Interview with Kerry Kennedy

September 7, 2008
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Kerry Kennedy, the seventh child of Robert F. Kennedy and a human rights lawyer, spoke to Globe religion reporter Michael Paulson about her new book, "Being Catholic Now." The interview took place Aug. 22 in Hyannis Port. Below is an edited transcript of the interview:

Q: What inspired this?
A: So, what happened is that I was feeling conflicted because my Catholicism is so deeply important to me -- it was my sense of connection to the almighty, to humanity, to my heritage, my upbringing. And my Catholicism informed my view of the world, and the work that I do every day on social justice issues. And yet, so often when I went to church, I was confronted with words and symbols that were anathema to my values. I was in a, for many years, in a northern Virginia parish which didn't allow girls as altar servers, and in which every Sunday, in the midst of horrendous poverty, and living in a world where a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, the only thing we seemed to be praying for was that women would stop having abortions, and it just didn't seem right. And then there was the whole pedophile scandal, and the mishandling of that by the bishops. So this was all sort of brewing. It wasn't something that I was very conscious of, or focused on, particularly, but at a certain point I thought, I need to resolve this issue. And I looked at my three daughters, and the way I was raising them, and I wanted them to have this tremendous gift of faith that I really do view as a gift, but I also want to feel comfortable with saying they ought to be catholic. So I thought it was time to take some time and reflect more deeply on these issues.

Q: This was recently, that a parish allowed no girl altar servers?
A: This is now. There is only two bishops in the country which did not allow girls as altar servers, and one of them is northern Virginia.

Q: I have a sense of you parents as very devotional. Where does your Catholicism come from? What role did it play in your upbringing?
A: Well, it was central to my upbringing. I mean, we woke up in the morning and we were down on our knees consecrating the day to Lord Jesus. Then we'd go down for breakfast, and we'd say prayers before breakfast. Then we'd finish breakfast, we'd say prayers after breakfast. Prayers before and after lunch. Prayers before and after dinner. Read the Bible after dinner out loud. And then before bed spend about 20 minutes with the entire family saying prayers together. Church every Sunday. After my father died, we went to church for a long time every day, and then every other day during the summer. And we said prayers in between those times. Prayers for things, to St. Anthony to help find something that was lost. Prayers to St. Christopher when we got on a boat or in a car or in a plane to go someplace. There were St. Christopher medals around all of our necks. There were statues of Our Mother, and in every room of our house were a cross, the Bible, and then all sorts of religious books. And in the dining room, in the kitchen, and on every single bedside in my mother's house, there is not one but two Mass schedules. So this is very present. And Bobby (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) probably told you this, but his entire bedroom was decorated with the life of St. Francis, with a book that had been cut out and had been framed -- the life of St. Francis. So it was very, very present.

Q: Was this from your mother or your father?
A: Both. You know, my father thought about being a priest. And my mother -- and I think everyone who spends 12 years in Catholic school thinks about being a nun -- actually more than that because she went to Manhattanville College as well. My mother goes -- she's a daily communicant. So I think on both sides.

Q: What was your relationship to Catholicism as you grew up?
A: I went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart for four years. It was interesting to me because, in a family where men were clearly favored over women, this was an atmosphere, a world, run by strong, determined, smart women in leadership, who had high expectations of the girls, and this tremendous sense of love and commitment to the wider world. We had a nun -- the head of the order there, was the reverend mother, was called mother Mouton, and she was this wonderful French woman, and there was a rule at Sacred Heart that you weren't allowed to talk in the halls, and I was forever talking in the hall and always being sent to her, and she always did the same thing, which was that she would wrap her arm around me, give me a lollipop, and said, 'Jesus loves you, no matter how you misbehave,' which was pretty wonderful, and then she would talk about the war in Vietnam. And it was a very different form of discipline and sort of vision of the world, and one that was full of love and outrage at injustice, and that had a great influence on me. This was fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade, and then I went to Putney School in Vermont.

Q: Did you go to a Catholic college?
A: No, I went to Brown and then I went to Boston College Law School.

Q: And did you continue, once you were not living at home, practicing Catholicism?
A: No, when I was in high school I went to Mass every once in a while, and certainly anytime I was at home, but on my own, every once in a while. My roommate in high school was also very, came from a very traditional Catholic family, so we would go off together to church on occasion. And then when I was in college, I went through confirmation, and then when I got married I really went to church every Sunday, and have basically done that since then, which was 1990, when I was 30.

Q: And why did you return?
A: I returned because I wanted to have a stronger relationship with God, and a deeper sense of spirituality.

Q: And did you find that at church?
A: Sometimes. As I say, I was conflicted, and increasingly conflicted, because sometimes I would leave church feeling elated, and sometimes I would leave church feeling very angry and frustrated by the insensitivity to social justice issues that to me are part and parcel of Catholicism, of our faith. On the other hand, that was sort of what was happening on the home front, but my work is in international human rights, so I was in Poland at the height of the Solidarity movement and witnessed the tremendous influence of the Catholic church giving refuge to Solidarity activists, and encouragement, and the tremendous role of the pope in encouraging that movement for freedom. And then I worked in El Salvador and Guatemala, Mexico, all of these places during the 80s when there was so much violence, and when the church again was just this tremendous sanctuary, and where Archbishop Romero, for instance, really led, was the spiritual force behind so much of the movement for freedom. And again, in Korea, South Korea, where the combination of the Catholic church and other Christian churches gave sanctuary, strength to the democracy movement there. And a few years ago, 2003, I went to Liberia. I have to tell you, virtually every country I've gone to, the Catholic church is on the cutting edge of social change. Really extraordinary. And I can tell you so many stories about that. But in Liberia, the Catholics account for about 7 percent of that population, and during the 14 year civil war, when Charles Taylor was the dictator, the Catholic church was the only institution that kept schools open and kept hospitals open. And this is in a country that is maybe 70 percent Methodists, and they had a lot of missionaries there, but they weren't able to keep those institutions open, and the government institutions closed down, but the Catholics kept them open, and so it has just played this enormously important role. And I saw the, you know, I went to the Catholic church program, which was rehabilitating child soldiers, and another Catholic church program, this was so incredibly moving, where they were bringing together people from two communities who had basically slaughtered each another. And that, and the Catholic church there also started their peace and justice program on the Catholic radio station, (which) was really the only voice of opposition throughout the Taylor regime, and the fellow who ran it was a guy called Kofi Woods, he was, because of his work, on those issues, with the Catholic church. He was picked up by the minister of justice and his three thugs during the Doe regime and tortured and left to rot in a prison cell, and then when the Taylor regime came into power...that minister of justice and those three thugs were picked up by Taylor, and thrown into the same prison cell he had been in. And he (Woods) had been freed, and he was a lawyer, and went to visit them, and he said, 'I've come to see if you've been mistreated,' and he said, 'I will take your case for free,' because there is no lawyer in the country who would defend them. So he went to defend his own torturers, and that was his sense of faith. So for me, I was witnessing the mighty spirit, and the tremendous capacity of this institution which was so much a part of my history, and my family, and my sense of spirituality and my vision of social justice in the world, and then coming back and hearing bishops who were protecting their turf instead of protecting children and playing three-card monte with the pedophile priests and blaming it on people who are gay. So it was important to me to resolve that.

Q: So when the sex abuse crisis exploded, were you surprised?
A: I guess I wasn't so surprised that it was going on, because I think so many of us knew, or had heard stories, or had friends who that had happened to. The thing that was surprising to me in the sex abuse scandal was not that children were being abused by priests, but that the bishops were protecting them, and that the bishops were refusing to take responsibility for their own failure to protect. I think that was surprising and enormously disappointing and disturbing. But the thing that I came to realize in writing this book is that the church is not the candles and the robes and the beautiful cathedrals, and it's not the bishops and what they do or don't do, or the proclamations that come down from the Vatican on occasion, but it's all of us. That's the meaning of Catholicism -- universal -- and there are a billion Catholics. So it's the community, a Catholicism based on the idea that we should love God and we should love one another. So, as Robert Drinan in this book pointed out, the pope apologized for 92 things that the Catholic church had done wrong, and he (Drinan) said, 'These are fallible people and I expect them to do fallible things in the future as well.' And so I think that that is a source of comfort for me, to view it sort of in that way, that we're all fallible, and we'll all make mistakes, but that this is an important institution to be part of.

Q: Did you ever toy with leaving the church?
A: No. Not precisely. There was a time, as I said, in between high school and when I got married, I guess, where it just wasn't very central to my life, the church itself. But I was still always praying. So it was not, there wasn't a time when I said, OK, I'm not going to be Catholic anymore. I think that's a very, very, very difficult thing to do.

Q: Are you raising your daughters in the church?
A: Yeah, and I teach CCD at our local church, St. Patrick's in Armonk, NY.

Q: You go to Mass?
A: Yeah.

Q: When did you start working on this project?
A: In November 2005.

Q: You could have written a memoir or something more journalistic. How did you think, I'm going to go talk to other people?
A: Well there were two ways that I thought about that. One is I wrote another book, called Speak Truth to Power, and that is interviews with human rights defenders around the world, and I greatly enjoyed that and I learned a lot from talking to other people, and so that's why I chose to approach it in this particular way.

Q: Do you think you did it because you hungered to do another book, or was there something personally you were hoping to get?
A: I was trying to resolve that issue, of how do people who disagree with what the institutional church is saying to them look themselves in the mirror and say, 'I am a Catholic.' And what I found is that absolutely everybody disagrees with the church. The cardinals disagree with the church, and the nuns and the priests, and even Tom Monaghan disagrees with the church, so everybody has a disagreement, which is interesting to me. It's just not a monolith at all. It's an enormous organism with a lot of moving parts and people with strong opinions and I think that that's good. I also think that Catholicism is inherently about contradiction. So much of the New Testament is about Christ arguing with the Pharisees and with the scribes and with the Jewish leaders of the day, and as Pope Benedict said, it's a quest for the truth. And so if you're going to have a quest for the truth, you're going to have a lot of questioning of authority. And we're taught to have obedience to authority, but we're also taught to revere saints, so many of whom were burnt at the stake or martyred because they questioned authority. And then we are told that Christ has died but Christ is coming again. And when Catholics say I don't understand this, how can this really be transformed into the blood of Christ, is this really the body of Christ that we are eating now, they are told, 'That's the mystery,' and 'Go in peace,' and that's sort of it. And so I think that, in a way, I think it's good, because it prepares us to deal with so many other parts of life, where there are conflicting emotions. At the moment of greatest love, there is greatest fear, and at the moment of enormous repression, there is resistance, and therefore a chance at revolutionary change. And so I think our lives are full of contradictions.

Q: How did you come up with the list of who you wanted to talk to?
A: Well, I wanted a diversity of people, from a lot of different professions, so there's historians and doctors and comedians, political commentators and politicians, and so a diversity of professions. And I wanted people who are known to have a strong intellectual sensibility on some issue, not necessarily on this one, and then I wanted a mix of men and women.

Q: Were most of them people you already knew?
A: It was a combination, and there's also people who are conservative, from the conservative side of the church, and more progressive side of the church, and then there are also Democrats and Republicans, you know, Bill O'Reilly to Bill Maher.

Q: Did anybody turn you down?
A: One person.

Q: Do you want to tell me who?
A: No.

Q: And how did people respond when you said, 'I want to explore with you how you relate to this faith'?
A: They were very open about it, and enthusiastic about talking about it, and it was kind of great, because a lot of the people I talked to are used to interviews -- you must find this as well -- but they're not used to interviews about this. And so there's a kind of raw honesty that you get in discussing this subject with people who don't discuss it professionally, and insight that you might not otherwise get. And a lot of them were very funny, and wonderful. Nancy Pelosi saying, 'My mother always wanted me to be a nun,' and then I said, 'But did you want to be a nun?' and she said, 'No, I wanted to be a priest.' And Susan Sarandon, who said that during her first days at Catholic school, she was told that she had an overabundance of original sin. And Bill Maher, who is so, basically he said 'I'm on a mission, I've been given this gift, to stop organized religion.' He's very funny, in talking about the number of people who God slaughtered in the Old Testament, Sodom and Gomorrah alone...Some of it is kind of funny and ridiculous like that, and then a lot of it was very deep. One of the people who I was surprised by in my interview was Andrew Sullivan, because I disagree with almost everything he's ever said or written politically, and yet, on this subject, he was so deep and passionate and reflective -- it was very, very interesting to me, about what it means to be a devoted Catholic and gay and HIV-positive, and how he grapples with that. And then some of them were deeply moving. Gabriel Byrne talking about being a victim of pedophilia when he was a child, and how he attempted to grapple with that, and Danny McNevin, talking about the same issue, and then of course Anne Burke who led the independent audit committee was fascinating about her frustration with the bishops in trying to get them to take responsibility for the crisis, and yet how that experience really deepened her faith.

Q: How did you choose Cardinal McCarrick?
A: I have always deeply admired him, and it was actually kind of interesting, because I think he's mentioned in four different interviews in my book as somebody who others admired -- John Sweeney and E.J. Dionne and Andrew Sullivan. So there you go -- for Cardinal McCarrick to be admired by that diversity of people is pretty extraordinary. So I went to talk to him and you know what's amazing is he said that he started school in a classroom where they had three kids to a bench and 70 kids in his class -- I think that was first grade or kindergarten -- can you imagine? How -- I mean, if you spend even five minutes with six year olds, trying to imagine organizing 70 of them, it's pretty incredible.

Q: What surprised you?
A: There were pleasant surprises, moments of laughter in interviews that were unexpected, and moments of insight, for instance, talking to Andrew Sullivan as I just mentioned, or when Bob Drinan was talking about abortion rights, and in the midst of this discussion he was having with me, we were in his office and the phone started to ring, and he said, 'Oh, that's the pope, telling me to shut up.' And so that was kind of funny. And different things were sort of wonderful. Donna Brazile...told a very, very moving story about her wanting as a child, knowing as a child, that she'd grow up to be a priest, and that in her youngest years the black kids, the black families had to stay in the back of the church, and then after Martin Luther King died they could move more and more forward, and then she, at a certain point, would get to the church, she'd make sure she was in the front row, because she had to see what the priest was going to do, because she was going to be a priest, and she had to know what he was doing up there. And how when he would preach, she would listen to what he'd say, and then go back and read the Bible passage and see if she agreed with him or not, and come back and ask him questions. A very active, involved and engaged child. And when her mother asked her in passing one day what she was going to do, and she mentioned she was going to be a priest, (she learned) to her shock, that women couldn't be priests, it's just not possible...So there were things like that, that were very moving. And again, I think Danny McNevin's story about the impact of being a victim of pedophilia, on him and his family, is deeply moving, and his quest to seek justice, and how difficult that has been.

Q: So how did all this affect your faith?
A: You know, it deepened it tremendously. And the sense of spirituality, I think primarily because I started thinking about it. You're writing a book about something, you start thinking about it a lot more, and talking to people about it a lot more, and learning about it, and that has been a wonderful experience. I also happen to belong to a fantastic parish in Armonk, New York, and I have a great, great, great, great pastor, who is always quoting Dorothy Day, and puts a picture of Gandhi with a halo over his head on the altar.

Q: You say it deepened your faith but also you were confronted by so much injury -- these girls who wanted to be priests, these boys who were abused, the gay man -- over and over again you ran into people who have conflict with the church in some way. How do you think about that?
A: I think that the church has done enormous harm over the years, and continues to do enormous harm to people in different ways. The institutional church does that. But that is separate and apart from my sense of connection to the Almighty, when I pray. And that is something that I think is part of the mission of being a Catholic is to expose those areas of injustice, and try to confront them, and I hope through this book I have advanced that in some small way.

Q: What is your hope that readers will take away from this?
A: I hope that they'll feel like they're not alone...I hope that people will feel that there are a lot of others out there who are grappling with the same issues: Should I raise my children Catholic? What does that mean? Am I a good Catholic? What does it mean to be a good Catholic today? If I'm not following the way I was taught as a child, or that my parents approached the religion, does that mean that I'm somehow missing something, or that I'm bad? And I hope also that others might feel a sense that the essence, the goodness of Catholicism, of that relationship with God, of that sense of love, can be embraced without embracing the parts of the institutional church which are anathema to your values, to one's values.

Q: You work in the human rights world, you live in the Democratic political orbit, do you find that you have to defend being Catholic?
A: Sometimes, yes. I mean, people aren't openly aggressive about it, but there is, yes, skepticism, and sort of, sometimes a look of confusion.

Q: How do you think being a Kennedy affects your relationship to the Catholic Church?
A: Traditionally there was a very strong one, I think, in my grandparents era, and in my parents. I don't have a particular relationship with the hierarchy of the church. I have wonderfully important relationships with people who are at different stages of that hierarchy -- some higher and some lower, but it's not an institutional relationship. But I'm also not in political office, so it's just a little bit different.

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