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Joe Kennedy’s First Marriage: Still On

4 minute read
Jeff Israely/Rome

The most controversial “marriage that never was” in recent U.S. political history is back. Sources tell TIME that the Vatican has reversed the annulment of Joseph P. Kennedy II’s marriage to Sheila Rauch. The annulment had been granted in secrecy by the Catholic Church after the couple’s 1991 no-fault civil divorce. Rauch found out about the de-sanctification of their marriage only in 1996, after Kennedy had been wedded to his former Congressional aide, Beth Kelly, for three years.

The annulment was the subject of Rauch’s 1997 book Shattered Faith, which lambasted her ex-husband and was severely critical of the Catholic Church’s proceedings, which made the marriage (which had produced twin boys) null and void in the eyes of the church. Rauch argued that Kennedy was able to unilaterally “cancel” nearly 12 years of marriage because of his clan’s influence in the church. Kennedy argued at the time that the annulment was the right thing to do in religious terms. Few observers thought the appeal to Rome by Rauch, an Episcopalian, had a chance against the well-connected Kennedy. With women’s groups loudly on Rauch’s side, the controversy may have contributed to Kennedy’s decision to give up his plans to seek re-election to Congress in 1998.

Reached by TIME in her Massachusetts home on Tuesday, Rauch said that she had just recently been informed by Boston Archdiocese officials of her successful appeal. “I am very pleased,” she told TIME. “There was a real marriage. It was a marriage that failed, but as grown-ups we need to take responsibility for that. The [annulment] process was dishonest, and it was important to stand up and say that.” But Rauch says she worries that the practice, particularly in the U.S., of giving what she called “easy annulments” will continue. “They don’t give people a fair defense. The Boston Archdiocese doesn’t even tell you that you can appeal to Rome.” Reached by TIME, Kennedy’s office provided no reaction from the former Congressman.

Erroneously dubbed “Catholic divorce,” an annulment in fact holds that a failed marriage was never valid in the eyes of the Church. With divorce strictly prohibited in Catholicism, annulments allow Catholics to remarry before a priest and continue receiving the sacraments. Several years after his 1991 civil divorce to Rauch, Kennedy obtained an annulment from a Church tribunal in Massachusetts so he could have a Church ceremony with Kelly. The couple had already been married in a 1993 civil ceremony, but needed the Roma Rota appeals tribunal at the Vatican to uphold the Massachusetts annulment verdict before they could be married by a priest. Now with Rauch’s successful appeal, that cannot happen, unless Kennedy wins a counter-appeal.

The Roma Rota’s ruling, written in Latin, was reached in 2005, and had been kept secret while the official written notice was being prepared, said a source in Rome familiar with the case. Rauch’s successful appeal effectively reinstates the Kennedy-Rauch marriage in the eyes of the Vatican. The case once again highlights this unique Catholic Church proceeding. Some 75% of annulments each year are from the United States, where there are an estimated 8 million divorced and remarried Catholics. The subject came up in the 2004 Presidential campaign after word spread that John Kerry had obtained an annulment of his first marriage. Another prominent Catholic who has had a marriage annulled is former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is now running for the Republican Presidential nomination.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI has indicated that he wants to streamline the Roma Rota to respond to the desire of divorced Catholics to stay inside the Church. But there is also concern that some Catholics, particularly in the U.S., abuse the practice. “People think it’s their right,” says one Rome-based canon lawyer. He adds sternly, “It’s not a right.”

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