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Project Rachel: Vicki Thorn's Post-Abortion Ministry

By Mary Jo Dangel

Vicki Thorn explains why post-abortion healing ministry is a pro-life ministry.

Q U I C K S C A N

Network of Professionals
Spiritual Healing
Priests Make House Calls
Memories Linger
Family Values
Dream Projects
'God Appointments'
Abortion's Other Victims

Project Rachel

Photo by Brad Smith

When Vicki Thorn founded Project Rachel in Milwaukee in 1984, she was inspired by a self-destructive friend who had given one child up for adoption and aborted another. The friend said, "I can live with the adoption; I can't live with the abortion."

Thorn soon became "an expert in a field that didn't exist," she explains. Today over 140 U.S. dioceses have started this post-abortion healing ministry, and it's spreading around the world.

The first training day in Milwaukee was attended by about 60 priests and a few local reporters. "When I started Rachel, I thought it would be a nice little local diocesan project until the next day when it was in all the media," notes Thorn. "I started getting calls from people in other dioceses because we'd all been talking about [post-abortion ministry] for years." Today she travels nationally and internationally to speak about her ministry.

Last September, Milwaukee's Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B., presented Vicki Thorn with the 2001 Vatican II Award for Distinguished Service to Society for her dedication to helping women and men who have been affected by abortion. The previous year the Catholic Press Association acknowledged her accomplishments by presenting her with the Herald of Charity Award.

St. Anthony Messenger interviewed Vicki Thorn last July at the Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center in Milwaukee, where she has a rent-free office provided by the archdiocese. She notes that the article published in this magazine in April 1986 about Project Rachel is still used to provide information.

Network of Professionals

When Vicki Thorn became Respect Life director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1977, she says she "discovered that the U.S. bishops had called for the development of post-abortion healing" in their first Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities, issued in 1975. This plan was in response to the January 22, 1973, legalization of abortion in this country.

Thorn praises Milwaukee's Archbishop Weakland, who encouraged her when she told him of her hope to develop some type of post-abortion ministry. "To this day, his support has been stunning," she emphasizes. "He gives us our office, and he's been there to help us financially."

When she started Project Rachel, Vicki Thorn was a young wife and mother with a B.A. in psychology from the University of Minnesota. Today her credentials also include being a trauma counselor and a facilitator in bereavement loss and prenatal loss.

Thorn says she had no experts to call upon when she developed Project Rachel. She believed post-abortion healing ministry needed to offer anonymity, have a strong spiritual element and include a psychotherapeutic component. The name Project Rachel was inspired by Scripture: "Rachel mourns her children, she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more" (Jeremiah 31:15).

Today Project Rachel is a diocesan-based ministry that includes a network of specially trained clergy, spiritual directors and therapists who provide compassionate one-on-one care to people who struggle with the aftermath of abortion. (Some dioceses offer additional components such as retreats and support groups.) That includes women who have had abortions, fathers of aborted babies, grandparents, siblings and others. People seeking information can call their diocese, check their telephone book under "Project Rachel" or contact The National Office of Post-abortion Reconciliation and Healing, Inc. (800-5WE-CARE).

In 1990 Vicki Thorn founded The National Office of Post-abortion Reconciliation and Healing (NOPRAH) as an oversight organization to coordinate Project Rachel and other post-abortion services. Since the office is only open part-time, many people leave telephone messages. "The voice mail is always on," notes Thorn, "and we always get back with people, usually within 24 hours."

Others locate Project Rachel through its Web site (www. Marquette.edu/rachels). Thorn says the national office receives 300-400 phone calls and about 200 e-mails each month.

Some of those e-mails come from people who live in other countries. Some of the e-mail comes from women who have recently had abortions. "They aren't even ready to heal yet, but we've got to keep them out of 'suicide alley' because they are potentially suicidal," says Thorn.

Vicki Thorn is executive director of NOPRAH. She and another part-time employee work in the office, with help from a volunteer. NOPRAH operates on a "shoestring budget," she explains. The organization is independent, not an agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Although this independence restricts funding, it allows NOPRAH to be ecumenical. NOPRAH every two years sponsors an international post-abortion healing conference, where participants can attend workshops and learn from each other.

Spiritual Healing

Thorn says there is more awareness today about the long-term negative effects of abortion than when she began her ministry. Yet there is still "huge denial in the psychotherapeutic community" regarding links between abortion and harmful behaviors such as depression, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies.

Although every woman who has had an abortion is "a mother who has lost a child," the circumstances can affect the way a woman grieves. For example, a woman who has had an abortion because a doctor told her something was wrong with the baby "will be a wreck immediately....The woman who has a late-term abortion will probably grieve right away, too, because she bonded more."

Regarding RU-486, known as the "abortion pill," Thorn says, "We have some potential for serious post-traumatic stress disorder there.... You can't be sitting at home, have all this blood, and then pass the baby, and think you're not going to be traumatized by it!"

Thorn refers to women who have had abortions as "aborted women." She says they need to understand some of the things that can trigger painful emotions. For example, an aborted woman might believe that God can't forgive her. Attending a wedding or graduation of someone who is the same age her aborted baby would have been can cause anguish. Early menopause for a woman with no living children is another reminder.

Most aborted women who contact Project Rachel "want to start with a priest," says Thorn. These women feel the urge for forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some believe they have committed an unforgivable sin and think they are excommunicated (see "Ask a Franciscan").

The woman is given the names of several priests nearby who have been trained in this healing ministry. If a woman has a special problem such as depression or an eating disorder, she may be referred to a priest who is also a therapist. Thorn tells women, "Trust the Holy Spirit to get you to the right person."

In order to protect the priests and the women, "The priest list is highly confidential," explains Thorn. For example, if it is known that a specific parish priest is trained in Project Rachel, people might think that every woman making an appointment with him has had an abortion. In addition, some people might mistakenly think that a priest involved in Project Rachel is pro-abortion.

Thorn believes aborted women feel isolated and have a strong drive to heal: "They think they're crazy because where in the media do you see that there's a problem afterward?" She tells them, "If you give God permission to heal you, God is going to honor your request." When they are healed, these women "are such a gift to the Church because they understand the Church's teaching on abortion. They may even come to understand the Church's teaching on contraception."

Many women were pressured into having abortions, either directly or indirectly, she explains. Thus, it's important that they make the decision to seek healing on their own, without pressure. And that may be many years after an abortion. "The day that she's ready to heal, God is going to put somebody or some book or some Web site there," she says. "It's about bereavement. It's about grieving. It's about establishing a relationship with that lost child. The real gift of our faith tradition is the Communion of Saints, because you can talk about that child as an intercessor for the family."


Priests Make House Calls

Vicki Thorn wrote an article in The Priest (January 2001), explaining the long-term effects of abortion on a woman: "Even in her healing, she is forever and always a mother who has lost a child in a traumatic and unnatural fashion."

Thorn recalls a telephone conversation with an elderly woman who needed spiritual healing from an abortion she had years earlier. Since the woman was somewhat homebound, Thorn found a priest who made a house call. "I've had that happen several times," she recalls.

"The priests who are part of this ministry are also affirmed in their priesthood," she says. "They see the power of the Sacrament [of Reconciliation] through these women."

She recalls one priest who had been a bureaucrat since his ordination. After he became involved in Project Rachel, he said, "This is the first time in my life I've done what I was ordained to do."

Another priest found a reason for continuing his vocation. He "was literally set to leave the priesthood," recalls Thorn. "He had his letter written to the bishop." The next day an aborted woman called and met with the priest a few times. "By the time he was done helping her heal, he tore up his letter."

When priests attend training sessions, an additional benefit is networking with therapists whose services can be recommended to parishioners who need counseling for other problems such as marriage or bereavement.

Thorn's experience has been that about 10 percent of priests in a diocese attend these trainings, except in some dioceses where bishops have mandatory clergy days so all priests are trained.

To reduce some of the time she spends away from her family and her office, Thorn says she tries to "piggyback presentations in nearby dioceses whenever possible....I think I have personally trained 4,000-5,000 people across the country."

Another Project Rachel trainer who gives presentations is Father Blair Raum, a Baltimore priest who is director of diocesan outreach for NOPRAH. In a Catholic News Service article, he emphasizes the need for priests not to pass judgment or make women who have had abortions feel unwelcome in the Church. Some steps toward healing include identifying the aborted child as a boy or a girl, giving the child a name, establishing a memorial, writing a letter and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation.


Memories Linger

Mothers of aborted babies are not the only ones who are traumatized. "One of the phone calls I received was from a father who e-mailed 200 sites, and I was the only one who helped," Thorn explains. "The men are excluded. They're told they have no say. They have no right to be sad. And then they're sad and can't figure out why....The fathers who don't want the abortion are immediately crushed."

She recalls the aborted father who told her he was a Christian but not affiliated with any particular denomination. After several conversations about religion, the man said, "If you're any indication, maybe I ought to investigate the Catholic Church." Thorn located a priest near where the man lived who could "be present to him as an aborted father."

When Vicki Thorn gives presentations on college campuses, she encounters students who are troubled because they have discovered that a sibling was aborted. "Abortion is a very scary thing for a child to know because it means that your parent has the capacity to destroy someone," she explains.

Many of these young people contact Project Rachel through the Web site. "I corresponded with one young woman whose mother had an abortion when the girl was a toddler....It left the girl with post-traumatic stress disorder," she says. The young woman returned to the trailer court where she was raised, unpacked some items for her aborted brother and made a memorial shrine for him.

Grandparents of aborted babies are also devastated, Thorn explains. Some feel responsible because they encouraged the abortion; others didn't know their daughters were pregnant.


Family Values

When Vicki Thorn, 52, is not working on Project Rachel, she says that her "six kids keep me pretty busy." That includes working on wedding plans for the oldest child.

The Thorn family lives near Marquette University, where Vicki's husband, Bill, is an associate professor of journalism. Vicki notes that their home is "rarely tidy by virtue of eight people living there with two dogs, a bunny, a guinea pig, a hamster, three cats and two birds. People like to come because it's a very comfortable house."

She explains that she and Bill met "at the Kiss of Peace during Mass at the University of Minnesota's Newman Center. We both had an electric shock go up our arms—it's the only time it's ever happened to either one of us."

Vicki likes to make gifts for her loved ones: A few years ago she sewed bathrobes for each family member for Christmas. And she enjoys reading "huge amounts" of fiction and nonfiction. "I read a lot of eclectic stuff."

Helping others runs in the family. Vicki says that her parents "were very generous with their time." When her father died, she discovered that "he had a whole network of people that he checked on" on a regular basis. And now Vicki hears her daughters talk about continuing her ministry.

Dream Projects

But Vicki Thorn is too busy planning for the future to think about retirement. "One of the things I dream about is starting an organization of clergy from other denominations," she says. Thorn explains that no other mainline religions have a similar ministry.

Many of the people who contact Project Rachel are not Catholic. Even though they are told the ministry is open to anyone who is experiencing abortion aftermath, Thorn believes programs based in their own faith tradition would be more beneficial.

She explains that many of her dreams can't be implemented due to lack of funds and no time to do fund-raising. She would like to activate an additional toll-free number. It would be a "rollover number that would put the caller into the diocese they're calling from....We could use that in national ads.

"One of my dreams is to run an ad in USA Today for fathers in the sports and business sections," she continues. "I see what could be done, in terms of vision. But we don't have the resources. That's the hard part."

Additional funding would also allow Thorn to expand the staff. "There's so much that could be done and needs to be done because there's still this huge lie out there that abortion is a good thing."

'God Appointments'

Vicki Thorn describes some of the "God appointments" she has experienced. One time an inquisitive woman sitting next to her on a plane kept prying into why she was going to Florida. When Thorn told the stranger she would be speaking to priests and therapists about post-abortion healing, the woman got teary-eyed and said, "Oh, that's so important. I had my abortion 17 years ago." The woman added that she was meeting a friend in Florida who had had four abortions.

During that flight, Thorn explained post-abortion healing to this woman, who likely passed the information along to her friend.

Other God appointments occur whenever EWTN repeats a program about Thorn's ministry, she notes. Each time the show airs, Thorn receives phone calls from viewers for information about post-abortion healing. Many women explain that they were unexpectedly at home channel-surfing instead of at work.

"When she's ready, God is going to put into her life the next point for help," says Thorn. Her voice trembles when she reflects upon the positive feedback she has received from aborted women who express gratitude that someone cared about them: "You know you've made a difference in somebody's life."

Thorn realizes her ministry "has changed the face of the abortion issue in this country and abroad. I guess that's worthwhile," she says humbly. But she refuses to take too much credit, insisting that "God is in charge. I'm along for the ride."

For information about Project Rachel, contact your diocesan office or The National Office of Post-abortion Reconciliation and Healing, Inc., P.O. Box 07477, Milwaukee, WI 53207-0477. National referral line: 800-5WE- CARE. Business line: 414-483-4141. Web site: www.Marquette.edu/rachels.


Abortion's Other Victims

THE PRIMARY VICTIM of abortion is the baby, says Barb, who had an abortion in 1971 when she was in high school. "But the second victim is the woman" who has an abortion.

Janet had her abortion about 20 years ago, when her marriage was crumbling and she had three young children to support. These Catholic women from Ohio explain how they were helped by Project Rachel, the Church's diocesan-based post-abortion healing ministry.

Saving Lives

Barb says she had a legal abortion in New York, where an aunt lived, instead of giving her baby up for adoption because, at the time, abortion seemed like a "quick cure."

Years later, Barb's mother explained why she was so supportive of the legal abortion. Barb's mother had been traumatized by a "back-alley abortion" during her first marriage, when she discovered that her husband was having an affair and his girlfriend was also pregnant.

But Barb's legal abortion was also traumatic. "I was 21 weeks pregnant and had a saline-solution abortion," she recalls. No one told her that she would go through labor and delivery or that she would need to grieve for her lost child.

Barb says she believed that Catholics "didn't get many chances to make mistakes." Following her abortion, she "gave up on my religion and my God. I had thoughts of a real condemning God, and I figured I had done the ultimate."

Eventually, Barb married the father of her aborted baby. When she became pregnant again in 1976, she says, "I knew that God was going to punish me somehow....Something was going to be wrong with this baby." When her healthy son was born, she was unable to bond with him. Then in 1984, she suffered a miscarriage and became depressed. "I think that miscarriage rekindled the mother instinct." When she gave birth to her second son in 1985, she was overprotective of the baby.

Barb says she took her children to church but "couldn't bring myself to tell a priest that I had an abortion." Then her involvement in a 12-step program convinced her that "God could and would forgive me." Originally, she became involved in Al-Anon because her husband was an alcoholic. Then she realized she had been covering up her own feelings with alcohol, too.

When she gained the confidence to meet with her parish priest and tell him about her abortion, "He cried with me," she recalls. "I realized I was home and could remain Catholic." Eventually, she divorced her husband.

"Project Rachel was a lifesaver for me," says Barb, who learned about the program from a friend who saw a notice in her parish bulletin. "Project Rachel is pro-life," she emphasizes, explaining that post-abortive women suffer because they "have a great regard for life" and "realize what they've done."

Confidentiality is always stressed with Project Rachel. But Barb explains why she wants to talk about her experience on retreats and at high schools: "If I can save just one baby or one woman's life from any further destruction, I've done my job."

Return to God

Like Barb, Janet was also involved in a 12-step program. But unlike Barb, Janet says she was "barely pregnant" when she had a legal abortion in her hometown. "After it was over, I went home and cooked dinner and forgot about it to the best of my ability....I became depressed, not really knowing why. I thought I was going to go to hell, never to be forgiven, rightfully so. It affected everything."

Later, she divorced her husband and told a man she was dating about her abortion. He explained that he was the father of an aborted baby and bought her a china doll to remind them of the children they lost. Janet dreamed "that all these babies were in my basement," she recalls. "I had to decide if I was going to keep them or not. This time I made the right decision."

Around the time of this dream, Janet drove past protesters in front of an abortion clinic on her way to an appointment with a therapist she had been seeing for seven years. The incident made her cry, and she told her therapist about her abortion for the first time.

These events happened around the same time she talked about her abortion at a Christ Renews His Parish weekend. A woman who heard Janet's talk invited her to a Project Rachel retreat, where most of the presentations are given by post-abortive women. "Project Rachel takes you out of the hell you've been living in and brings you in to God's plan for you," she says. "Our faith is about reconciliation and forgiveness....We recognize that we sin and make mistakes. All we need to do is go to God and we can receive forgiveness."

 

Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of this publication. She believes the benefits of post-abortion healing should be explained in every homily, parish bulletin and Catholic-press article that mentions the negative effects of abortion.

 

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