Portland -- Standing at the altar in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary with child, next to a purple-robed priest solemnly looking on, Liane Wolters confessed to what no woman had publicly admitted in a Portland Roman Catholic church before: She had an abortion.
Her highly personal story, told during Masses Saturday and Sunday, signaled an areawide push for a Catholic post-abortion outreach called Project Rachel that has spread to 130 dioceses across the country. The project is uniquely Catholic, emphasizing healing and forgiveness for women suffering post-abortion regret and trauma. It's similar to widespread Protestant efforts with similar goals.
The programs have their critics, mostly abortion advocates who deny the existence of post-abortion trauma despite much research revealing it.
It was in this broader context that Wolters walked to the pulpit at St. Rose of Lima church, in Northeast Portland, during Sunday Mass. The fact that a lay person would address the congregation at all during this sacred time was unusual. That role usually is reserved for priests.
But that Wolters would tell of her abortion, considered a sin so severe that it's technically grounds for excommunication, was extraordinary. Doug Alles, director of social services for Catholic Charities in the Portland archdiocese said he thinks the public admission was a first in the archdiocese.
Wolters, who has told her story more than 20 times in the Seattle archdiocese, where she lives, said she is certain her Portland testimony was unprecedented because of the layers of permission that were necessary, all the way up to the archbishop.
She told a rapt audience that she was raised "in a strong, pro-life Catholic family, went to Catholic schools and worked in a Catholic convent," always attending Mass at least once a week. Yet 24 years ago, at age 19, she had a relationship with an older businessman and became pregnant.
"Everything was smooth for a few weeks until he gradually stopped talking about marriage and started talking about abortion," Wolters said.
Wolters said she had an abortion and "was never the same again."
Three years later she had a second abortion, again under pressure from a man she was having a relationship with.
"I withdrew from him and more into myself, refusing to deal with either abortion," Wolters said. "I was totally numb. I never smiled nor could I have fun. I simply did not know how."
Wolters eventually married and had three children but said she was unable to hug her children or tell them she loved them.
"For years I had a strong urge to cut myself while cooking, and when I did, I passed them off as accidents," she said. "I had to fight with myself to control my car because I wanted to crash into the side of the freeway wall."
These were, she said, "the classic symptoms of self-abuse stemming from an abortion experience."
She said she repeatedly confessed her sin to a priest through the sacrament of penance but "left feeling as empty as before I went in." She joined a Protestant support group called "Heart to Heart," and learned that "I was not crazy, that others had experienced the same feelings and behaviors as I did."
Still, she longed to connect with fellow Catholics who had similar experiences. Eventually, through Project Rachel she found the self-forgiveness she was looking for.
Project Rachel was founded in 1984 by Vicki Thorn, a Milwaukee woman who tells of studies saying Catholic women are just as likely to have abortions as non-Catholics.
American bishops, acutely aware of the problem, embraced Project Rachel, named after an Old Testament woman who wept inconsolably about the loss of her children. Pope John Paul II gave it his blessing.
Thorn set up a national hot line (800-593-2273) and says she has trained as many as 10,000 priests and lay counselors with techniques to meet the needs of women, and sometimes men, suffering after abortions.
In an interview, Thorn said those techniques include "naming the child, working through a memorial to the child and writing a letter to the baby."
The trauma often takes 10 years or more to surface, Thorn said, with some women coming to grips with it when they become grandmothers. For others, she said, the trauma is triggered by infant baptisms, a miscarriage, a movie that discusses prenatal development or the realization that the unborn child they conceived would be a teen-ager if not aborted.
At the Mass, Wolters told of a 12-week confidential program offered through her archdiocese in Seattle and "healing retreats" that led to her psychological and spiritual restoration, as well as new bonding with her three children.
In the Portland archdiocese, Project Rachel has been quietly in existence since 1994 but is being promoted for the first time this year, with an Oregon hot line (800-249-8074), a small army of counselors and an April 16-18 retreat. Wolters' story during the weekend Masses was part of the advertising.
She told the congregation to "never judge a woman who has had an abortion" because "this decision was probably not made on her own," but came with pressure from a boyfriend, husband, parents, or abortion facility staff. Still, she said "abortion is never the right choice," and that she probably wouldn't have had one if she had heard a Catholic woman tell her story of abortion long ago.
When told of the Catholic ministry, Sandi Hansen, the Oregon affiliate of the national Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, called it hypocritical. "This person is not bad. She shouldn't feel the need for confession. She's not a sinful person." Hansen intimated that women who have had abortions should feel no remorse.
Yet, Lynne Bissonnette, a Portland psychiatrist, said, "I have taken care of a number of women who have had an abortion and who have regretted it and had depression afterwards."
After her Sunday testimony, a handful of churchgoers told Wolters of their own pain after abortions. Wolters said her experience, and the experience of hundreds she has counseled, tells her that studies denying the severity of post-abortion trauma are politically motivated "baloney."
The Rev. Richard Huneger, pastor at St. Rose of Lima, agreed and said he sees no inconsistency when the same Catholic church that condemns abortion offers a helping hand of restoration to those who have chosen it.
"If someone kills a child in the womb, they should feel guilty about it," said Huneger, adding that few have been publicly excommunicated and that none who seek restoration will be. "They've done something contrary to God's will. That's the proper reaction to objective evil, just as someone who is acting in a racist way should feel guilty.
"But we also recommend that where evil has been perpetuated there can be regret, sorrow, forgiveness and a future. This is the whole message of the Gospel, that the future can be different."