How do you put an international spotlight on an issue like child sexual abuse which people often don’t like to hear about?
Have the leader of one the largest organized religions in the world stop by for a visit.
That’s what staff of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance (PCA) are hoping will happen come September.
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The nonprofit, which offers care to sexually abused children and works with police to bring their abusers to justice, penned a letter to Pope Francis asking him to visit their facility when he travels to Philadelphia for the upcoming World Meeting of Families conference.
"We really thought that knowing what we know about him, knowing about his interesting commitment to the welfare of children that it would be great to showcase our work to Pope Francis,” Chris Kirchner, PCA’s executive director, tells NBC10.
Based in the city’s Hunting Park neighborhood, PCA operates on a unique model where it provides counseling, forensic interviewing and family advocate services to victims in conjunction with social workers and law enforcement. The Philadelphia Police Department’s Special Victim’s Unit, city prosecutors and Department of Human Services all share space with the PCA in the same combined facility.
“We do the interviews and the police and DHS watch from behind closed-circuit TV or a one-way mirror,” Kirchner said. “We stop the abuse, DHS or the police intervene to remove the abusers and the child gets what they need to begin healing.”
“It’s a pretty cool model. It’s effective. It’s something that we wanted to show the pope,” she said.
In a few months, a clinic will open where pediatricians from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children will provide medical care to victims.
The Catholic Church has been working to overcome an intense worldwide scandal involving the sexual abuse of children by clergy. Evidence uncovered during the prosecution of local priests accused of molesting children showed some church leaders were aware of the abuse and covered up the crimes.
In 2013, Pope Francis created a commission to come up with strategies to protect children and deal with the problem. Its members include bishops, experts and victims of abuse.
PCA sees about 200 children a month after receiving referrals from police and social services agencies. A pontifical visit would not only draw attention to their work locally, but offer groundwork for counterparts in other countries where there are little or no services for abused children.
“Ultimately, it’s about getting services for kids and continuing to talk about these issues in the public so that it doesn’t hide in the shadows. This could be another big step,” Kirchner said.
So how likely is it the pope will stop by? There’s a chance — albeit small.
A key archbishop working on the itinerary for the U.S. tour said Pope Francis would like to visit children at either a hospital or prison while in Philadelphia. An organization like the PCA, which cares for children in some of the worst moments of their lives, could fit the model.
Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the World Meeting of Families, said dozens of local organizations are vying for a visit from the pontiff. But it’s not up to her organization or the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to choose.
“The final decision on Pope Francis’ schedule ultimately lies with the Vatican,” she said. “We don’t expect any announcements to be made about the specifics of the visit for months."