Father Charles Dahm, OP

Annulments and domestic violence

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

How are survivors of domestic violence treated by Catholic marriage tribunals, the diocesan courts that determine whether the sacramental bond of a marriage exists or not? Sadly, if domestic violence is involved, the process can be painful.

As a pastor working in domestic violence ministry for decades, these are just a few of the harrowing stories I’ve heard over the years.

An undocumented immigrant woman met and married her husband. From the day of their marriage, he isolated her. She could not work, go to school, shop for food or even buy clothing without her husband present. When she applied for an annulment, she had to provide testimonies to substantiate her claims of abuse. Because she had no family or friends in the U.S. and did not know the whereabouts of her former husband, the judge ruled her claims unsubstantiated, and the annulment process dragged on.

Another survivor who had divorced her abusive husband tried to fill out the lengthy annulment questionnaire, but found it too painful. She felt retraumatized and abandoned the process. She remarried in civil court and stopped receiving Communion for 17 years.

Another woman told me her judge wrote in his denial of the annulment that her claims of abuse were unjustified because her behavior had caused the abuse.

Despite reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 41% of women and 26% of men experience sexual or physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, Catholic clergy and tribunal judges and advocates (assisting lay people) tend to receive little to no training in domestic violence. Yet some canon lawyers estimate that about 50% of annulment cases involve domestic violence.

According to Catholic teaching, a sacramental marriage is established by the free expression of mutual consent of a man and woman before a Catholic priest or deacon. The indissolubility of marriage stems from a theology based on Scripture.

But certain conditions are essential for the marriage bond, and if one is lacking at the time of the exchange of vows, it is null. These “grounds” for an annulment include dishonesty about one’s intentions; force or fear of force; ignorance about the sacrament; insufficient use of reason; physical or emotional incapacity to assume essential marriage obligations and more.

If any of these conditions occur after the wedding, they do not constitute grounds for nullity unless shown to have existed before the marriage. But abusers commonly groom their victims over time, including during courtship and early years of marriage. Perpetrators rarely reveal their plan before the wedding.

Marriage tribunals normally consider grounds for annulment revealed shortly after the wedding to have existed at the time of the wedding, e.g., a man is unfaithful to his wife one week after the wedding or a spouse who soon after marrying reveals they do not want children.

Victims often do not recognize abuse until years after their wedding. Of course, many judges do their best to search for signs of abuse before the wedding, but if they don’t find them, they may deny the annulment. Yet even if the signs of abuse were not evident before the marriage, the roots of abuse were likely there, often unknown to victims and sometimes even perpetrators.

The annulment process can be deeply healing for many petitioners, but, for domestic-abuse victims, it often harms them. This is why canonical judges should receive training to recognize and respond to the problem of retraumatization.

Of course, there have been other criticisms of annulments, some quite cynical, claiming essentially that money talks. Many never apply because they fear the process or believe it a sham. Filling out one’s personal history or finding three witnesses can also be daunting, leading some to abandon the process altogether.

Judges and advocates should be trained in domestic violence. We must gather and analyze more data about the kinds of cases submitted, the reasons petitioners drop out, and the reasons tribunals grant or deny annulment. As a church, we must improve, not only to better serve petitioners, especially victims of domestic violence, but also to demonstrate that the church is carrying out the compassionate ministry of Jesus Christ.

This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in the National Catholic Reporter. Reprinted with permission of NCR Publishing Company, ncronline.org.



  • domestic violence