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Vatican reverses Kennedy ruling

Ex-congressman's annulment voided

Sheila Rauch Kennedy fought the annulment for 10 years. Sheila Rauch Kennedy fought the annulment for 10 years.

The former wife of Joseph P. Kennedy II has won a decade-old appeal to the Vatican to reverse the decision that voided their 12-year marriage in the eyes of the church.

Sheila Rauch Kennedy, whose book about the congressman's aggressive pursuit of the annulment helped to end his political career, said yesterday that she feels vindicated by the reversal, which means that the Roman Catholic Church considers the couple still married -- despite the civil dissolution of their marriage 16 years ago. In 1993, Kennedy was remarried, to his former aide, Beth Kelly, in a civil ceremony.

"When you try to defend your marriage, the army that comes after you is pretty brutal," Rauch Kennedy said yesterday from her Cambridge home. "You're accused of being a vindictive ex-wife, an alcoholic bigot, an idiot."

Rauch Kennedy said she learned of the decision in May, when she was notified by the Archdiocese of Boston. She has since learned that the ruling, which had to be translated from Latin, had actually come down in 2005.

"The [annulment] process was very dishonest and it was a process in which I was being bullied," said Rauch Kennedy, referring to her treatment by the church. "But I was very lucky. I had help from outside of the Archdiocese. Otherwise I wouldn't have known about appealing to Rome and how to do it. I feel for the people who don't get help."

In 1997, Rauch Kennedy published "Shattered Faith," a memoir in which she portrayed her ex-husband as a hot-tempered bully who browbeat her when she refused to agree to an annulment of their marriage. The revelations began a personally and politically tumultuous time for Kennedy, whose brother Michael was soon thereafter accused of having a sexual relationship with a teenage baby-sitter. Within months, Joe Kennedy had withdrawn from the 1998 gubernatorial campaign, in which he had once been considered a frontrunner; a year later, after Michael's death in a skiing accident, he departed politics, abandoning his House seat.

Kennedy, who now runs Citizens Energy Corporation, was unavailable for comment yesterday, but has previously said that rejoining the church after his divorce was very important to him, despite his disagreement with many Catholic edicts.

"Getting an annulment is the only way, the only way, that I can go to Communion with my children and my wife, and that is important to me," he said in 1997.

Annulments are necessary for divorced Catholics who want to remarry within the church, because the church does not recognize civil divorce. Annulment does not mean that a couple was never married but that the union was somehow flawed from the start.

Sheila Rauch and Joseph Kennedy, the eldest son of Robert F. Kennedy, married in 1979, nine years after they met. They had twin boys before they divorced in 1991.

Two years later, while preparing to remarry, Kennedy filed for an annulment. The Archdiocese of Boston granted initial approval of the request in 1996. But before it could issue a final decision, Rauch Kennedy appealed to the Vatican.

Though the Vatican's decision means that Kennedy remains technically barred from going to Communion or receiving other sacraments, specialists said many Catholics in similar circumstances participate in those rituals.

"In the eyes of the Catholic Church [Kennedy and Rauch Kennedy] are still married and therefore he cannot remarry and maintain good status as a Catholic," said Michelle Dillon, a University of New Hampshire professor who has written extensively about Catholicism. "It means he's stigmatized. . . . But he's not alone. Like the other divorced people in the pews or the people who use contraception or are same-sex couples, he's in a state of sin."

Rauch Kennedy, who is Episcopalian but took required classes with Kennedy to be married in a Catholic church, said she fought the annulment "almost entirely because we had two children."

"I felt we had a very good marriage in the beginning," said Rauch Kennedy, who now teaches at Wheaton College. "The children were conceived and born in that marriage and for a number of years, before it unraveled, it worked. That was something I felt was very true.

"The annulment process was allowing us to cop out of taking any responsibility for the choices we made. It wasn't that God didn't bless the union. To put if off on God I didn't feel was valid."

Rauch Kennedy, whose case highlighted the prevalence of annulments in America, said tribunals that hear annulment requests in the United States are more willing to grant them than the Vatican's appeals tribunal, which takes a harder line.

"The way [annulment] is used in American tribunals, it can be anything -- a bad hair day, your goldfish died, you weren't playing with a full deck when you got married 20 years ago," she said. "And people defending [their marriages], usually women, have been belittled and patronized."

Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, declined to comment on the Vatican decision, calling "such matters . . . appropriately private and confidential."

According to Vatican statistics, of 56,236 hearings for an annulment that took place in 2002, 46,092 were approved, 30,968 in North America.

Robert Vasoli, a retired sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame who has done extensive research on the annulment process, wrote that in 1991 the United States accounted for 80 percent of the annulments granted by the church worldwide. Between 1982 and 1984, the Vatican overturned nearly 80 percent of the American annulments it reviewed, he wrote. As Rauch Kennedy learned, however, it can often be a long wait.

Michael Paulson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at