On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Georgetown University has made public correspondence that took place between Kennedy’s widow and a late Georgetown Jesuit. The letters reveal that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis contemplated suicide after her husband’s death.

Onassis began correspondence with theology professor Richard T. cSorley, S.J., in four letters exchanged between the two, and kept typed diaries of their private conversations. When McSorley died last October, he left his papers to the university’s special collections, which Lauinger Library made available to reporters last Wednesday.

The documents revealed that, following the death of her husband, Onassis fell into despair – at least once contemplating suicide.

“Do you think that God would separate me from my husband if I killed myself?” she asked McSorley, her spiritual advisor, according to the April 28, 1964 entry of the latter’s diary.

The correspondence was first included in a new book The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings written by Newsday reporter Thomas Maier, who advocated making McSorley’s collection available to the public.

The history of the papers begins in 1964 when Robert Kennedy, brother to the late president, urged the widow to seek spiritual help from McSorley. Before his death, McSorley shared the documents with Maier, who was researching for his book at the time.

“One of the things Fr. McSorley told me – and this has not been out in the press – is that when Tim Healy was president of Georgetown, there was somebody who actually stole some of the papers or was trying to sell them,” Maier said. “He asked the university to put a stop to it. That’s one of the reasons he gave it to the library for safekeeping.”

Maier contends that McSorley’s will placed no restrictions on the documents, but since their unveiling on Wednesday, the decision to release them has been criticized on several grounds.

Letitia Baldridge, Jackie Kennedy’s personal friend and former chief of staff, said that releasing the papers now was “in poor taste.”

“Every widow I’ve ever known has expressed thoughts like that,” Baldridge told The Washington Post yesterday. “It’s a perfectly natural thing for women in trauma to say, especially to a priest.”

Another criticism of the decision to release the documents is the confidentiality of confession to a priest. The Rev. John Paris, an ethics scholar at Boston College said that McSorley should not even have written down what was said in confidence by Kennedy. He compared that confidence to doctor-patient privilege.

“Everything that is said is said in confidence because the individual comes to you precisely because he trusts you to keep it secret, and these are committed secrets,” Paris said. “You’ve made the commitment prior to hearing it.”

Maier argues that publicizing the correspondences is not only proscribed in McSorley’s will, but is also important in creating a historical context around the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“It is probably one of the most significant historical on-the-record finds about the ’63 assassination aftermath,” Maier said. “There are a number of biographies and histories that have relied on similar letters and diaries. These are the types of things that history is often written about.”

Maier added that releasing such documents is consistent, in his view, with the position of other libraries that have special collections involving historical people.

According to Maier, he had no qualms about imploring the university to release the documents. His book, which includes portions of the documents, was published in October, and he and cSorley had already shown the papers to members of the press, including 20/20, the Today Show and CNN.

Maier claims that his interest in getting the collection released was to show the Kennedy’s shift from what he calls “Camelot imagery” to their roots as an Irish-Catholic family in Kennedy’s time of spiritual struggle.

McSorley’s diary does show that, just a month after contemplating suicide, she admitted that it was “wrong. It’s just a way out,” she said. The diary also expressed Kennedy’s regret at not being able to say goodbye to her husband, and the difficulty in dealing with the assassination shortly after the death of their prematurely born son, Patrick. She worried about being able to continue raising her own children and, according to Maier, discussed letting them grow up with Robert and Ethel Kennedy.

“I know now I won’t ever get over [the assassination],” she wrote to McSorley. “But I am getting better at hiding it from my children.”

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