By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
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"We weren't asked; it wasn't discussed," he says. "We didn't talk about other alternatives or anything. You talk about choice. There wasn't any choice that was going on. It was kind of a presumption and a movement toward how we could make this problem go away by aborting our child."
When Joe, Martha and Martha's mother arrived at the clinic, Joe paid for the abortion — about $350, as he remembers — then sat and waited, feeling both numbness and relief.
He would be numb, he says, for decades.
Fast-forward to the mid-'90s, after Joe had finished college, served in the military and renewed his Catholic faith. He'd married Martha and had two children with her, a boy and a girl.
One Sunday, he was at Mass without Martha. He heard a sermon about reconciliation and healing after abortion, a subject that had been "untouchable" between him and his wife in the twenty years since the abortion — even in the first years after, when she had suicidal episodes, screaming that she had killed her baby and didn't deserve to live, Joe says. The doctors wrote off these statements as the nonsensical ranting of a depressed woman, and it went unaddressed in her treatment.
Joe didn't think of the abortion often. "My coping strategy was just to harden my heart and just put it away."
The sermon, he says, "hit me like a ton of bricks, like a thunderbolt. Like, 'Wow, that's it; I can't avoid that anymore. I can't pretend like it's not there.'"
It took weeks for Joe to tell Martha what he'd heard about the services the church offered, how he thought it could help Martha cope with her underlying depression. A few weeks after that, they found a babysitter and headed to a counseling session at the church, their first introduction to Project Rachel.
Project Rachel is a national program that has been offered within the Archdiocese of St. Louis since the early '80s. Women who have had abortions are invited to support groups and counseling, given the chance to confess their sins to a priest and receive penance, and participate in a naming ceremony for their unborn child, after which they are given a sort of faux birth certificate.
Project Rachel counseling has always been open to men in couples, says Beth Lauver, director of the Respect Life Apostolate, the St. Louis archdiocese's office for pro-life programs. However, the project's retreats were only open to women.
Then Lauver heard of a program in Kansas City, Kansas, that was essentially identical to Project Rachel, but tailored for men, called Project Joseph.
Pat Klausner, program coordinator for Projects Rachel and Joseph in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, says that though men were welcome to join the group, she started a separate program in 2004 when she suspected the name "Rachel" turned men away from the program.
In the six years since she began Project Joseph in Kansas City, she says, about a dozen men have gone through the program.
"It's very difficult for men to come forward," Klausner says. "They don't realize how much this has impacted them."
The first announcement of St. Louis' Project Joseph appeared in mid-July in church bulletins throughout the archdiocese. Above a photograph of a young man in a button-down shirt with his eyes closed and palms pressed together in an earnestly prayerful position, a headline announces, "Services Expanding for Those Wounded by Abortion."
"Abortion has long been seen as a 'women's-only issue,'" the article begins. "While mothers certainly carry the physical scars of abortion, mothers, fathers, grandparents and so many others have deep emotional and spiritual wounds after the losses of these children."
Fathers, the article insists, suffer uniquely, and the Church can help. Project Joseph will be the St. Louis archdiocese's first men's-only post-abortion healing program, kicking off with its first retreat on September 25.
"It's tough for a lot of men to acknowledge a source of pain in their lives — but they're acknowledging that this is the loss of their child," Lauver says. "Some knew about it when it was happening, some didn't. So the type of grief and the feelings and emotions are all very different."
"There's clearly a difference between the father's involvement and the mother's involvement," Joe, now 52, says. "For me it was being helpless, being irresponsible, being selfish and just not being there as I should have been. But I didn't have the physical pain and the memory of that, nor did I have the motherhood."
Susanne Harvath has worked with Project Rachel since its inception in St. Louis, first as its director and now as the clinical director for Project Rachel and the nascent Project Joseph. She is a professional counselor and also teaches classes at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury.
Harvath says men suffer feelings of regret and guilt after an abortion, which usually intensify with time.