When a Contract Is Broken


She is assiduously private, by her own description, “a WASP, someone who doesn’t exactly wear her feelings on her sleeve.” True to that depiction, she exudes the well-bred reserve of a woman intended to have her name in the news only at birth, at death, on the occasion of her debut to society and upon her marriage to a young man of comparable stature.

For most of her adult life, Sheila Rauch Kennedy went along with that formula. But last week, the 48-year-old former wife of Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II broke the mold big time. She showed up on prime-time network television, preternaturally composed, yet angry as she faced off against the formidable forces of contemporary America’s leading political dynasty and the Roman Catholic Church. And she lent her own face--younger and wearing the ebullience of her wedding day--to the cover of “Shattered Faith” (Pantheon), her new book about her battle to stop the church from annulling her marriage.

In her home here near Harvard University, Rauch Kennedy said Friday that “I was always quiet,” by all accounts the model political wife. In her silence, she was also the ideal political ex-wife, even after her husband married his assistant, Beth Kelly, in a civil ceremony 1993. But her composure vanished when officials of the Boston Archdiocese informed her in 1993 that her former husband had petitioned to annul their 12-year marriage. The annulment would effectively expunge their marriage. Rauch Kennedy, a city planner, believed it would therefore imply that their children were conceived in an unsanctified union. She found both possibilities untenable.


“My husband and I had known each other for nine years before we married in a Catholic ceremony,” writes Rauch Kennedy, whose wedding ceremony was also overseen by her family’s Episcopal minister. “We had been married for 12 years before we divorced, and we had two wonderful children”--twin boys, Matthew and Joseph III, now 16. “I could not understand how anyone could claim that our marriage had never been valid. It seemed that if I were to agree to an annulment, I would be lying to God.”

The fact that a tribunal of the Boston Archdiocese granted the annulment late last year appears as an epilogue to Rauch Kennedy’s tale of jousting with a system set in place by the Council of Trent in 1563. (A request for a reaction to Rauch Kennedy’s book from the Boston Archdiocese went unanswered.) Rauch Kennedy has appealed the Boston tribunal’s decision to the Vatican.

“Considering that they just got around to apologizing to Galileo, I’m not expecting an epistle in the mail any day now,” she said.

Meanwhile, she makes no secret of her contempt for what she sees as the hypocrisy of an institution that refuses to end troubled marriages through divorce, instead using annulment to declare that such marriages never existed. Nearly 60,000 annulments are granted each year in the United States--many of them, Rauch Kennedy said, erasing long-term marriages with children, exactly the kind of family life the church encourages. The church is an institution based as much on trust as on faith, and an annulment, she contends, almost inevitably causes the spouse who has not sought it to feel betrayed.

Father John Lahey, a canon law expert who is head of the Morreau Seminary at Notre Dame University, said annulment frequently provides former spouses with “a way of helping them reflect, of grieving, if you will, over what happened in the relationship.”

The number of annulments granted in this country has increased dramatically in the last 25 years “because of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on Marriage,” Lahey explained, in which “the personalist aspect” of marriage took on new significance. “You also have a development of behavioral science [within the church], which has helped people understand the human decision-making process--and helped them to understand what it means for two people to make this union, this lifelong commitment” called marriage.


Annulment has long provided a path back to the church’s sacraments for divorced Catholics of wealth and power. For example, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan’s first marriage was annulled. The office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rauch Kennedy’s husband’s uncle, would say only that the second marriage “was blessed by the church.”

Weeks ago, Massachusetts’ junior Democratic senator, John F. Kerry, confirmed that he was seeking to annul his 12-year first marriage, which ended in 1984. Julia Thorne, Kerry’s first wife, has said she will not contest the annulment, but in a letter to church officials she denounced the process as “hypocritical, anti-family and dishonest.”

“Lack of due discretion,” the basis for Rauch Kennedy’s annulment, is among the most common grounds.To Rauch Kennedy, the idea that a 12-year marriage preceded by a nine-year courtship could be nullified on this basis seems ludicrous.

“Under these guidelines, probably the whole U.S. Congress lacks due discretion,” she said. “It’s preposterous.”

Blasting the annulment process as “a hoax” and “a kangaroo court,” Rauch Kennedy suggests in her book that her ex-husband may share some of those feelings. In urging her not to fight the process, Rauch Kennedy writes that he viewed himself as “a cafeteria Catholic” and dismissed annulment as “Catholic gobbledygook.” She paints him as demanding and hot tempered--”the family pit bull,” as the six-term congressman once dubbed himself. She writes that Rep. Kennedy often called her “a nobody,” and that he berated her, a Protestant, for taking on the Catholic Church.

“ ‘Oh God, you’re not even Catholic,’ ” Rauch Kennedy writes that her ex-husband replied when she vowed to contest the annulment. She said he asserted: “ ‘You’ve got no right to believe this. This is my church, Sheila.’ ”


The flood of attention, none of it positive, comes as Kennedy prepares for an expected run for Massachusetts governor in 1998. Newspaper polls showed last week that the annulment flap had tarnished the congressman’s popularity, particularly among women.


Rauch Kennedy’s objections to the annulment surfaced in 1993, when she responded to what she considered a “flippant” article in Time magazine in which the congressman described annulment as a “Catholic divorce.” Rauch Kennedy replied with a throw-down-the-gauntlet letter to the magazine’s editors.

In Washington late last week, the congressman called a news conference to apologize for “any of the mistakes I made” during his first marriage. He conceded that he disagreed with certain “elements of church teaching,” and said he pushed for the annulment as “the only way that I can go to Communion with my children and my wife--and that is important to me.”

In the congressman’s home district, however, his remarks were overshadowed by a front-page report in the Boston Globe alleging that his brother and former business partner, Michael Kennedy, had conducted a love affair with a teenage baby sitter. The newspaper reported that Michael Kennedy’s wife, Victoria Gifford Kennedy--daughter of sports commentator Frank Gifford--found her husband in bed with the baby sitter, and that their marriage had fallen apart as a result.

In her Cambridge living room, decorated in the kind of shabby chic found in any good old Yankee country club, Rauch Kennedy remained serene and determined not to dish dirt on her children’s relatives. Instead, she shifted the focus to the five women--all victims, in Rauch Kennedy’s portrayal, of the inequities of annulment--who are profiled in her book.

After her letter to Time, Rauch Kennedy’s well-known surname turned her into an inadvertent Dear Abby of annulment. She began corresponding with some of the women; men, she found, were not usually in the position of having an annulment foisted upon them.


In the case of her own children, who live with her during the school week, Rauch Kennedy said she has made it a point not to involve them in the annulment battle. She said that what they want to talk about is their lacrosse games and whether they can borrow the car.

“They haven’t read the book,” she said. “They are welcome to. I leave it at that. They know that it’s my fight with the church, not with their father.”


But the acrimony has poisoned a once-amicable situation. Rauch Kennedy and her ex-husband now communicate through intermediaries. “The church refers to annulment as a process that helps families heal,” she said. “And I think--whoa!”

While no one’s idea of a picnic in the woods, divorce was nonetheless a different matter, she maintained. “A divorce, you say it’s over and you made a mistake, maybe lots of mistakes. But you confront the truth and accept it. And from the basis of the truth you can go out and rebuild your lives.”

As she takes her case to Rome, joining such annulment foes as Nicole of Lorraine, a 12-year-old bride in 1621, Rauch Kennedy repeatedly faces the very question she says church officials never stopped asking. Why do you care so much? she says they demanded, over and over. Why not sign the paper and get on with things?

Rauch Kennedy is firm in her reply: “The reason I care about annulment is first of all for the children. They were a product of a true marriage, a union blessed by God. I don’t think you can wipe that away.”