Salt Lake City -- Every year, more than 1 million American women have abortions. For some, it is an especially painful decision that leaves them living monuments to regret.
Some suffer for years before making peace God and themselves and finding reconcilation.
That's where the Roman Catholic Church's Project Rachel comes in, a training program for priests and other church workers to minister to women -- and men -- struggling with the spiritual aftermath of an abortion.
"Guilt is the big thing, and sorrow," said the Rev. George Davich, pastor of Salt Lake City's St. Vincent de Paul. "They think, `I'll never be forgiven because I took a life.' "
For those seeking counseling and church reconciliation, there is no debate over the morality of abortion; they have already judged themselves. "They just can't seem to get over what they've done, even though it may have happened 10 years ago," Davich said. "In fact, I had one that happened 25 years ago.
"Some show a lot of anger because someone said, `This is what you have to do.' It may have been a parent or a boyfriend or it might have been a husband. I try to rid them of their anger and guilt.
"You can't undo it, but you have to let them know God forgives," Davich said.
A confidential healing ministry, Project Rachel was founded in 1984 at the Diocese of Milwaukee and quickly spread throughout the nation. It takes its name from Jeremiah 31:15-17: " . . . Rachel weeping for her children, refused to be comforted . . . because they were not."
Most of Salt Lake City's 65 to 70 priests have received post-abortion counseling instruction, said Veola Burchett, the diocese's Family and Pro-Life director. In the seven years Project Rachel has operated in Salt Lake City, more than 100 have sought the Sacrament of Reconciliation after counseling.
"Sometimes I'll get three or four calls a month," Burchett said. "Since it involves such a highly private sacrament, it's difficult to come up with an estimate. I don't know how many approach priests on their own."
Davich, who has counseled at least six women struggling with abortion guilt, says God's forgiveness is often an easier sell than convincing them to forgive themselves.
"Some feel they aren't worthy to pray, so you try to take that unworthy issue out of them. Everybody's worthy, that's our Christian belief," he said. "You say, `Christ forgave all of us for the things that we do, so who are you not to forgive yourself?' "
The Rev. Kenneth Vialpando, pastor of Salt Lake's Our Lady of Guadalupe, also has counseled several women on abortion-related matters. He says it's all about healing.
"I try to take a pastoral approach, tell them of God's forgiveness . . . that there isn't anything we could have thought or done that cannot be forgiven," he said. "He's here to wrap his arms around us and wants to take that burden and load off us."
Still, some will struggle throughout their lives to forgive themselves, not seeking the consolation of the church for years after an abortion. "By the time they recognize that God is not going to condemn them, it can take years. In one case I dealt with recently it was 17 years later," Vialpando said.
"We want to reach out to people for whatever their loss," he added. "We need the ministry of compassion and healing in our churches."
Davich and Vialpando echo the message of grace delivered by Pope John Paul II in 1995, who pleaded with women who had abortions to "not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope."
"Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly," the pontiff said. "The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace. . . ."
Burchett has discovered that men, too, can suffer profoundly -- either when they first learn they fathered an aborted child, or with subsequent guilt for being party to one. "Sometimes, they aren't given a choice and now they find themselves mourning the death of a child they didn't know existed," Burchett said. "In a matter of seconds they have become a father and then have the child taken."
Being involved with Project Rachel also has soften Burchett's own, admittedly once-self-righteous attitude toward women who have had abortions, though he continues to steadfastly oppose abortion and also counsels women to choose abortion alternatives.
"I realize at the time they made their choices they felt they really had no choices," she said. "We can never say, `Oh, I would never do anything like that.'
"We all make wrong choices [and] there will always be those scars, but scars are part of what makes us the people we are."
Provided by: Pregnancy Centers Online offers a lengthy list of national and local ministries that help women who have suffered the pain of an abortion. See the post-abortion section of http://www.pregnancycenters.org