Mass. college backs off invite to Kennedy widow

March 30, 2012 - 7:15 PM

BOSTON (AP) — A Roman Catholic college in Massachusetts said Friday that it's withdrawn an invitation to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's widow to speak and receive an honorary degree at commencement after the local bishop objected.

In a statement, Anna Maria College said that "with deep regret" it told Victoria Kennedy about the decision by its board of trustees on Thursday. The college cited concerns raised by Bishop Robert McManus, head of the Worcester diocese, but did not specify what his concerns were.

A diocese spokesman, Ray Delisle, said McManus was upholding a 2004 statement by the U.S. Conference of Bishops, in which the bishops said "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."

Victoria Kennedy has publicly backed abortion rights and gay marriage, both of which are opposed by the Catholic church.

Delisle said McManus's objections aren't based on a lack of "tolerance or intellectual openness" to Kennedy's speech, but on the Catholic school's decision to honor someone who publicly defies important Catholic teachings.

"It just seems contradictory," he said.

Kennedy said she was disheartened by the decision and described herself as a lifelong Catholic whose faith was very important to her. She said McManus didn't contact her about his objections, or speak with her pastor to learn about her faith.

"Yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic," she said in a statement. "This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the church I love."

Anna Maria College, located in Paxton in central Massachusetts, has about 1,100 students.

On Friday, the school said it believed its invitation to Kennedy for the May 19 commencement was appropriate, given her work to tighten gun control laws and improve the safety of children. But it said McManus's objections had the potential to create bad publicity and a difficult situation for Kennedy and the school's students on a day when their graduation is supposed to be the focus.

"As a small, Catholic college that relies heavily on the good will of its relationship with the bishop and the larger Catholic community, its options are limited," the statement said.

Victoria Kennedy's views aren't nearly as well-known as those of her liberal late husband, but she has occasionally spoken publicly on contentious issues. For instance, in a May 2004 editorial in The Washington Post, she blasted Catholic church leaders for threatening to deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

"The pro-choice position recognizes that the United States is a diverse, pluralistic society where a woman has the constitutional right to make a decision based upon her own conscience, religious beliefs and medical needs," she wrote.

At an April 2010 dinner in which gay-rights activist David Mixner was honored, she praised his fight for equality for gays: "Not second-class equality, but the right to live free, and to marry, and to raise a family," she said.

Delisle said McManus's objection to Anna Maria's decision to honor Kennedy was consistent with diocese precedent. He noted McManus's predecessor, Bishop Daniel Reilly, skipped the 2003 commencement at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, where pro-abortion rights political commentator Chris Matthews spoke and received an honorary degree.