WASHINGTON — The loose worldwide network of Catholic charitable agencies assisting human trafficking victims is expecting a boost from the U.S. State Department to the tune of $500,000.

The government planned to channel the funds to Migration and Refugees Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to track the services that are available and how well they work with the goal of expanding programs in areas where victims' needs are greatest.

The two-year effort will piggyback on the efforts of Pope Francis, who has repeatedly focused attention on sex and labor trafficking, and the desire of MRS staff members to better connect Catholic agencies and their partners as well as women religious and clergy who may come across people being trafficked in their ministry.

The focus initially will be on people in maritime industries including fishing, seafood processing, shipping and tourism, explained Hilary Chester, associate director of the Anti-Trafficking Services Program for MRS.

MRS plans to involve people who minister with the Apostleship of the Sea, a Catholic ministry serving mariners. The ministry takes the form of seaside chapels and Catholic welcome centers as well as on-ship clergy and Catholic chaplaincy programs which bring clergy, the sacraments and other facets of church life to travelers at sea.

Investigators and trafficking victim advocates have uncovered cases of physical abuse, forced detention, sweatshop working conditions, work going unpaid and the withholding of wages to pay finders' fees for work among people working in the maritime industry.

"We're really hopeful. It is exciting to find out what other people are doing and to create a more deliberate network," Chester told Catholic News Service.

"We are going to pull together a working group of people who are already very engaged in trafficking and know the subject matter, and also the people that are poised to have access to the vulnerable populations. They may not be doing trafficking work but have access to people (who are trafficked)," she said.

Luis CdeBaca, ambassador-at-large in the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said efforts to raise the profile of human trafficking by Popes Francis and Benedict and Vatican offices led his office to seek stronger collaboration with MRS because of its connection to Catholic agencies around the world.

Pope Francis' concern about trafficked people dates to his days as cardinal of Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, he celebrated open-air Masses for and with trafficking victims, many of them children, and denounced the work of traffickers who profit from the illegal trade of human beings. He has continued his outspokenness on trafficking since become pope.

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama discussed human trafficking and U.S.-Vatican collaboration in ending trafficking when the two met March 27.

"This is really exciting. This is a great opportunity for the U.S. government to partner not just with the Holy See, but here in the U.S. with USCCB," said CdeBaca, who is Catholic.

"Our emissaries to the Holy See and my predecessors have been very aligned over the last 10 years on this," he told CNS.

The information collected by MRS will be shared with the State Department so the federal government can better match its services to people who are trafficked as well.

The effort has been in the works since January when MRS staffers determined that information about identifying and assisting people who are trafficked would be more useful if shared by agencies around the world, Chester said.

"We were thinking if there was a way for (MRS) to be a central place to share information so that people on the ground don't have to reinvent the wheel over and over again," she explained.

The project will include an educational component to help those ministering to seafarers to recognize people who are being trafficked and encourage them to notify law enforcement authorities. Materials and classes will be available online to anyone who registers, Chester said.

The data collected by MRS will be shared with the State Department so that the federal government can hone its response to trafficking as well, CdeBaca said.

"We're hoping that this will allow us to support the USCCB and the Holy See itself in networking," CdeBaca said.

MRS plans to roll out the program in September.