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Bowing to bishop, college cancels Kennedy speech

Victoria Kennedy, widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, attended the Boston University commencement ceremony last year.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Victoria Kennedy, widow of Edward M. Kennedy, attended the Boston University commencement ceremony last year.

A small Catholic college that had invited Victoria Reggie Kennedy to speak at its spring commencement rescinded the offer Friday under pressure from the Worcester bishop, who deemed her political views out of line with Catholic teachings.

Anna Maria College in Paxton, west of Worcester, released a statement saying the decision was dictated by Bishop Robert J. McManus. The college said it still believes that Kennedy, the wife of the late US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, would be an appropriate choice, even as it confirmed she is no longer invited.

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An independent liberal arts college with 1,100 students, Anna Maria is deeply entwined with the Worcester Diocese. Its statement notes that “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.’’

Kennedy responded with dismay to the revoked invitation, noting, in a statement, that the bishop had refused to meet with her despite her overtures.

“He has not consulted with my pastor to learn more about me or my faith,’’ she said. “Yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic. This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the Church I love.’’

McManus declined to comment, but diocese spokesman Ray Delisle said his actions were consistent with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2004 statement “that Catholic institutions should not honor Catholics who take positions publicly which are contrary to the Catholic faith’s most fundamental principles.’’

Anna Maria’s dilemma is one many Catholic colleges nationwide have faced in recent years. In 2009, about a quarter of the nation’s bishops protested when President Obama was invited to speak at the University of Notre Dame.

Patrick Whelan, president of the national Catholic Democrats and a pediatric specialist at Harvard Medical School, said he had spoken in depth with McManus and found him adamant about the decision. “He’s always been very warm with me, but he had a combative stance about this from the first moment [saying]: ‘I am not happy about this; it has put me in a very difficult position,’ ’’ said Whelan, a longtime acquaintance of the bishop.

McManus, he added, invoked what he believed were Kennedy’s positions on abortion, gay rights, and health coverage for contraception. While Kennedy is not known for speaking her mind on those topics, her husband was an outspoken proponent of abortion rights and a champion for full equality for gays and lesbians.

Whelan said the bishop took sole responsibility for the decision during their conversation.

“I said, ‘I’m sure you must be under a lot of pressure from people in the conservative camp.’ I was trying to express some empathy. And he reacted very sternly to that too,’’ Whelan said. “He said, ‘This is my decision and mine alone, and nobody’s pressuring me to do this.’ But then he did add, ‘Sometimes it’s lonely at the top.’ ’’

At Anna Maria, some students and faculty were torn. “I certainly respect our president’s decision and the bishop’s stand. I will never go against my Catholic upbringing and teaching,’’ said Joanne Zannotti, an Anna Maria alumna who is now a professor of social work there. “But I’m also disappointed. On Judgment Day, I think we need to show that we were open and welcoming to all people.’’

Alicia Savo, Anna Maria’s student government president, said she had been excited to hear Kennedy speak but would follow the bishop’s lead.

“I feel bad that they had to disinvite her, and she took it very decently,’’ Savo said. “But I don’t think the bishop would have said he didn’t think it was a good idea unless it wasn’t a good idea.’’

Joe Stango, an Anna Maria alumnus, went further in his support for the bishop.

“I would have made the same decision’’ to rescind the offer, he said. “The bishop is not looking at whether she’s a good person or a good Catholic. What he wants is someone up at the podium who can represent the Catholic faith in its wholeness, and obviously he doesn’t believe this particular speaker is that person.’’

But Catholics outside Anna Maria were quick to come to Kennedy’s defense.

Emmanuel College gave Kennedy an honorary degree in 2010, and Sister Janet Eisner, the school’s president, said the school received no complaints.

“Vicki was a good choice. A great choice,’’ she said, citing Kennedy’s work on gun violence and children’s safety. “I find it hard to believe in Massachusetts, in 2012, that this is happening.’’

Steve Krueger, national director of the Catholic Democrats, where Kennedy is a board member, rued the decision and the pain it had caused her. “Vicki takes her faith very seriously, and he is essentially seeking to distance her from the life of the church,’’ he said. “It’s a subtle form of excommunication.’’

Some details of the shift by the college remain unclear.

Several sources involved with or close to the discussions said McManus was consulted last year and cleared the decision to have Kennedy speak at the May 19 commencement. The bishop, however, “vehemently denies knowing about it a year ago or at any time before the invitation was made,’’ Delisle said.

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported Feb. 25 that Kennedy would speak and get an honorary doctorate of public administration. Shortly thereafter, the bishop approached Anna Maria officials, saying that Kennedy’s apparent stands on social issues made her a poor choice. Two sources said the bishop cited a 2010 YouTube video of a gala at which Kennedy warmly introduced David Mixner, a gay rights advocate.

The diocese has publicly confirmed that McManus would have refused to attend the commencement ceremony had Kennedy been allowed to speak.

This is not the first time McManus has intervened in a Catholic college’s affairs. In 2007, he asked the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester to refuse to rent space to a conference on teen pregnancy because Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts had representatives among the many attendees. (The college held the conference as scheduled.)

Kennedy, who will speak at Boston College’s law school commencement this year, expressed sympathy for Anna Maria in her statement. “I know the president and Board of Trustees extended their initial invitation to me with the most sincere intentions,’’ it read. “I have great respect and admiration for Anna Maria College and the Class of 2012 and would not want my presence to hurt the school or detract from the graduates’ special day in any way. Nevertheless, I am disheartened by this entire turn of events.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Patrick Whelan, president of the national Catholic Democrats.

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