by Phil Lawler

  June 20, 2007 (CWNews.com) - Now the story can be told—or at least part of the story. The parts we don’t know, but should, are still more interesting.

  Long ago an informed Vatican official—possibly having sipped one more glass of good Italian wine than was medically necessary—informed CWN that the Roman Rota had ruled in favor of Sheila Rauch Kennedy, affirming the validity of her marriage to former Congressman Joe Kennedy. But our Vatican source asked us to keep the matter quiet, and we did.

  Now, however, Time magazine has broken the story. The decision by the Roman Rota has been confirmed.

  Here, in brief, are the facts as we know them:

    * In 1991, while serving as Congressman from Massachusetts, Joseph P. Kennedy II divorced his wife Sheila Rauch Kennedy.

    * In 1993 the Congressman sought a decree of annulment from the Boston archdiocese. Without waiting for the result of his petition, he entered into a second marriage with a former aide, Beth Kelly; that wedding did not take place in a Catholic church.

    * In 1996, Sheila Rauch Kennedy learned that the Boston archdiocesan tribunal had proclaimed that her marriage to Joe Kennedy was a nullity. Rauch, who is Episcopalian, was appalled by that decision, and contested the tribunal’s judgment. She also wrote a book, Shattered Faith, denouncing what she saw as corruption in the annulment process. Rauch complained that Church officials in Boston never gave her an opportunity to demonstrate the validity of the marriage; nor did they inform her about her right to appeal the decision to Rome.

    * Nine years later, in 2005, the Roman Rota reversed the Boston tribunal’s decision, saying in effect that in the eyes of the Church, Sheila Rauch is still Joe Kennedy’s wife.

  We do not know the grounds for the annulment originally granted by the Boston tribunal, nor do we know why the Roman Rota reversed that decision. That is right and proper; we have no right to know the intimate details of their union.

  But we do know that the final decision from Rome came nine years after the original annulment. "Justice delayed is justice denied," the old adage teaches, and in this case the long delay is an injustice. If Sheila Rauch was indeed married to Joe Kennedy, didn’t she have the right to a reasonably prompt determination of that fact? If the marriage did not take place, didn’t Joe Kennedy have the right to know that he was free to enter into a new marriage in the Church?

  Next, notice that the Roman Rota reached its final decision (that is, barring the possibility of another appeal) in 2005. CWN heard about it in 2006. Sheila Rauch reports that she was not officially informed until May 2007. Is that lengthy delay not a further injustice? According to the Time magazine, the formal notification to Rauch, the petitioner, was delayed "while the official written notice was being prepared." Really? You might think that, after pondering the case for a decade, officials of the Vatican tribunal would have their thoughts sufficiently organized so that they could write up a decision in less than 18 months.

  The final decision by the Roman Rota lends weight to Sheila Rauch Kennedy’s argument that she and Joe had a real, albeit unhappy, marital union. The way this case was handled lends even more weight to her criticism of the annulment process in the Catholic Church.

  And the media coverage of the overdue Vatican decision illustrates yet another problem with that annulment process. A spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, Terrence Donilon, declined to comment on the Time magazine revelation about the validity of Joe Kennedy’s marriage. “Such matters are appropriately private and confidential,” he told AP.

  Nonsense! The reasons for an annulment are confidential. We have no need to know the details that led Church officials to determine that Joe Kennedy is or is not married to Sheila Rauch. But we do have a right to know whether or not the couple—or any other couple—is actually married.

  Marriage is a public act. Except under the most extraordinary circumstances, marriages are announced to the public, and Church officials would quite rightly be suspicious of a couple wishing to marry secretly.

  Oddly enough I have made this argument before—a decade ago, in a case involving Joe’s uncle. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, is Senator Ted Kennedy married to his first wife, Joan, or to his current partner, Vicki? To this day, no Church official has answered that question for the record. But if the sanctity of marriage is important to the Church—and it is vitally important—then the answer to that question is an important one: an answer the public should hear.

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