Considered by the diocesan tribunals of the Roman Catholic Church, annulment of marriage involves an exhaustive and often lengthy process, taking on average two to three years before a decision is made. Indeed, the Pope has instructed that the process be speeded up - without compromising its principles - because of the time petitioners have been required to wait.
Monsignor Edward Walker, vicar judicial of the diocesan tribunal in Nottingham, says that waiting time is caused "because of the question of manpower, as an awful lot of people are applying for annulments". Tribunals are dealt with by parish priests with heavy workloads who simply can't deal with cases as quickly as they would like.
Dr Michael Ashdown, administrator of Westminster metropolitan tribunal, says that in any 20 cases, two-thirds will have sufficiently strong grounds to be further examined. Of these, around 50 per cent usually prove to be relatively straightforward, with annulments being granted. On balance, the other half will warrant more detailed consideration, but generally, "success in terms of granting an annulment exceeds those that fail".
Many people don't persist as the process is demanding. "Over the past three years, applications have levelled out - Westminster receives 400 a year, of which 150 to 200 are proceeded with - and more women than men are still applying."
Gina, now 37, was divorced from her husband six years ago, and five years later is still waiting for the marriage to be annulled. "Barely six months after we were married, he started hitting me and drinking heavily. I couldn't believe it. He was hell to live with. From being the most gentle man I'd ever met, I suddenly didn't know him.
"He'd always liked a drink but it was never a problem between us. My family thought the world of him and friends told me how lucky I was. We were very much in love and as Catholics, getting married was the obvious next step.
"After three years of marriage I'd honestly had enough. When my family realised what was happening, they were astonished. I finally broke down and told them everything. I felt shame, anger, humiliation, you name it."
Gina insists her husband "made a mockery" of their marriage vows and could not have considered them seriously on their wedding day. A devout Catholic, she maintains that the service was invalidated by her husband's attitude. "I don't know why he married me. He obviously didn't mean a word of anything he said at the altar."
Gina and her boyfriend have been together for five years and want to get married. "I applied for an annulment before I met James because I knew that if I wanted to remarry in the church and have children, I had no option. However, we have both become so frustrated with waiting that we're now considering marrying outside the church."
Monsignor Walker says that he hopes cases such as Gina's are the exception rather than the rule. "Sometimes things can go wrong and complications can cause delays. But we have to look very closely at the facts before deciding whether a marriage was a true union or not."
Gina sees no such complications, citing "incapacity" as her grounds. This means someone is unfit for marriage and cannot share his or her life with another person. Such grounds are one of two recent developments in the processing of annulments; the second is a "lack of canonical discretion", whereby a person is deemed to have been incapable of the logical decision to marry at the time. Though less clear-cut, and harder to assess, such grounds are required criteria, as the former three of "impediment" (someone being too young, or forced to marry), "form" (absence of authorised celebrant and two witnesses) and "consent" (one partner doesn't want children) hardly circumscribe the causes of marital breakdown.
"I've examined my conscience and don't feel I've done anything wrong," says Gina. "My ex-husband never contested my claims, and by now James and I should have been married. We've given the situation a lot of thought and our patience is running out. I'm very disappointed."
Lindsay, too, is bitter. Divorced for seven years, she applied for an annulment four years ago. She wants to remarry in the church and raise a family. During her four-and-a-half-year marriage, her husband had several affairs.
"Clearly, the vows we took weren't that important to him, so the wedding was meaningless," says Lindsay, 29. "When I first discovered he'd been unfaithful I was devastated. But we talked things through and I was determined to keep the marriage together. When I found out a year later that he'd been with two other women, I couldn't cope.
"Waiting all this time for an annulment has been just as upsetting. I am a strong Catholic and want to marry in the church. I've been honest in the eyes of God and can't understand why my case is taking so long to settle.
"I know that more people are now applying for annulments and that they must be very carefully considered by the church, but I feel my case is clear enough. Four years of waiting just doesn't make any sense."
Lindsay and her partner are also considering marrying outside the church and have the backing of their families. "My mother wants to see me happy and appreciates that marrying elsewhere must now be an option. It wouldn't be ideal because I'm very committed to my faith, but what else can I be expected to do?
"Getting divorced was traumatic. I tried to keep it together but the marriage was beyond repair. Declaring my love for my partner before God in the Catholic Church is important to me and, without sounding sanctimonious, I shouldn't be deprived of this. Coping hasn't been easy, but I didn't expect such intransigence from the church.
"My parish priest has been very understanding and appreciates how I feel. But he can't really do much to help in terms of my annulment and says that it must take its course. I just can't work out what needs such examination. If the sanctity of marriage means anything, I shouldn't be thinking about marrying elsewhere."
For very different reasons Michael, 36, feels equally aggrieved. Divorced a year ago following his wife's infidelity, he has learned that she is seeking an annulment of their marriage. As yet, he does not know what grounds she is citing.
"I was a good husband. And while I don't claim to be the best Catholic in the world, the wedding vows I took meant an awful lot to me. Of course, people fall out of love, but if my ex-wife is successful and they are annulled, I'll have to think long and hard about going to Mass again. My wife and I were in love when we got married, and the vows were just as important to her. That the church might suggest otherwise more than seven years later came as a great shock to me."
Having conducted his own research into the working of the diocesan tribunals, Michael is concerned that should his ex-wife's ground be incapacity or lack of canonical discretion, he will have to appear before a tribunal and present his own case. In such circumstances, when establishing grounds is particularly hard and grounds are contested by one party, psychiatrists can be asked to examine the evidence, and interview the couple.
"How can it be determined, for example, that my wife was emotionally unfit to take her vows on our wedding day? I'm amazed that the church can deliberate about something so vague and possibly invalidate vows that we both took in good faith. I appreciate that the annulment may not be granted, but I don't relish having to argue that my marriage was actually valid. Essentially, it will depend on which of us is believed.
"I can't help but think this is a touch farcical, but I'm worried that the tribunal might rule in my ex-wife's favour."
Monsignor Walker understands Michael's bitterness. "The tribunal would very carefully explain the details to him," he says. "All the facts are studied, and working on the assumption that both parties are telling the truth, we eventually come to a decision."
Michael is unconvinced. "The church is providing a get-out clause for people who find themselves unhappy or dissatisfied. This can't be right. I accept the marriage is finished in the eyes of the law, but not that it may possibly have never taken place in the eyes of the church. If the tribunal decides this was the case, I will feel very betrayed."Reuse content