Prison program helps men cope with past abortions

Deacon Don Battiston remembers the day well. It was a Tuesday, and he was on one of his regular visits to prisoners at Okeechobee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison located in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla. Five days earlier he had attended a conference for prison ministers within the diocese led by Donna Gardner from the diocese’s Respect Life Office and coordinator of Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortive healing ministry.

In her presentation, Gardner brought up a strong correlation between abortion and a life of crime among men.

Deacon Battiston wasn’t buying it, though, and he set out to prove Gardner’s theory wrong on his next visit to Okeechobee.

“Before we began our Communion service, I passed out a sheet of paper to each of the men,” he said. “On one side it said ‘yes’ and on the other it said ‘no.’ Then I said to them, ‘Have you ever been negatively affected by abortion? That means your wife or your girlfriend or whomever had an abortion, and you paid for it, forced her to do it or helped her to get it.’”

What happened next shocked him.

“Of the 75 or 80 men there, more than half had said ‘yes,’” Deacon Battiston said. “I went to Donna and told her we have to get something going on this.”

Idea becomes reality

Thomas Lawlor, Catholic Charities director of Catholic Charities Prison Ministries for the Diocese of Palm Beach, agreed.

“When Deacon [Battison] came to us with these numbers, we were stunned and knew that we had to do something,” he said.

Lawlor approached the Florida Department of Corrections, and they allowed Gardner to put together a pilot program of a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat for the prison.

Rachel’s Vineyard, which was founded by Theresa and Kevin Burke, began in 1986 as a support group for post-abortive women. It offered a model for counselors to use in working with women who were grieving the loss of their aborted children.

Rachel’s Vineyard evolved into a transforming weekend retreat that is offered in 48 states and 57 countries, according to its website. In 2003, the program became a ministry of Priests for Life.

Gardner, who has facilitated Rachel’s Vineyard retreats for more than 20 years, had to modify the weekend retreat into a two-hour program, spread out over a 10-week period. Equally challenging was that this would be the first time a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat would be given to an all-male audience.

“I came to realize that one of the keys here in working with these men would be the power of the word (of God),” Gardner told Our Sunday Visitor.

She was familiar with a Bible study that used the word of God extensively, called “Healing the Father’s Heart” (Baker, $12.99), which became the name of the retreat.

Getting started

The first retreat led by Gardner and Lawlor was in May 2011.

“I can remember it was an eye-opening experience just to get into the chapel,” Gardner said. “We went through check point after check point.”

In the program’s first few weeks, Gardner works with the men — of all faith backgrounds — to help them understand God.

“It is important for the men to realize that abortion is a soul wound and that only God can heal that,” she explained. “Once we have understood who God is for each of those in attendance, then we work on understanding his forgiveness. It is only then that we invite the men to accept his forgiveness and accept that their child is in heaven.”

Lawlor shared that it is hard for the men to understand and accept the fact that God is going to forgive them after killing their babies.

“It shocked me,” Gardner said, “that these men make themselves so vulnerable. I am in there with murderer. They are so eager to share their experiences. God works on their hearts. There has been a real brotherhood growing beyond the walls because of their deceased children.”

Cause and effect

Kevin Burke, Rachel’s Vineyard cofounder and a licensed social worker and pastoral associate of Priests for Life, has for many years helped men who have been hurt by abortion.

In January, Burke attended one of the Healing the Father’s Heart retreats at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, Fla. At that time, he was able to sit down with four alumni of the program and hear their stories.

He discovered that as boys these men were, in various ways, estranged from their fathers. They were beaten, sexually abused or ignored by their dads. In their teenage years through young adulthood, the men participated in at least one abortion decision.

While they might not have understood it at the time, the abortion decision affected them deeply on a personal level.

“Because boys have such a strong need for affirmation, emotional connection and guidance from their fathers, it wounds them when this is not present or the connection is one of violence and abuse,” Burke told OSV. “This is especially damaging to all boys, but in particular to a more sensitive young man who desperately needs and hungers for the acceptance, love and guidance of their father. In rejection of those vulnerable, painful feelings and the rage of that rejection, young men can embrace a false sense of male identity and power rooted in selfishness, exploitation and a kind of reckless, hyper masculinity that can escalate to violence.”

Burke added that in the formation of male identity, risk taking, aggression and adventure can be part of a healthy male personality if channeled in positive ways such as sports, hunting or outdoor adventure.

In listening to these men, Burke discovered all of them would join the military in hopes of rebuilding their fractured manhood and to give them a new start.

“Instead, the military proved to be a toxic decision for these men,” Burke explained. “It provided an outlet for their growing rage, pain and unresolved grief. They hungered for opportunities to express this rage in the socially sanctioned context of war (Vietnam, Middle East) and criminal activity. Thus, this corrupted wounded manhood nurtured a complete lack of respect for life and an equally callous disregard for their personal safety and futures.”

Which, in some cases, led to murder, he added.


“Absolutely,” Deacon Battiston said when asked if the program is working. “This is a fantastic program. Anytime we can get these men out of themselves and to be able to share, it is a great thing. It breaks down the barriers of mistrust.”

Burke says Healing the Father’s Heart has been effective.

“You can see the transformation that takes place in these men’s lives revealing that the spiritual and emotional benefits of the weekend program are also found in this version of Rachel’s Vineyard for prison ministry,” he said.

Lawlor estimates that since that first retreat three years ago, approximately 70 men have gone through the program. This year, Gardner and Lawlor will be offering their 13th prison retreat.

Gardner now has four men who have been through the program and serve as facilitators of the weekly programs.

“These guys are the ones who now put these retreats together,” she said.

As for the road ahead, Gardner and Lawlor hope to reach out to other prisons in other states, and they have already been contacted by a Rachel’s Vineyard effort in Ireland that wants to adopt the program.

“This is the first of its kind in terms of ministering to men in prison,” Gardner said. “Nobody else is doing it. We hope that this can serve as a model for this ministry to expand.”

Eddie O’Neill writes from Missouri.