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Project Rachel marks 25 years of healing hearts about abortion

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Friday, October 2, 2009

MILWAUKEE — Project Rachel, the post-abortion reconciliation ministry of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, has been healing hearts of those affected by abortion since 1984.

The 25th anniversary has been “an awesome experience of looking back and seeing how an idea that was really only Spirit-inspired changed the face of the abortion debate in the U.S., and, not only in the U.S., but also in other countries,” said Vicki Thorn, Project Rachel founder and executive director of the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing since 1990.

Vicki Thorn (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“Never did I suspect I would be in mainland China and Australia and New Zealand and a number of European countries . . . talking about this issue,” she added.

When the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral plan for pro-life activities in 1975, Thorn said their three-pronged response made her take action. They advocated “womb-to-tomb” education about the sanctity of all life, getting people involved in the legislative process to be active participants in society, and offering pastoral care for those faced with a crisis pregnancy and healing for those touched by abortion, but there was no guidance for how to deal with it.

Thorn had watched a high school friend’s downward spiral through addiction, eating disorders and self-destructive actions after having an abortion. Thorn had worked in Minneapolis after she went to school for psychology only to learn that it didn’t teach her what to talk about with someone dealing with abortion.

When she moved to Milwaukee and became a Birthright volunteer, she wanted to prevent pregnant women from going down the same road as her friend.

She was offered the job as respect life director in 1977 and she saw an opportunity unfold.

“I thought, ‘You know, the church is the place that we could do this.’ That from what I saw of my friend, it was both a spiritual and a human wound that needed to be addressed, and as a church, with sacraments and the people who populate the church, we can take care of this.

“So that was my understanding, but then you had to find people who knew enough to be able to train priests, train mental health professionals, figure out how we’re going to deal with people in terms of how are they going to find us, the phone calls and things like that,” she added.

The ministry took Thorn seven years to organize, because there were no experts on healing the spiritual hole and pain left by abortion. She brought together an array of speakers, including a psychologist and a priest-psychologist who could address the spiritual aspect; a woman who had had an abortion and worked with a priest for her healing; the sister of a woman who had had an abortion, who spoke about the impact on the family; a canon lawyer; and a Jesuit priest described by Thorn as an “automatic confessor,” who shared experiences of the people he met through his work.

“They needed to hear the woman to talk about her pain and her healing,” Thorn said of the day’s speakers. “They needed to hear the family system stuff, they needed to hear the psychology of it and then how does this link together because my intention was that this would be a holistic response.”

When they started, they questioned whether the women involved were dealing with some kind of pathology, and terms like post-abortion syndrome came up. But Thorn doesn’t like the implication of that language — that something’s wrong with these women.

“This is a woman who lost her child in a traumatic and unnatural fashion. She’s grieving, hello! I mean, that’s normal,” Thorn said, explaining that pathology can exist if women try to resolve the grief and soothe the pain with alcohol, cutting or suicide attempts.

“And the process is one of helping her to process the anger toward the other people involved, to move to forgiveness, to be reconciled then with God, with her baby and with herself and forgive herself in that, that’s it,” Thorn said. “That’s not high-tech psychotherapy, you know, that’s spiritual healing and it works.”

Some of Thorn’s favorite work beyond the one-on-one with women is the speaking and training she does with priests and caregivers.

Father Ralph Gross, pastor of St. Bruno Parish in Dousman and a Project Rachel priest since shortly after it began, was among priests at the first training workshop.

“Project Rachel has done a wonderful job educating priests over the years to be able to be more sensitive and more understanding of the circumstances, and to have a better insight into the crisis of abortion and the aftermath,” he said, adding that even those who aren’t directly associated with Project Rachel but have attended workshops have gained great insight into Thorn’s work.

Many people, according to Father Gross, sought healing through the sacrament of reconciliation, before Project Rachel’s existence, but this has given people a chance to talk about their pain and help them heal in addition to the sacrament of reconciliation.

“That’s something that I have felt pastorally is just so absolutely necessary,” he said. “So this has been a tremendous blessing and thank God it has actually gone beyond the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and has stretched all over the world now, in many places. So, it’s been a wonderful tool and a wonderful blessing on the church and for people’s lives in the church.”

Thorn will speak to priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati on Oct. 7, from 1:30-4 p.m., at Bainbridge Knights of Columbus Hall in Dayton, discussing “Healing from the Experience of Pregnancy Loss.” She will also meet with members of the local Project Rachel team during her visit and address attendees at the Ohio Catholic Education Conference on Oct. 8. — CNS

Project Rachel marks 15 years in archdiocese

ARCHDIOCESE — Project Rachel has been helping those affected by abortion in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati heal since 1994.

Through support groups, retreats and with pastoral guidance from many “extremely faithful” area priests, Mary Anne Boyd, archdiocesan respect life coordinator, said hundreds of women have found forgiveness, healing and hope.

“Project Rachel helps the women to know that they can grieve the loss of their child,” Boyd said.

Last March, for the first time in the archdiocese, a Project Rachel retreat was opened to the hearing impaired. Coordinating the effort were Father Bill Wysong, a faculty member and chaplain at St. Rita School for the Deaf, and a Project Rachel team member who interprets for the deaf community. The next retreat is scheduled for March 2010.

The 15th anniversary has served as an opportunity for Boyd to reflect on Project Rachel’s significance.

“When I see women begin to be able to accept God’s unconditional love, it’s incredible,” she said. “That’s one of the most important things, along with how they reach out to others. They become Christ to each other. What also happens to these women as they heal is that they become the reconcilers of the church.”

For more information about Project Rachel support groups and retreats, call 513-784-0531.

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