An extraordinary meeting with Pope Francis

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This morning the walls of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican echoed to cries of a victim of human trafficking.

The young Hungarian woman sobbed as she pleaded with police chiefs, bishops, ambassadors and politicians to work together to stop any more women being treated like her - trafficked, beaten raped, and put to work in the sex trade. The delegates had all been invited to Rome by Pope Francis and Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

Julie Etchingham talks to Pope Francis. Credit: ITV News

As moderator of the conference, I asked her what she would say to the Pope when she met him.

"Nothing," she wept. "I just want to put my arms around him and for him to hug me."

Within minutes she had her wish.

It was extraordinary to see Pope Francis in the flesh - so famous, so familiar - his pewter cross hanging starkly against his white robes. His smile lit up the faces of the three victims who met him - women who've had little to cheer them in many years.

Human Trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity

– Pope Francis

They were his priority. Only after he'd met them in private did he address the conference.

Police chiefs, politicians, clergy - all on their feet with a clatter of applause as he came in.

I was pretty shocked to find he'd be sitting next to me - and as a Catholic happy to admit this was a moment I'll never forget. A handshake, a warm smile, a "senora" as he gestured for me to sit down - a charming Pope too.

Pope Francis and ITV News Presenter Julie Etchingham at the conference. Credit: Instagram/interpol_hq

The room was silent as he spoke.

I could see his speech in his hands as he read it - and could see that even by the end of the first paragraph he departed from his text.

"Basta! Basta!" he exhorted.

"When it comes to human trafficking - enough! Enough!"

But the official script pulled no punches either - sotto voce but with grit.

Top police officers have attended a conference in the Vatican on ending human trafficking. Credit: ITV News

Then after the gravity of the speech, the smile soon spread back, as the police chiefs lined up to shake his hand. Uniforms from around the world in file, Sir Bernard Hogan Howe at the front - but what was supposed to be an orderly queue soon descended into a slightly ragged train with everyone waiting their turn.

The Home Secretary Theresa May and I exchanged a couple of raised eyebrows - she too went forward to be introduced. Each of us was given a set of rosary beads.

And then before he left - we got our chance to speak to the Pope on camera. The Cardinal said to him "Holy Father - it's TV News from Great Britain - would you like to take a question or not?"

Thankfully he said "Si, Si".

We always knew it would be worth a shot.

Earlier Julie Etchingham spoke with Priest Don Aldo Buonainto. Credit: ITV News

I asked him about human trafficking, his translator is at his elbow. Did he have a message for the traffickers and their victims?

His answer came slowly, he weighed every word. A pause between each phrase to allow the translation to come. Here is a master communicator, uncontrolled by a press officer - seizing another opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless.

"It's an absolute shame. It's a crime against humanity. It's a form of slavery and as Christians, those who suffer are the body of Christ, the flesh of Christ," he said

He paused, and added:

Humanity still hasn't learned how to cry, how to lament. We need many tears in order to understand the dimension of this drama.

We shook hands again, and as the smile spread back across his, he was gone.

It has been quite a day.

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