BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE VATICAN has finally overturned an annulment granted to a member of one of America's most famous Catholic families.
Sheila Rauch Kennedy has emerged victorious after a decade of legal wrangling over the status of her 12-year marriage to Joseph Kennedy, the eldest son of the murdered Bobby Kennedy and the nephew of the American President John F Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.
The original annulment had been granted in 1996 by the Archdiocese of Boston in the heartland of the family's political power.
It came in spite of the couple having two boys together and effectively made them illegitimate in the eyes of the Church.
But last week Mrs Rauch Kennedy, an Episcopalian, expressed her relief that the Sacred Roman Rota the Vatican's court upheld her appeal against the annulment and agreed with her that her marriage was valid.
"It's been a long haul," she said. "I'm very grateful that the marriage was validated.
"The annulment totally overlooked the fact that I felt that we had a very strong marriage in the beginning, we had two wonderful children and it lasted.
"I was certainly happy in the beginning. Things unravelled, but that doesn't mean you didn't have a marriage."
She continued: "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."
The Kennedys had been accused by some commentators of using their influence to persuade the Church to agree to the annulment.
Mr Kennedy, now 54, and his then wife went through a civil divorce in 1991 after their relationship broke down.
But in 1993 he sought to have the marriage declared invalid, without consulting her. The former American congressman apparently wanted to marry his second wife, Beth Kelly, in church. The Vatican does not allow divorced people to remarry and those who do are not supposed to receive Holy Communion.
The first that Mrs Rauch Kennedy, a Harvard-educated urban planning consultant, knew about the move was when a letter bearing the seal of the Catholic Church arrived at her home.
It declared that her exhusband was preparing to appear before a Church court to swear that their marriage had never been true.
She said: "I have no problem with divorce. What I cannot condone is a process that will declare my children to be the offspring of a marriage that had never existed."
Under Canon Law, the grounds for an annulment are either an impediment to the union, including nonconsummation of the marriage or bigamy, or where full and free consent for the marriage was not or could not have been given.
The Boston archdiocese decided there were grounds that Mr Kennedy was not fit to give full and free consent, and granted the annulment.
Mrs Rauch Kennedy decided to fight back, saying she was no "Kennedy doormat".
The couple's relationship, which had begun nine years before they married, began to unravel after Joe entered politics. His ex-wife said she felt sidelined and ignored while he was away in Washington.
Mrs Rauch Kennedy claimed her marriage ended "through choice, not because the union had never been morally validated".
And when she discovered that the American Catholic Church grants more than 60,000 annulments a year three quarters of the world's total she wrote a book, Shattered Faith, about her experiences and those of five other women.
It was published at the same time as Mr Kennedy's brother Michael died in a skiing accident and the congressman decided to pull out of the race for the governorship of Massachusetts.
Announcing the results of the Vatican review of the case, Mrs Rauch Kennedy said: "My joy is a bit tempered in that I think unless people know that they have the right to appeal to Rome, they don't get a fair shake here if they're trying to defend their marriage in the United States."
Terry Donilon , a spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, declined to comment. "Such matters are appropriately private and confidential,he said.
Mr Kennedy can seek to have the Rota's ruling overturned by the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of the Catholic Church apart from Pope Benedict XVI himself. But this is considered unlikely.
Mr Kennedy gave up politics in 1999 and now runs Citizens' Energy Corporation, a non-profit energy company he had founded in 1979.
The reversal of the annulment reflects the longstanding tensions between the Rome's strict official doctrines on social issues such as marriage and abortion, and the more liberal attiaides of the 60-million-strong American Catholic Church.
Both John Kerry, a Catholic and Democratic Presidential candidate, and the former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2008, have had previous marriages annulled.
Earlier this year Pope Benedict told Vatican court judges that their task was one of "service of the truth in justice," not only for the good of a couple seeking an annulment, but also for the defence of the sacrament of matrimony through which God ensures the good and fulfilment of each of the spouses.
The Pope said the court provides a pastoral service to the Church when it defends the Church's traditional teaching on marriage, despite the fact that many people in the Church seem to think that a lifelong marriage is an ideal most couples cannot live up to or that annulments are simply a bureaucratic procedure needed to enable access to the Eucharist for couples who have, or want to contract, a second marriage.