CINCINNATI — Sister Joan Krimm begs the question: Is it wrong to call a nun a tough old bird?
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Sister Joan is 83 years old and she has not gone quietly into retirement. In fact, she has not gone quietly into anything, maybe ever.
From her convent in Reading, this Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur nun is now leading the fight against human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Initially, she walked the streets to help people, but eventually the FBI – yes, of course she works with the FBI – asked her to concentrate her efforts on education.
The men and women of law enforcement, with their guns and badges and handcuffs, are happy to be allied with a woman who is armed only with the belief that God wants her to help.
“Sister Krimm is a force to be reckoned with. She is determined and hard-working. She is trusted because it is understood that her strong religious beliefs and moral principles are behind her actions,” said FBI Special Agent Pam Matson. “Her motives for being involved in the anti-trafficking movement are rightfully perceived as pure and loving, with no hidden agenda.”.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines human trafficking as the act of forcing a person to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has a Human Trafficking Commission to help fight the problem. The Salvation Army has an Anti-Human Trafficking Program.
Erin Meyer is the program manager. She said the scope of the problem is hard to define because law enforcement has only recently started to compile statistics. But she knows this: A year ago, the Greater Cincinnati Human Trafficking Hotline was receiving 10 to 15 calls a month. Last month, there were 40 calls.
The Justice Department says most victims of human trafficking are women, and many are children. The average “age of entry” for the sex industry is 13.
That was all Sister Joan needed to know to get involved. Her order began in France in 1804 to help those most in need.
“We were founded to be dedicated to the poor in the most abandoned places. Especially women and children,” she said. “You cannot look away from this type of evil.”.
Sister Joan grew up in Dayton and went into the convent right out of high school. That was more than 60 years ago, and it would have been unimaginable to her then that she would be doing this now.
“I would not have even thought about it,” she said. “We thought slavery was over.”.
She taught in Catholic schools for her entire career. When she stopped working in classrooms, she became more involved is justice and peace issues.
She is a strong proponent for environmental protection, and an advocate for the sensible regulation of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas from the Earth.
She has also worked for comprehensive immigration reform. Her work with immigrants, she said, kept bringing her back to human trafficking.
Because it is fair to call her feisty and perhaps fearless, Sister Joan wanted to help the victims where she could find them, on street corners and in hotel rooms. She wanted to help build a safe house for victims.
But the FBI and leaders of a local anti-human trafficking coalition said that her working with victims directly could place them in even greater danger. “They said: ‘Sister, why don’t you do what you do best? Educate.'”.
Many of the victims of human trafficking feel alone. They believe they cannot turn to their families. Victims of sexual slavery might only see their pimps, their johns and, sometimes, hotel workers.
So Sister Joan and her friend, Sister Karen Hartman, wrote a letter to every hotel and motel in the Cincinnati area.
“Then we followed up with them to try to meet with them,” Sister Joan said. “Some were interested, some were not.”.
But Sister Joan is not easily deterred. “Some of them, you had to follow them as they ran their sweepers up and down the hallways,” she said. “These were little mom-and-pop places.”.
The idea was that hotel workers needed to know what to look for, so they might be better able to identify and help victims.
Now Sister Joan goes to schools and talks to teachers and students about trafficking and sexual slavery. She knows it is a difficult subject. But people have been responsive to the straight-talking nun.
“We were brought up that you don’t talk about sex, so to openly talk about it is difficult,” Sister Joan said. “I have to work on it, but I see a great need.”.
And people are willing to listen. The problem of human trafficking is slowly coming into the light.
At the end of the past school year, Sister Joan returned to Summit Country Day School, where she had taught from 1964-66. She was supposed to talk for five minutes, but she wanted to get in stuff about immigration, the environment and then human trafficking. Sister Joan was not sure if these students and their parents were ready for this conversation of slavery. She should have gone a little long.
“At least 10 parents came to me up right afterward and said thank you, that they were glad people were talking about this,” Sister Joan said.
Perhaps, oddly enough, people are most willing to talk about difficult subjects when they are hearing about it from an 83-year-old nun with round glasses and curly gray hair and a crucifix around her neck.
“Sister Krimm has certainly opened some doors. Who can say no when she asks for a minute of their time to discuss human trafficking?” Agent Matson asked. “Whether it be out of respect for her age or her work as a nun, or just her passion about the issue, she has been able to talk to so many about human trafficking.”.