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Prayer breakfast hears horror of sexual slavery in Cambodia

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IT was the eyes he couldn't forget, the piercing stares of seven Cambodian girls sold into sexual slavery, their abuse caught on tape by a Canadian pedophile.

So harrowing were the videotaped gazes that, after helping bust convicted sex tourist Donald Bakker in 2004, forensic expert Brian McConaghy left the RCMP and threw himself behind a singular cause: to help save as many children as possible from the nightmare of sex trafficking.

And to fight against an estimated $43-billion global scourge, McConaghy told around 800 religious, First Nations, government and community leaders at the Manitoba Prayer Breakfast on Saturday, takes faith.

"(Faith) is central to it," said McConaghy, who works with Ratanak International, which operates a safe-house for 59 children rescued from Cambodian trafficking rings. "It is the driving force. Trying to take on a battle like this, and do this on your own strength, is lunacy."

As the keynote speaker at the non-denominational Saturday morning event, which included VIPs such as Winnipeg police chief Keith McCaskill (who read from Bible scripture) and Winnipeg Catholic Archbishop James Weisgerber, McConaghy didn't shy from the ugly truths about sex trafficking in his tough, often tender speech.

McConaghy detailed the cycle of slavery, driven by teen pimps who were themselves sold into slavery as children.

"Twelve is old in Cambodia," he said, as a tense murmur rippled through the audience.

"In Cambodia, they start at age six."

That was the blunt tone that the prayer breakfast's honorary chairwoman, Kildonan-St. Paul MP Joy Smith, was hoping for when she asked McConaghy to deliver the keynote at this year's breakfast. "Now that you know, you can't say you don't know. Now we have to do something about it," said Smith, who championed a 2008 bill that raised the minimum sentence for criminals convicted of trafficking children.

Indeed, after Archbishop Weisgerber offered the breakfast's closing prayer at 9:30 a.m., MLA Bill Blaikie called McConaghy's speech a "call to arms."

After the breakfast, Manitoba Grand Chief Ron Evans stood with Smith and McConaghy to call for more awareness about how sex trafficking has impacted the aboriginal community.

The sex trade is linked to the fate of many of Canada's almost 600 missing or murdered aboriginal women. As an RCMP officer, McConaghy helped close the net on Robert Pickton, many of whose victims were aboriginal.

"The more people talk about it, the more people know about it," Evans said. "We will be more conscious of our surroundings. We will start to see the signs. And we will report."

Remember those eyes, the eyes of the seven girls that haunted him right out of his RCMP career and into a life of healing?

McConaghy still sees them. He last saw them two weeks ago when he took Bakker's seven victims -- now thriving teenagers in Ratanak's programs -- out to lunch in Phnom Penh. "I have things to learn about faith from these children," McConaghy said, before the crowd bowed their heads in prayer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2011 A4

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