When Aprill Clay aborted her baby, she immediately knew it was wrong. “I felt the life being torn away from me,” she says. “I felt it in my heart, my inner soul, the moment that it happened. As soon as I did it, I knew it was the worst mistake I had ever made.”

Barely 20 at the time, the Rahway, N.J., resident thought having an abortion would erase her troubles. Those around her assured her it was the best decision. For years, she suppressed her grief.

As time passed, however, she knew she needed to deal with her grief, especially when her third child, a daughter, was born six years ago. She began four months of intense counseling with her parish priest, who gave her information about Rachel's Vineyard, a post-abortion healing ministry based in the Philadelphia area.

The retreat with other women grieving about their abortions assured the repentant Clay of God's infinite mercy. As she knelt before the Blessed Sacrament that weekend, praying the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet, God gave her a great gift: a glimpse of her deceased children-the daughter she aborted and a son that miscarried.

“God has humbled me,” she says. “He loves me. Because of my hurt, if there is one family that can be helped, I'm willing to share that pain.”

She wants to speak to groups about Rachel's Vineyard, leading others to the hope and healing she has found. Such post-abortion ministries are in place in many dioceses around the country and have even spread to other countries.

Rachel's Vineyard, started by psychologist Theresa Karminski Burke and Barbara Cullen in the mid-1980s, has helped hundreds of women heal through weekend retreats and a 13-week group counseling program. Burke also now travels around the country training others to provide the Rachel's Vineyard program, which combines spiritual and psychological exercises.

A parishioner at Our Mother of Sorrows in Bridgeport, Penn., Burke became involved in post-abortion healing after working in an eating disorder treatment center.

“Almost all the women in my group had had abortions,” says the 37-year-old mother of four, whose husband is a licensed clinical social worker who runs a home for unwed pregnant women. “I knew there was a big problem.”

She believes Rachel's Vineyard is so fruitful because it is “totally, intimately connected with Jesus.”

The Healing Process

As part of their healing, the women spend time in eucharistic adoration, they confess their abortion to a priest, they name the aborted baby, and they write that child a letter.

“In the letter they always say I love you,” Burke says. “They say there's not a day goes by that they don't think of the baby.”

“You're publicly proclaiming your love for this child,” Burke explains. “You're giving it honor and dignity. You're reconnecting that bond. I think post-abortion healing is incomplete until that happens. You're also reclaiming your motherhood. When they go home to their children, they can really love them.”

Rosemary Benefield, a nurse with master's degrees in pastoral counseling and marriage, family, and child counseling, leads a similar, weekend-long post-abortion retreat in San Diego. Known as Rachel's Hope, her program is adapted for Catholic women from Silent Voices, developed by an evangelical Christian.

“According to research,” Benefield says, “it's five to seven years after an abortion that women need to find a means of healing. So many of them numb out-they go into denial. They rationalize. It takes a while before they start being emotionally able to face what they have done.”

In Benefield's experience, she's found about half the women going through her program have never confessed their abortion. The others have, sometimes repeatedly, yet they never feel forgiven-or they never allow themselves to feel forgiven.

Benefield says some women decide to confront their abortion after a triggering event-a friend having a baby, for example.

“One of the biggest [triggers],” Benefield says, “is when a woman has a hard time getting pregnant. She thinks her infertility is punishment from God. The guilt is just incredible, and the daily reminder of not being able to conceive is so painful.”

Once she's had a baby, a post-abortion woman may have trouble bonding with it, Benefield says, because she's afraid she's going to lose it, God is going to punish her.

That's how Gail Checco felt. The 42-year-old Duluth, Minn., resident, who had an abortion when she was 21, always wondered how God would punish her for that. When her two children, now 19 and 17, became sick, she felt it was her fault. Would God take them away from her?

Although she had received the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she could-n't believe God could forgive her for the abortion. For years, Checco carried the burden and grief of her abortion. Formerly the religious education coordinator at her parish, Blessed Sacrament in Hibbing, Minn., Checco says she felt like a hypocrite when she had to speak on issues such as chastity. But now she has healed, thanks to Project Rachel, the widespread post-abortion healing ministry founded in 1984 in the diocese of Milwaukee by Victoria Thorn.

Checco, Project Rachel coordinator for her diocese, learned about the program five years ago, after reading Father John Dillon's book, A Path to Hope. “It opened a whole window of hope for me,” Checco says. “I thought ‘Maybe I'm not crazy.’”

Recovering Hope

That hope is essential, according to Thorn, who wrote an essay describing Project Rachel in Father Michael Mannion's book Post Abortion Aftermath. In it, Thorn notes that women who have had abortions “always describe themselves as being without hope.”

Project Rachel, which can be found in more than 100 U.S. dioceses, as well as in Austria, and soon in Guam and Canada, is a diocesan-based ministry with specially trained clergy, religious, and professional therapists that receives referrals through a diocesan number.

“The phone comes into an existing office during business hours and is answered by a staff member who knows the people on the referral list,” says Thorn. “We are simply empowering our clergy and psychotherapeutic professionals with additional information so they can address this issue effectively. This is a program that does not require extra personnel or extra programs to be able to minister effectively to God's wounded children.”

Because the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an integral part of the process of Project Rachel, it is imperative that there be trained clergy who understand the process of healing, Thorn says. In many cases, the woman prefers to begin with a priest and may work through some or all of the process with him.

“She is clear,” Thorn says, “on the fact that this is a spiritual wound.”

Thorn stresses the importance of trained personnel in post-abortion healing, particularly with a program like Rachel's Vineyard, which, she says, “should be facilitated by a therapeutic professional and a spiritual director or priest.”

“This is a model that includes some very deep psychological healing and that can trigger people into some very deep pain in the process,” Thorn says. “We also recommend that anyone interested in facilitating a Rachel's Vineyard retreat participate in one with Theresa Burke to observe how it is done. The Rachel's Vineyard support group model is also very intense and needs trained professionals to oversee it.”

In 1975, the U.S. bishops, in their Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities, stated that: “Granting that the grave sin of abortion is symptomatic of many human problems, which often remain unsolved for the individual woman, it is important that we realize that God's mercy is always available and without limit, that the Christian life can be restored and renewed through the sacraments, and that union with God can be accomplished despite the problems of human existence.”

Until Project Rachel was launched nine years later, however, there were few if any formal programs to help women. While the ministry has exploded, Thorn says that when Project Rachel was founded, “it was virtually impossible to find people who knew anything about abortion's aftermath and who were even willing to give it credence.” It took a while to begin because there were no experts and no models in how to conduct this ministry.

In 1990, with demand for information growing, the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing was founded as an outgrowth of Project Rachel to provide resources and referrals for those seeking post-abortion information.

According to estimates, there are from 36 million to 50 million abortions worldwide each year. Because of the enormity of the problem, Thorn knows “it is imperative that the Church throughout the world address this part of the brokenness.”

John Paul II's Blessing

The Holy Father knows it, too. Thorn met Pope John Paul II some years ago and at that time, he gave her a special blessing and said of Project Rachel, “This is very important work!”

The Holy Father, Thorn says, is no stranger to the aftermath of abortion. “In 1960, in his book Love and Responsibility, he accurately described abortion's aftermath,” she says. He addressed it again in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), which she sees as “a continuation of his deep commitment to the healing of the millions of women who have made the abortion decision, so often in a vacuum of support, love, and understanding” (see sidebar, top right).

After Project Rachel, Thorn says, a woman speaks of “experiencing God's love and forgiveness in a profound way. She is affirmed in her worth. She is free to love her family and parent her other children in a healthy way. She is deeply committed to Church and her faith journey. She gives of her time and talent to promote life in any one of a multitude of ways. Often she avoids telling her story in public as it is far too risky for her and for her family. However, the story is told in her life in a profound and beautiful way. She has met God and been healed, just as the women in Scripture. That is a life-changing event.”

The National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing may be reached at 1-800-5WE-CARE.

Rachel's Vineyard may be reached at: The Center for Post-Abortion Healing, P.O. Box 195, Bridgeport PA 19405-0195. Their hot-line is (610) 626-4006.

Tracy Moran writes from San Diego, Calif.