Through special training with pro-life experts last May, 30 diocesan clergy heard of the feelings of guilt and anxiety experienced by women who terminated the lives of their unborn children. They also learned how to help them heal.
Cheryl Calire, director of Pro-Life Activities for the Diocese of Buffalo, took part in a pilot program with members of the USCCB Pro-Life Secretariat to train diocesan teams, as well as priests, on how to conduct healings through a program called Project Rachel.
Women who have had abortions frequently suffer from guilt, shame, depression and low self-esteem. Women may experience suicidal thoughts and withdrawal from their spouses. Anyone having difficulty dealing with a past abortion is encouraged to call a confidential hotline at 716-847-2211, where Calire or Deacon Michael Dulak will talk to the client.
"There's a huge difference between someone who is newly post abortive, within the past month or so, versus someone who got the courage to give us a call after 30 years," Calire said, adding she also receives calls from men. Together, they will plan the next course of healing.
"We normally invite them to come in and speak with either myself or Deacon Mike or both of us together, to try to find out exactly where they are in their journey, and to help them discern what it is that they actually need," Calire said. "Sometimes it will be just a peer counseling that they need, or they need to be referred to a mental health professional."
Calire said some of the people who call are Catholic and want to prepare for reconciliation. Some people have already been to confession, but don't feel forgiven.
"We try to pair them up with one of the priests who have gone through our training," Calire said. "Once we know that is going to happen, it's a match where we feel the client and the priest will feel comfortable moving forward after we met with them."
Father Paul Nogaro is one of the priests who sat in on the training led by the pro-life secretariat team.
"I think it's an important topic," said the longtime pastor of St. Stephen Parish on Grand Island. "Not that I encounter a lot of situations, but in confession it occasionally happens that someone will bring up that topic. I know it is certainly something very prevalent in modern society, so I wanted to be more informed about it."
The training involved a presentation on why people have abortions, how to bring about God's healing, and encouraging adoption as an alternative. The team advised the priests to invite the women to come back after confession to talk more.
"The first thing is to extend God's mercy to this person," Father Nogaro said. "Sometimes I try to find out why they would have taken this step. That helps you understand how to deal with it. If it's a teenager, it's different than a woman who has five children and just can't necessarily handle another. There are different situations. So I think the first thing is to extend a merciful presence of Christ and understand all sins can be forgiven. This is not something that God would never forgive. I think very often in these cases there is a lot of guilt, the feeling that this is something they could never be forgiven for. So, the first thing I would mention to them, one time in confession might not relieve those anxieties, but it's a healing process."
During the process of phone calls, Calire receives, she might recommend peer counseling or talking with a mental health professional.
Jennifer Nahrebeski, a licensed mental health counselor, handles calls from people who need the latter. She started volunteering at the St. Gianna Pregnancy Center years ago.
"It's such a taboo topic that people are afraid to speak out," Nahrebeski said. "People who regret their abortion have nowhere to turn. To find a counselor who has pro-life values or is able to counsel in a pro-life manner is difficult to find."
She has seen the positive results of the ministry.
"Whether or not they are confessing to a priest or resolving some of the issues in counseling, it's a weight lifted off their shoulders, and their symptoms of anxiety and depression will decrease," Nahrebeski said. "Some women are harming themselves. 'I killed my baby. I made my baby feel pain. I'm going to cause pain upon myself; physical pain as a way to cope.' Through the therapeutic process, time heals. There are grieving activities that you go through, just as you would for the loss of a child you didn't intend to lose. It's very similar."