U.N. estimates the average age of a sex victim is between 11 and 14. Every two minutes, trafficking experts estimate, a child is prostituted.
Although Pope Francis has frequently addressed the evils of human trafficking, the Church, so far, has steered just a small amount of money toward helping to chip away at it. With little financial help from the Church and federal and state governments, Bayhi must work to raise more than $850,000 to keep Metanoia open each year. Included in his operational costs are the salaries of the employees and five sisters who’ve given their lives to the most soul-scarred teenagers in the world. “Their salaries should have many, many zeroes on the end,” Bayhi said.
In a post-Dobbs society, where we talk about creating a truly pro-life culture, it seems the Church has a golden opportunity today to be leaders in generating an incredible pro-life effort to rescue all children, those children in the womb and those abducted and affected by trafficking.
With awareness because of [the movie] Sound of Freedom, the Church really has some momentum to bring the face of Christ into this underworld. It is a monumental task for the Church to bring light to this dark world, but it is one that it can do.
Fr. Bayhi, along with his priest colleague Father Chuck Swanson, has joined efforts with the vanguard of the world’s leading Catholic human trafficking workers – including Sr. Eugenia, Vatican bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, English Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and former Scotland Yard trafficking commissioner Kevin Hyland, who today heads the Santa Marta Group, an anti-trafficking alliance of bishops and police chiefs established by Pope Francis. However, even with the surge of awareness in the aftermath of Sound of Freedom, Bayhi is blunt about his frustrations.
“Why was the Sound of Freedom demonized and panned by so many? Why? I think it’s a valid question to ask and to ponder,” he said, pipe in hand and voice rising.
Why do power people – the liberal left, folks in Hollywood, and so much of the media work to diminish a movie that brought to light the horrors of human trafficking? Why is exposing evil and proposing efforts to save children such a problem for the worldwide power players? You simply have to ask yourself this question… In my mind, by their negative reactions, they are protecting people in high places who are complicit in it, participating in it, or covering it up for people in high places.
Hearteningly, Bayhi’s anger is tempered daily by the work of resurrection he sees. The girls at Metanoia attend Sunday Mass, which is mostly celebrated by Metanoia chaplain Fr. Swanson, a Nebraska native who’s traveled the country with Bayhi to help bring awareness of the sex trade. Swanson celebrates the sacrifice of the Mass each morning for the sisters, who say the reception of the Eucharist sustains their work.
“The children come in and they trust no one. They work to push our last button,” Sr. Alexandrine said.
They try to get us to kick them out. But after some time, little by little, they begin to experience a mother’s love for the first time. It is then – when trust is finally built – that they begin to finally see the face of God and people who love them.
“Sometimes, I will hear this: ‘Sister, will you teach me how to pray the Rosary.’ What is better than this? I don’t know.”
This is better: “The sisters loved me by entering into my horror,” said Ann, a former Metanoia resident who now has a stable life in Louisiana. “I came into Metanoia knowing only bad things and trauma. And the sisters saved my life.”
Note from Fr. Bayhi: “If you feel a desire to fight the evils of human trafficking, remember what Sr. Eugenia Bonetti says: “No one can do everything. And everyone can do something.” To learn more about our work, please visit our website Metanoia-inc.org, and consider beginning to explore the possibility of safe havens in your own vicinity. We will consult and help facilitate facilities in your part of the country. You may contact me directly at [email protected]. We are grateful to the Supreme Knights of Columbus, who have been an enormous help to us in financing bringing nuns to the U.S. from different countries to work with victims. But far, far more help is needed now, and I know it’s out there.
Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine.