Having an abortion is a traumatic life-altering experience that can cause physical and emotional pain and suffering for years to come. This was the stark message from Cheryl Riley, the director of the Archdiocese of Newark’s Respect Life Office, who experienced it first-hand at the age of 19.
Riley shared her personal story of post-abortion syndrome and healing throughout the month of October for Respect Life Month. It’s an education she never received when she was younger. As such, Riley has devoted her life to helping women and also men learn the truth about abortion and of God’s healing love and mercy.
Riley has been sharing her message for many years, but in October, she steps up her visits to parishes, schools, Girl Scout meetings, and confirmation classes.
“It’s only through God’s love and grace that I’m able to stand up here today and speak about my story and what happened from the result of my abortion,” Riley told an audience at Saint Paul parish in Ramsey on Respect Life Sunday, Oct. 4. The event was livestreamed and is available to watch here.
Riley was a faithful Catholic when she was younger. But after her abortion, she said there was a time in her life when she didn’t even think she belonged in a church.
“I couldn’t even enter a church without crying,” she said. “And now, when I show up to work at the chancery as the director of Respect Life, sometimes I sit in awe like, ‘how did this happen?’ But I know how it happened. It’s because I asked for healing and God heard my prayer. I found out years later that the church is for us and the church has always been there for us.”
Riley was one of six children growing up in a busy household.
“I don’t ever remember my parents talking to me about my sexuality, about drugs, alcohol,” she said. “We never had those conversations. I guess they thought I was going to learn it in school or CCD. The only education I got was in the schoolyard by my friends. If your friends said it, you thought it was the truth.”
Her peers taught her that it was okay for a girl to be on birth control or to have one or two abortions as long as it wasn’t a form of birth control, she said.
“I thought it might happen to other people, but that would never happen to me.”
Riley was eight weeks pregnant when her boyfriend dropped her off at an abortion clinic and went to get something to eat at a diner next door. She was alone and confused. What she would experience next would haunt her for years to come.
“Up until this point, my boyfriend and I were having fun,” she said. “Life was good. I wanted to please him. I wanted to be with him, but I could not stand up for my own child’s life.”
When she got to the clinic that day, something came over her and she froze.
“I remember saying to my boyfriend, ‘I cannot do this,’ but he gave me that little nudge and said, ‘Yes you can.’”
When Riley walked in, she described how the first interaction was someone asking her for payment for the abortion.
“There was no talking to me about what would happen. How would I feel? Are you sure you want to do this? How are you getting home? I wanted someone to talk to me. I wanted someone to tell me what was going to happen.”
When Riley was in the operating room, she was told she was about eight weeks pregnant. There was no further conversation.
“The nurse, the anesthesiologist, and the doctor didn’t even care to know my name,” she said. “Not one of them said to me. ‘How are you? What’s your name?’ Nothing. All I was to them was a big dollar sign. That’s all they cared about. Because they had to get me in and out because that waiting room was filled with girls.”
When she woke up from the abortion, she described how she was crying and bleeding. “Every single cell in my body was hurting,” Riley said.
She went to the bathroom and passed out. She described how they put her in bed and gave her juice and cookies as her aftercare.
“And they told me I’d be okay in a few days,” Riley said. “I suffered through 12 years before I was okay.”
Her relationship with her boyfriend immediately changed and she became angry and hateful.
“I was angry at the doctors, the nurses,” Riley said. “I was angry at my parents for never speaking to me about my sexuality. I was angry at my CCD teachers. I was angry at the priest because why wasn’t anyone talking about this from the pulpit. And most of all, I was angry at God, because how could He let this happen to me? Where was He? So, I pushed God way out of my life.”
She turned to alcohol and drugs to cope and was suicidal with no self-esteem. She was living on her own self-will.
“I didn’t care about myself,” Riley said. “Every time I wanted to forget about the abortion, I’d stuff it down, but it would pop up like a beach ball in a pool.”
She describes that her relationship with her boyfriend became toxic, and that he became physically and verbally abusive.
“I wanted him because I wanted my baby back and he was the connection to my baby,” Riley realized. “I tried to go out with other guys. I tried to be a good sister, a good friend, a good daughter and I couldn’t. That abortion was eating me up.”
Her road to healing was slow and began with a private therapist who refused to listen when Riley brought up the abortion. She also turned to psychologists, psychiatrists, her mom, and friends, but said nothing worked.
Eventually, a work friend invited her to confession.
“I walked into that confessional and I just went hysterical crying and I confessed my abortion,” Riley said. “The priest was so kind and loving and he gave me absolution and he said to me, ‘You come back and talk to me.’ And I left there feeling like, wow, can I really be forgiven for this?”
Riley shared about her subsequent marriage to a loving husband and the negative effects of the abortion on the relationship. Even with the birth of a daughter and son, she still cried over the baby she aborted.
It wasn’t until years later when Riley found true healing and finally accepted God’s love and forgiveness.
“I woke up on a Sunday morning and went to church one day,” Riley said.
She was sitting in a pew reading the bulletin and came across a little blurb that asked: “Are you suffering from an abortion experience?”
“I almost fell out of the pew,” Riley said. “I called the next day and my predecessor answered the phone and she spoke to me about post-abortion syndrome.”
Riley began weekly counseling with a trained priest. In 1997, went on the first Rachel’s Vineyard retreat with the Archdiocese of Newark.
“I couldn’t believe the healing that I experienced,” she said. “I was able to name my child, give her dignity, and memorialize her in a beautiful memorial Mass. She died a violent death the day I aborted her. But, I was able to honor her and give her dignity.”
Riley described how she was able to receive God’s forgiveness and finally forgave herself.
This is when she made a commitment to share her story and became part of the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat team. She also took a job at a high school to share pro-life work.
In 2013, she received a call from then-Archbishop Myers to join the Respect Life Office, Riley recalled. “I’m in awe sometimes of my journey to get here.”
People need to know that there are hope and healing after an abortion, she said.
“Abortion is a trauma,” Riley said. “And we cannot go through an abortion experience and go back to society and be okay. It doesn’t work. Women do not use abortion as a form of birth control. It is reenactment trauma that these girls go through. They get pregnant, they abort, they find themselves pregnant again. ‘This time it’s going to be different. This time my boyfriend will marry me. This time my husband won’t leave me.’ And they’re back in the abortion clinic over and over.”
There are many factors that push a woman towards an abortion, Riley said. They include not wanting to get kicked out of their home and not wanting their husband to leave if the child has special needs. There also are concerns about breakups, schools, and careers.
“But when we choose life, God’s going to take care of everything for these women,” Riley said. “God has blessed me with three beautiful children and he has shown his blessings for me over and over and over.”
For more information about the Respect Life Office, Rachel’s Vineyard, and post abortion healing visit www.rcan.org/offices-and-ministries/respect-life.