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In Record Numbers, Catholics Who Love the Church but No Longer Love Their Spouses Are Seeking to . . . : Annul and Void


Joseph P. Kennedy II put in his request after 11 years and a set of twins. By the time Princess Caroline got hers, she had a new husband and three children. Sharon Stone's beau, Bill MacDonald, whisked her away for "a honeymoon" while awaiting his.

Annulments. They're not just for virgins anymore.

In truth, says the Roman Catholic Church, they never were. Nor are they a privilege of wealth and fame, dependent upon huge gifts to the church or in any way threatening to the legitimacy of children.

But what they most definitely are is popular--more popular today than at any time in the 2,000-year-history of the church. And nowhere are they more popular than in the United States, where at least 72% of all the world's annulments are granted.

Or as one religion writer recently concluded, "The United States is to annulments what Nevada is to divorce."

The who's who of American annulees includes Frank Sinatra, Lee Iacocca, Pat Sajak and Lee Radziwill. Sen. Ted Kennedy is reportedly seeking one from his first wife, Joan, although he is already remarried to Catholic lawyer Victoria Reggie. The first wife of Mayor Richard Riordan sought and was granted an annulment after 23 years of marriage and five children.

But most of the church's 50,000 or so annual petitions for annulment come from lesser-known men and women who simply want to get on with their lives. "I wanted to finish that chapter of my life. I wanted closure," explains a Pasadena paralegal whose 22-year marriage was recently annulled.

The Los Angeles diocese ranks fourth in the nation in the number of annulments requested, but could handle more if not for the severe priest shortage here, say Catholic leaders. Still, the workload is so great that the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles recently computerized a portion of the process. And at area religious stores, the shelves can't be stocked fast enough to keep up with demand for annulment guidebooks.

But despite their frequency, annulments continue to stir strong emotions among both parishioners and the clergy.

Early this month, a church newspaper rushed to defend the Riordans' annulment in the face of charges the church applied "a double standard" to the mayor. The archdiocesan weekly, the Tidings, was responding to reader complaints that Riordan, married twice and separated from his second wife, received special treatment because of his wealth, power and friendship with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Before his election as mayor, Riordan, a lifelong Catholic, helped raise tens of millions of dollars for the archdiocese's education foundation and was the principal donor of a $400,000 jet helicopter for Mahony's use. "There is no double standard in the way 'celebrated' and 'ordinary' Catholics are treated under canon (church) law," wrote Tidings columnist Father Gregory Coiro. "These perceptions are false, and, many times, fodder for anti-Catholicism."

Of the many myths surrounding the annulment process, says Msgr. Craig A. Cox, the "most pernicious" is the notion that one must be rich, famous, or well-connected to get one.

The annulment, properly known as "a decree of nullity," is a process by which the church finds a marriage--already ended in divorce--to also be invalid according to church standards. Many divorced Catholics seek the decrees so they may remarry in the church and continue to celebrate Communion and other sacraments.

Historically, some skeptics have viewed annulment as an ecclesiastical wink at broken marriages. "The process is medieval and un-Christian," talk-show host Phil Donahue recently told USA Today. "A group of celibate men decide whether an agreement you made 20 years ago was valid in the eyes of the church. . . . In my case, that union brought five children into the world. How do I explain it to them?"

Because Donahue divorced and remarried Marlo Thomas, also a Catholic, without having his first marriage annulled, he may no longer receive church sacraments. "Now, at weddings and funerals, people crawl over me to get to the (Communion) rail," he says. "I guess it is public punishment for my sin."

But for many Catholics who go through it, the annulment process feels therapeutic and cathartic. Increasingly, church lawyers say, the annulment is viewed as a compassionate theological response to the fact that some unions are simply not meant to be.

As overseer of the region's marriage tribunal, Cox sees hundreds of such ill-begotten unions every year. Some are easy to spot--the marriages for immigration, the shotgun weddings, the marriages made for money, not love. But many are not.

Some of the 700 or so cases that come before the tribunal's canon lawyers are not so obvious. And it can take years of investigation and psychological evaluation to determine whether a marriage--even one blessed by the church--was truly made in heaven.

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