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

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.
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