FOR AS LONG AS HER FRIENDS AND family can recall, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, former wife of U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, has played strictly by the rules. "I remember as a child, if you were playing canasta with Sheila and our grandmother cheated, Sheila would take umbrage," says her brother Ben Rauch. "Sheila pointed out to her that it wasn't quite cricket."

Joe Kennedy might have thought twice before asking his ex-wife four years ago for a quick annulment of their 12-year marriage, which ended in divorce in 1991, so he could remarry as a Catholic. (The church does not recognize divorce.) "We had been married for 12 years, had known each other for nine years before, and we had two children," says Sheila, 48, who has taken her fight against the annulment, granted by the Archdiocese of Boston last fall, all the way to the Vatican and has stated her case in a new book, Shattered Faith. "My concern was for the children," she says, referring to twin sons Joseph and Matthew, 16. According to the church, children of an annulled marriage are considered legitimate, but they are not, as Sheila notes, "products of a true marriage." Asks their mother: "How are we going to teach them...what truth is, if everything can be bought and sold, bartered and then denied?"

Since going public, Kennedy, an Episcopalian, has become an unlikely hero to many women, Catholic and non-Catholic, who have felt devastated by the secretive annulment process. The 193 church tribunals, each composed of at least three priests, grant approximately 60,000 annulments a year in the U.S., often over the objections of one of the spouses. "It was a very emotional experience to have the church tell you that what you had devoted so many years of your life to hadn't existed," says Tucson writer Patricia B. Cadigan, 67, who met Sheila in 1995 as a result of her anti-annulment crusade. Cadigan's ex-husband tried unsuccessfully to annul their 23-year marriage 15 years after they divorced. "You just have to keep fighting," she says. "Otherwise the grand machinery runs over you."

For Sheila, the four-year struggle has been a bitter coda to a once happy marriage—and an initially amicable divorce. Raised in the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Villanova by banker R. Stewart Rauch and his wife, Frances, a homemaker who later got a master's degree in reading and special education, Sheila was introduced to her future husband by a mutual friend during her senior year at Wheaton College, where she graduated with a degree in government in 1970. When she and Joe were married at St. John Baptist Vianney Church in Gladwyne, Pa., in 1979 after a nine-year courtship, friends commented, "It's about time," Sheila says.

The two complemented one another. "He's an extrovert. I tend to be shy," says Sheila. They settled in Boston, where Joe had started a nonprofit oil company and Sheila worked part-time as a city planning consultant while concentrating on raising the twins, born in 1980. But fault lines began to appear after Joe won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986. "I don't think she was ever comfortable with political life," says Cory Atkins, wife of former Rep. Chester Atkins (D-Mass.).

As Joe raised his public profile, "family life really wasn't on the menu anymore," says Sheila. "The house was always full of campaign people. There was more pressure put on me. You know, 'You and the children ought to look good [for] the next event.' " Before Joe's election, says Sheila, "he really enjoyed that I spoke out." Afterward, she says, "I was supposed to change into this doormat. I wasn't even supposed to have ideas about how to raise the children." In 1989, Sheila and Joe separated; she filed for divorce two years later. (In a prepared statement, Joe says, "I understand Sheila's feelings and respect her right to express them.")

Politically, Sheila's crusade couldn't come at a worse time for Joe, who is preparing to run next year for governor of Massachusetts. A recent poll showed his strength slipping significantly, particularly among women voters. "There is no question the annulment issue had an effect," says pollster Lou DiNatale. Still, observers note that Joe, who married longtime staffer Beth Kelly in a 1993 civil ceremony and hopes for a church ceremony one day, is accustomed to weathering political storms. Says one Capitol Hill veteran: "He will play the devoted father—which he is—and hope the voters forgive him."

PATRICK ROGERS
ELIZABETH MCNEIL and TOM DUFFY in Boston and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth McNeil,
  • Tom Duffy,
  • Jane Sims Podesta.