The exchanges occurred not as part of a confessional, but over tennis lessons at Robert Kennedy's estate, Hickory Hill, Virginia. They also included letters from Jacqueline Kennedy that are now in a collection at Georgetown University and are publicly examined for the first time in Maier's book, adding depth to the history of how the nation and the former First Lady struggled to recover from the assassination.
"For 40 years we have admired Jackie Kennedy as this very brave, incredibly courageous First Lady who was stoic and had all this great strength when the nation in many ways was shattered by the assassination," Maier said. "And yet in the months and weeks after, we see the private side here."
In 1963, the year her husband was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy also had lost a son, Patrick, who was born prematurely. In his recorded conversation with Maier, McSorley said: "One of the things that she…asked, was, 'Does God know everything?' And I said, 'Yes. God knows everything.' … 'Did God know that my husband was going to be killed?' … And I said, 'Yes. God knew it ahead of time.' She said, 'Well, then why did he take my son Patrick … if he knew my husband was going to be killed?'"
"She really expressed her great grief and her anguish and her thoughts of suicide," Maier said. "She talked about even Marilyn Monroe, that it was good that she was able to find a way out of her grief."
According to Father McSorley, Jacqueline Kennedy also asked if God would separate her from her husband if she killed herself. McSorley prepared a detailed argument on the church's position against suicide.
Maier recalled how McSorley described Mrs. Kennedy's response. "She finally interrupted him and said, 'Father, I understand, I know it's wrong, I wouldn't do it. But it's so lonely out there.'"
McSorley also described a request from other members of the Kennedy family that he advise Jacqueline to move to New York with her children, John, Jr. and Caroline, to get away from the memories in Washington. He received this letter from her after her move:
"Just the idea of moving to a new place and creating new lives for my children there will be good for me and stop me brooding…If you want to know what my religious convictions are now, they are: to keep busy and to keep healthy so that you can do all you should for your children. And to get to bed very early at night so you don't have time to think."
Catholic theologians contacted by 20/20 agreed that Father McSorley had not broken the sanctity of the confessional in keeping records of his informal conversational exchanges with Mrs. Kennedy. One theologian, however, questioned whether McSorley had a moral obligation to protect the privacy of the exchanges. "There needs to be a good reason for telling people these things," he said.
"I think he was aware after her death that this was an important part of history," Maier said, noting that the records which are kept at Georgetown University were opened to him as a scholar. " I think that he decided that we could learn from this, from a historical standpoint-how this extraordinary figure in American history … dealt with some of the basic questions of life [and] of God."