God's Streetwalker

By Terry Malone

NEW YORK "One of the reasons prostitutes are prostitutes is that people won't deal with them," says Father Depaul Genska. Each week for the past four years, the Franciscan priest has left the pastoral setting of Christ House, a retreat center in rural Lafayette, N.J., where he is stationed, for the streets of nighttime Manhattan.

There he has met with prostitutes- more than 200 so far - in bars, on the streets, in their homes. What he has listened to and learned, he believes, deserves both a practical and prayerful response from the church.

Genska first brought his experiences to the public eye at the U.S. bishops' bicentennial hearings in Newark, N.J., last December, and he is hoping to see his testimony incorporated in some way into the social action plan that is to develop from last week's Detroit hearings.

He sought and was denied delegate status at the Detroit conference as a representative of Scapegoat, an organization founded by a former prostitute and madam. As with the other 19 groups denied delegate status, however, Scapegoat was invited to attend as an observer.

"Just the fact that prostitutes are people and that's a big fact - we should be interested in their plight," Genska says. In addition, "Most of the women I've met are Christian, and most of these are Catholic. We ought to ask ourselves: How did we contribute to their choice of prostitution? How did their families pick up Catholicism? Where was the church when their fathers left home . . . ?"

Besides, he adds wryly, if one needs a more practical reason for concern, "Every parish has 'johns' (customers)."

Genska says that some of the contributing factors in particular deserve a Christian response: things like poor self-image, poor family life, society's definition of success and its credo that anything can be bought for a price. "The inestimable worth of the person" is at the heart of Christian theology and philosophy itself, he says. Unfortunately, it usually ends up that "the prostitutes are the ones we want to cast stones at, instead of at the social injustices that cause prostitution."

Genska's ministry began by accident four years ago, late one warm summer night when he was returning from visiting friends in New York City. When he stopped at a traffic light, two young women asked if he could give them a ride. He did, and the ensuing conversation today causes him to chuckle at his own naiveté.

"Where do you want to go?" they asked. "Well, where do you want to go?" he countered. They hesitated, and said, "We're 'working girls,' " to which he responded sociably, "Oh, what kind of work do you do?" They fairly roared, "Mister, you're really out of it! We're prostitutes!"

"Oh. Well . . . I'm not really into that," he explained, "but if you'd like, maybe we could go get something to eat . . . " When they asked him what he did, he told them, "You've been honest with me, I'll be honest with you. I'm a priest."

"Glad to know you, Father!" they said, and later invited him back to meet some of their friends - more than 200 since that first encounter. Repeatedly he heard: "You're different from other men."

Genska doesn't pretend to go in and change the variety of circumstances, needs, and psychological-emotional factors that lead a woman to choose prostitution. He has been able to help some of the women get medical care or legal aid, baptized their children, gotten some into Catholic schools. Far more important. in terms of results, is the bond of trust that has built up between him and the women, and the breakdown of stereotypes on both sides. One prostitute (we'll call her 'Suzy') observes:

"Normally I would be scared to even go up to a priest and say, 'Hey, I've got a problem, can I talk to you?' They might say, 'Hey, I'm booked up.' That's the impression they give me. You find very few that will pass by you in a crowd and smile. They always have this studious look on their faces, as if their minds were a million miles away.

"Depaul didn't come on like he was out to 'convert' me. He just seemed like a friend, that's all, automatically a friend. I don't feel afraid or ashamed to say anything to him.

"You expect a lecture out of these people, instead of them sitting down and listening to you, talking to you, and trying to help you. Running into him was refreshing, really."

Adds Genska: "Prostitutes like good meals, a good time. They like to be respected. They are interested in a thousand other things - politics, religion, recreation. By labeling them prostitutes we forget they are human beings."

So far Genska hasn't had much success selling the church on the idea of a "ministry to prostitutes."

A letter campaign to missal publishers, Holy Year committees and prayer groups, asking public prayer for prostitutes, drew a general response of what Genska calls "benign neglect." A few replied that public acknowledgement of prostitution would disturb some people.

One bright spot, however, was the designation of Genska's ministry as an official outreach program of Christ House, by his superiors in the Franciscan order's Holy Name province.

Nevertheless, he laments, "I've had more credibility and acceptance among the prostitute community than among my own Catholic church community."

He's given scores of talks to church (mostly non-Catholic) and school groups, and has appeared on as many local radio and television shows. NBC-TV featured his ministry on the TODAY SHOW, Depaul said it is sexual discrimination that criminal records resulting from prostitution further limit employment opportunity; and that a prostitute's illegal status often prevents her from reporting crimes against herself. He asks: that prostitution be decriminalized, and that the limited resources of the criminal justice system be utilized for more serious offenses; and that the state and church provide viable options for women who wish to leave the "profession" and make available to them the social, medical and educational services needed to make the transition.

Genska advocates decriminalization of prostitution rather than legalization. Legalization, he says, would mean: 1) licensing prostitutes ("What in God's name kind of test would they have to take?") which would in turn jeopardize the regular jobs held by part-time prostitutes; 2) taxing prostitutes, which he claims would encourage the women to hustle more to pay the taxes; and 3) regular medical exams, which he views as unnecessary.

Genska says prostitutes take better than average precautions with their sexual health because their livelihood depends on it. Research such as that done by Masters and Johnson, Kinsey and the United Nations, he says, shows that only two to three per cent of venereal disease is caused by prostitutes. He adds that more VD is spread by women, single or married, who are promiscuous.

Decriminalization, on the other hand, would remove prostitution from the criminal code and make it a consensual act between two adults, he says. "Morally speaking I'm against it," he emphasizes, "but to make every immoral act a crime is just compounding confusion."

Decriminalization, he says, would eliminate the criminal record which makes it more difficult for a prostitute to get a regular job, as well as keep the prostitutes out of jail "where she would learn more serious crimes."

To counteract this, Depaul asks people to pray for prostitutes… and when possible, talk to groups which are involved in working with these women; such groups are mention on Depaul's website.

He asks people to pray for prostitutes; to change attitudes from apathy and condemnation to concern, through lectures, workshops and adult education courses; and when possible, to talk to prostitutes and groups such as Scapegoat which are involved in working with and for the women.

"Are there priests, sisters, lay deacons, committed lay people going into bars and talking with these people?" Genska asks. "I think the Lord would."

"Suzy" comments: "There are a lot of girls that don't want to come out of the life.