Pope Francis' Visit Gives Hope to Sexually Exploited Women in City Jail | NBC 10 Philadelphia
Pope Francis in Philly

Pope Francis in Philly

Look Back at the Pontiff's Historic Visit

Pope Francis' Visit Gives Hope to Sexually Exploited Women in City Jail



    Pope Francis exits the plane after touching down in the United States for a historic visit. Cheering crowds greeted him upon his arrival in Washington DC on Tuesday afternoon.

    In a Philadelphia courtroom on Tuesday morning, anticipation of Pope Francis' visit to the city brought a shining ray of hope to an unlikely place.

    Cathy, a middle-aged woman with short, wavy brown hair, sat in the defendant's chair looking out of place. In her long, green dress, she listened intently as the judge explained that she'll have to stay in jail on prostitution charges for the foreseeable future, until a recovery bed opens for her.

    But for Cathy -- and for several other women jailed in the City of Brotherly Love on the same charges -- there's a silver lining.

    "She may be able to see the Pope," Mary DeFusco, Cathy's public defender, exclaimed in the courtroom. DeFusco and other attorneys in Philadelphia's Defender Association have worked with dozens of women like Cathy in the city's Project Dawn Court, a problem-solving court established in 2010 to help women out of the repetitive cycle of sexual exploitation, addiction and incarceration.

    As part of his stay in Philadelphia this weekend, Pope Francis will make a special visit to men and women at a city jail. DeFusco was among those who were instrumental in gathering a list of women -- many of whom she says, like Cathy, are jailed on prostitution charges despite being victims of sexual exploitation -- who may get the chance to greet the Pontiff. Pope Francis has made human trafficking, including sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, a cornerstone issue of his papacy.

    At an April 2014 Combating Human Trafficking Conference at the Vatican, Pope Francis called trafficking "an open wound on the body of contemporary society" and a "crime against humanity."

    For women like Cathy, DeFusco said a visit from the Pope is particularly significant -- especially in Pennsylvania, one of only a few states that still imposes what she calls "draconian" penalties on sexually exploited women who are arrested for prostitution.

    "When you talk to the public at large, no one wants these women to go to jail. The system fails them," DeFusco said on Tuesday. "When they succeed, they succeed against the odds."

    Pennsylvania's statute provides for up to five years behind bars for repeat prostitution convictions, despite a new state law that went into effect last year aimed at increasing protection for victims of sex trafficking. In comparison, New York's maximum penalty for prostitution -- regardless of repeat offenses -- is up to three months in jail, DeFusco pointed out after a woman from New York arrested in Philadelphia for prostitution faced a hearing on Tuesday.

    "I think it's really cool that the Pope is seeing people in jail, and that he's actually seeing women," DeFusco said. "Of those women, lots are charged with prostitution, because unfortunately, many women are jailed for prostitution in Philadelphia."

    Prisoners at a Philadelphia jail build a chair for Pope Francis in preparation for his visit to Philadelphia. The Pontiff is expected to visit both men and women jailed in Philadelphia on Sunday.
    Photo credit: NBC10

    Back in the courtroom, Judge Marsha H. Neifield, who presides over Philadelphia's Project Dawn Court, smiled at Cathy from the bench as about a dozen other women waiting in the gallery for their own hearings erupted with excitement at the news that Cathy may meet Pope Francis this weekend.

    "Unfortunately, it's a delayed process," Neifield said, referring to the time it's taking to get Cathy a spot at a recovery house. "But maybe you'll get something out of it, you'll get to see the Pope."

    "My aunt wants me to tell him she loves him so much," Cathy, whose last name is being withheld due to the nature of her case, told the judge. DeFusco said Cathy is one of more than a dozen women on the special list of those selected to potentially meet Pope Francis on Sunday morning. The women will learn this weekend who will meet the Pontiff.

    In Pope Francis' encyclical released earlier this year, he again addressed human trafficking, writing, "A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted."

    DeFusco, a public defender for more than three decades, said she is hopeful that Pope Francis meeting with the women will bring new light to the issue of the legal system re-victimizing exploited women.

    She said a number of women jailed on prostitution charges in Philadelphia also happen to be Catholic.

    Another woman in Project Dawn Court on Tuesday, Helen, smiled brightly when she learned that some women she knows who are currently in city jails may have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet Pope Francis. A Project Dawn participant for two years, Helen, 39, is all too familiar with the cycle of prostitution arrests, jail and court.

    "I think it's wonderful and amazing," she said after her hearing as her long, black ponytail spilled over her shoulders. "Really. Who does that? Who takes the time?

    "I'm glad I'm not in jail, but it's good she's getting to see him," she continued, referring to one of her friends in the court who is incarcerated and is on the Pope visit list.

    Ann Marie Jones also knows firsthand the vicious cycle of sexual exploitation. Now a peer specialist at Dawn's Place, a residential program in Philadelphia for trafficked women, Jones spent more than a decade on the streets, addicted to drugs and trapped by a man who beat her and forced her into prostitution.

    "I think that's a great thing ... I think that the women really need to hear what [Pope Francis] has to say," Jones said.

    Jones was arrested for prostitution 51 times in 13 years before she finally got the help she needed and got her life back on track. She said she is thrilled to hear that women who have been trafficked may get the opportunity to hear firsthand from someone like Pope Francis.

    "He's such a humble man and doesn't judge any of them," Jones said. "They would get a lot of hope from him."