The Rev. Mark Pautler sits in an office at Spokane’s Catholic Chancery four days a week and surveys the wreckage of failed marriages.
As the one-man tribunal for the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, he grants or denies marriage annulments for all of Eastern Washington.
In his job, he is both author and critic, judge and jury.
The popular myth is that annulments are for the rich and famous. Last year, few of the 250 petitioners in Eastern Washington or the 300 in Idaho were either rich or famous.
Rather, they are everyday Catholics with one thing in common: hope for a new and better marriage.
About half of the petitions for annulments are simple administrative declarations - Catholics who were married outside the church. Those cases are a matter of verifying the facts and filling out the paperwork.
The other half are often “ugly and messy,” Pautler said.
“It’s terrible, just terrible,” Pautler said. “After you see so much wreckage, you do get a little numbed out.”
He’s done this job for 10 years. And every year the cases seem to get a little more complicated.
“What I have noticed is the horror of the mess of people’s lives seems to be increasing,” he said. “My own seat-of-the-pants theory is that the persons who are coming to church for annulments are the persons who are coming to the church in desperation.
“Their lives have not been working out and they are trying this avenue in hopes of salvation.”
Still a believer
The Roman Catholic Church has been Mary Cosentini’s greatest source of strength and consternation.
Having her marriage annulled in the late 1940s was humiliating and unfair, she said.
Cosentini was 22, living with her sick mother in New Orleans while her Navy father spent months at sea. World War II was just ending, and the town was flooded with sailors.
She met one and got pregnant. Although her family had been lifelong Catholics, her mother arranged for a Baptist pastor to perform a private ceremony. Her new husband shipped out a few days later.
Cosentini took her new husband’s advice and moved to upstate New York, more than 2,000 miles from her family, to live with his mother.
It was a mistake.
When baby Charles was born, the mother-in-law kept him in her room with her. She shamed and ridiculed the young mother, telling her she was a sinner, that she was going to hell.
Cosentini left, at first taking the baby with her. But she had nowhere to go. Her parents wouldn’t take her back. She had never worked before, never lived on her own.
She returned the baby to her mother-in-law, vowing to retrieve him once she found a home.
She found refuge in New York City at a boarding house for single women that was run by the Catholic Church. She learned to be a legal transcriptionist and several months later found a job and her own apartment.
When she tried to claim her son, she discovered her in-laws had gone to court and told the judge she had abandoned her husband and child.
The annulment went much the same. Before she knew what was happening, she was notified by the church that her marriage was null. The reason: lack of formed declaration.
Cosentini said she thought the church was saying she was incapable of being a good wife. All it really means is that a Catholic was not married in the church.
Shamed, she never had the meaning clarified.
“I am not a bad person,” she said. “Why was I treated like this? I had no way of fighting. No one was in my corner.”
She visited regularly, but her son, now a toddler, wouldn’t call her mama and seemed indifferent, even afraid of her.
“Every visit was so depressing I could hardly get up and go to work the next day,” she said.
She made a clean break and moved to San Francisco. She married an Italian man, had two more boys and watched her second marriage fall apart.
She left that marriage, too, taking her sons with her. She couldn’t stay away from the church, despite the stigma it placed on divorced people in the 1950s.
“I thought, ‘The heck with this. It’s my church. I believe in this,”’ she said.
Now 73, she has come to terms with her tumultuous relationship with the church.
“I’m not a very good Catholic,” she said. “If God isn’t pleased with me, this is all there is to get.”
Not just the rich
Annulments are one of the most misunderstood procedures within the Catholic Church. Most of the recent publicity surrounds various annulments granted to the Kennedys, America’s most popular Catholic clan.
Apart from what they know about the Kennedy cases, most people, even Catholics, know little about the procedure.
Some think annulments are the church’s own brand of hypocrisy and are available only for large sums of money.
In fact, every diocese in America has a staff that investigates annulment petitions. Some 60,000 annulments are granted in the United States every year. That’s 90 percent of the number granted worldwide in the church.
That reflects the blend of unwavering Catholic teaching that marriage is forever, and cruel American reality that half of all marriages, even Catholic marriages, end in divorce.
Annulments do not depend on a monetary contribution. Most tribunals charge a fee for their services.
In Spokane, it’s $150 for formal cases, and $25 to $35 for simple ones. No one is denied an annulment because of inability to pay.
For some the fee is waived. Others work out a payment plan.
Divorced Catholics are not excommunicated. Neither are remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment, although they may not partake of Communion because technically they are in an adulterous relationship.
Children of a null marriage are not bastards. Children are never denied church services or branded because of the activities of their parents.
The biggest misconception is that an annulment means the marriage never happened, said Pautler. In fact, a null marriage means the relationship never had the necessary foundation on which to build a lasting bond.
That’s why witnesses to the courtship and early years of marriage are crucial to the investigation.
“If people say the couple was acting responsibly, they had a good marriage for five, six or eight years, and then he changed or she changed, well, that’s not good enough (to prove nullity,)” Pautler said.
“Then they say, ‘Look what he or she did to me. I couldn’t go on.’ Well, maybe you couldn’t live a common life, but we can’t annul that marriage.”
Pautler turns down 10 to 15 petitions a year.
‘Sending mixed messages’
Terry Jones, 45, still isn’t sure what happened in his marriage.
“There was enough love there in the beginning,” he said.
He was living in Cheney in 1983 when he met his future wife, who was attending Eastern Washington University. She got pregnant. They got married and had a baby girl.
Three years later she gave birth to a second girl.
She was a devout Catholic. The couple went to church almost every Sunday.
For five or six years life was great, Jones said. After that, things fell apart.
They fought bitterly. They went to marriage counseling. But a trial separation turned into a permanent one.
“She left me. She found another guy in the same church we were going to,” he said.
She filed for a divorce in 1994. For two years the couple fought over custody of the children.
They finally agreed to share custody. The girls, now 10 and 13, split their time equally between their parents’ homes.
On April 24, Jones received a letter from the tribunal notifying him that his ex-wife had petitioned for an annulment. The letter asked him to fill out a form and name three people who were witnesses to his early marriage.
He was so bothered by the notion of an annulment that he drove downtown to talk with Pautler.
“If she wants to get married in the church, I’m not going to deny her that,” he said. “But granting an annulment is sending my children mixed messages.”
Jones said he is not sure if the annulment will be granted, but the process has left him with a distaste for the Catholic Church.
“I did not squelch on my responsibility,” he said. “If the annulment is granted, then I know where I stand with the church.”
Marriage is a sacrament
Much of the misunderstanding about annulments grows out of the misunderstanding of the Catholic teaching about marriage, Pautler said.
Marriage is forever. Marriages are indissoluble, according to the church. Marriage is one of the seven sacraments, a sign to the community that represents something about the nature of God.
“How do we know that God is faithful to us? How do we know that Christ loves the church? How do we know we can count on God?” Pautler asked.
“One of the ways we know is that marriages are a sign of all that.”
Children who grow up in broken families have a tougher time grasping the reality of a faithful God, he said.
“Every marriage that represents God’s love does something good for the whole community,” he said. “Every marriage that doesn’t do that is a wound for the community.”
‘It was gut-wrenching’
When her oldest children took part in their first Communion, June Sine sat in the pews like a spectator.
She did so out of obedience. She knew her beloved church did not recognize her current marriage even though it was a wonderful, thriving partnership.
In the eyes of the church, she was in an adulterous relationship.
She had married her high-school sweetheart in Montana and had two kids, all before she was 20.
For four years of marriage they fought bitterly. She left, met a decent guy and married him.
John Sine adopted her two children, and she gave him two more babies. She resumed going to Mass when the kids were still young.
Although she was forbidden to receive Communion, the services were comforting and inspiring, she said.
A new priest arrived at her parish, St. Joseph’s in Otis Orchards, in 1989. During his homily one day, the new priest mentioned that anyone whose marriage was not recognized by the church should come to see him. She did.
The priest obtained the forms and started the annulment process.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Sine said of answering the two-page questionnaire. “You have to really soul-search, look into what your marriage was and why it fell apart.”
Her ex, who has since married three more times, didn’t bother responding to his questionnaire. The annulment was granted.
The new priest blessed her current marriage in a special ceremony on her 16th wedding anniversary. The two oldest children stood at the altar as witnesses.
After that, Sine approached the Communion table for the first time in almost 20 years.
“It was a good feeling,” she said. “If you don’t fully participate in the Mass, there are barriers to participating in the parish.”
Today she’s been married 23 years.
A new future
Every year, Pautler adds the equivalent of a new parish to the Catholic Diocese.
His job is not just wading through dysfunction and jumping through legal hoops. It’s a ministry.
He is pulling people back into the church, keeping them tied to the faith, helping them participate more fully in their parishes.
The numbers add up quickly when Pautler seeks to quantify his ministry. For most of the 250 petitions, there is a new spouse. For each of those relationships, there are the children, previous and yet to come.
With almost every case, there is hope of a new future.
Most people petition for an annulment only when they want to get remarried in the church or when they are seeking to have their new marriage blessed.
“What they’ve done in the past is not simply a matter of destructiveness and failure,” he said. “It’s a platform on which they are going to build a more positive understanding of their own life and their marriage.”
‘It was kind of cathartic’
A year after she married her college beau, Gigi Preston was diagnosed with a liver disease.
The marriage was never the same.
“He just didn’t want to deal with it and kind of went his own way,” she said.
Preston’s condition worsened and the couple grew more and more distant. They separated after six years, divorced after seven.
She got a job at Gonzaga University, where she fell in love with Assistant Athletic Director John Preston, who wanted a Catholic wedding.
A priest told them that although her previous marriage was an Episcopalian ceremony, she would have to apply for an annulment. The Catholic Church recognizes marriages performed by Protestant ministers as well as Catholic priests.
She filled out the paperwork and rounded up three witnesses.
“It was kind of cathartic,” she said. “I never really sat down and thought about why the marriage failed.”
In 1992 the Prestons were married in the Jesuit House Chapel at Gonzaga University. Last year, she converted to Catholicism while waiting for a liver transplant.
The transplant came a few weeks later.
Now, she and her husband are planning to grow old together.
“I’m happy now that our marriage has a lot of spirituality in it,” she said. “I thank God for that every day.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (1 Color); Staff illustration by Molly Quinn
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: REVIEWS PART OF ANNULMENT PROCESS Every annulment is subject to two levels of review. First, another priest, known as the defender of the bond, reads the case file to see if there is any argument for preserving the marriage. Then the tribunal of a neighboring diocese reviews the documents. While annulments are considered on a case-by-case basis, there are generally three categories: Lack of form - Catholics are bound to be married in the Catholic Church. Catholics who marry outside the church can have their unions annulled. Impediments - For a marriage contract to be valid, the husband and wife must be free of impediments. If one of them had a previous marriage that was not annulled, the current marriage is a candidate for annulment and the other partner is free to marry again. The Catholic Church recognizes all previous marriages for non-Catholics. Consent - This is the broad category that most of the formal cases fall under. Consent to marry must be freely given and backed up by the capacity to fulfill the responsibilities of marriage. Witnesses to the courtship and early marriage provide the tribunal with the key information to determine if such consent was present. Obstacles to consent include an undisclosed history of significant conditions like drug abuse, criminal activity or violence.