Mayor in Rome for meetings on climate change, human trafficking

Mayors and governors from across the US and other nations are joining Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh in Rome for the Vatican-sponsored meetings.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2015
Mayors and governors from across the US and other nations are joining Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh in Rome for the Vatican-sponsored meetings.

ROME — Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Monday that Pope Francis, who is scheduled to make his debut trip to the United States in September, has the capacity to elevate fights against climate change and human trafficking to national priorities.

Walsh is in Rome for Vatican-sponsored meetings on those two topics, joining mayors and governors from the United States and other nations.

“We can take [the pope’s] message out of the room, and as policy makers, mayors, and governors, we can direct policy without going through a lot of legislative stuff,” Walsh said in an interview with the Globe.


Walsh is one of 65 mayors and top representatives from some of the world’s most prominent cities — including London, New York, Paris, Stockholm, and Tehran — participating in this week’s meetings. On Wednesday, the politicians are expected to sign a joint declaration addressing climate change and human trafficking.

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Walsh said he might disagree with the pontiff on certain issues, because “as an elected official I represent people of all faiths and those with no faith.”

Yet on a personal and spiritual level, Walsh said, “I’m a Catholic, and he’s my pope.”

“He’s definitely my pope, there’s no question about it,” he said. “In the end, my faith is my spirituality, and it comes down to that.”

Most of the American mayors in Rome this week are Democrats, perhaps reflecting the frequently partisan nature of environmental debates in the country. Speaking on condition they not be identified, organizers told the Globe a wide variety of American politicians were invited, but mostly Democrats accepted.


Walsh said the matters to be discussed in Rome are “human issues” that transcend partisan politics.

“One is about making sure we stop sexual exploitation in the US and the world, and that’s not a party issue,” he said. “I know the environment sometimes becomes a party issue, but it really shouldn’t be. We need to preserve the world for future generations.”

Both Tuesday’s workshop, titled “Modern Slavery and Climate Change: The Commitment of the Cities,” and a Wednesday symposium on “Prosperity, People, and Planet: Achieving Sustainable Development in Our Cities,” will be hosted by the Vatican’s Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences and underwritten by an Italian donor.

The meetings are cosponsored by the United Nations.

Walsh said Boston has long been among the nation’s leaders in fighting climate change, but he aspires to do more.


“We want to be [among] the leaders in the world,” he said.

To achieve that, Walsh said he wants to use this week to hear what mayors from around the globe are doing. He said he wants to implement the best of those ideas in Boston, and then push them at the state level.

On a national level, Walsh said he believes the United States can do more to be at the forefront in the fight against climate change, which is why, he said, networking among US mayors at the Rome meeting is important.

Regarding human trafficking, Walsh said he’s committed to ending sexual exploitation in the United States. Earlier this year, he said, Boston joined an 11-city network called Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation, or CEASE.

Specialists say human trafficking is the third-largest international crime industry, behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking. It reportedly affects more than 36 million people, one-third of whom are minors, and generates profits estimated between $32 billion and $150 billion annually.

The battles against global warming and human trafficking are key issues in Francis’ papacy.

The pontiff recently released a teaching document, called an encyclical letter, dedicated to the environment.

In 2014, the pope launched an interfaith campaign with Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and other Christian leaders intended to stamp out human trafficking by 2020.

As a politician but also as a Catholic, Walsh said he respects Francis’ decision to “get more political” than his immediate predecessors, calling the Latin American pontiff an “Ivy League”-level leader to whom the world is listening.

Joining Walsh in Rome is Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a longtime confidant he tapped to serve as the city’s chief lawyer. Speaking to the press in Boston on Wednesday, Walsh credited O’Flaherty with writing the city’s latest human trafficking law.

Walsh, 48, is a Boston College graduate and has long credited his Catholic faith with helping him overcome cancer as a child and alcoholism as an adult.

“I grew up in an Irish-Catholic household,” he said. “The pope was always spoken about and respected.”

He said there’s an element of being a fan to this week’s trip.

“I’ve met presidents, heads of state, a lot of people, famous people,” Walsh said. “Bono last week, for instance. But to meet the pope . . . for me it’s more than just being there. It’s a sense of my spirituality.”

Ines San Martin is the Vatican correspondent for Crux, the Globe website on Catholicism. It can be found at