NORFOLK – Reverend R. Francis Muench does not have a happy job.

Three days a week, he sits at a large wooden desk inside the bare walls of his Norfolk office and reads heartbreaking statements from Catholics who have suffered from misguided marriages.

It tries to examine the minds of people who have married with no intention of remaining faithful to their spouse, no openness to the possibility of having children, no commitment to a lifelong relationship – in essence, no understanding of essential to the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

It is not uncommon for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond court branch in Ocean View to process more than 200 marriage annulments in a year.

Muench is often the person who ultimately decides that these marriages never existed, according to church teachings on the sacrament. He is one of the five priests who sit as judges in the court.

“Anyone who works in a court hopes there will be a day when they are bankrupt,” Muench said. “We encounter a lot of pain, a lot of anger and a lot of disappointment.”

The main office of the Diocesan Court is in Richmond, although Muench’s office in Norfolk handles annulments for the Hampton Roads area.

Court judges are faced with the conflict of upholding the sacrament of marriage while officially acknowledging that many people enter into marriages who are unable to do so.

“It’s a real tension,” says Muench, who is trained in ecclesiastical law and sat on the court for about five years. ”That’s why many people in the courts are so adamant about the need for people to prepare well for their marriage. ”

As a court judge, Muench hears many complaints about the cancellation process. Some Catholics believe the church has no right to annul a marriage. Others say cancellations are granted too freely.

“Some people find it presumptuous to say a marriage was invalid,” Muench said. “My answer is, we don’t have a better way. I don’t think that would be a better way to say, as bad as the marriage has been from the start, you’re going to have to hold on.

The church requires annulments from Catholics who want to remarry with the blessing of the church. At the same time, the church has specific standards for granting annulments. Not all marriages that end in divorce can be annulled.

Muench said it makes some Catholics feel like the church is forcing them to lie about their first marriage in order to get an annulment.

“It tears me apart,” Muench said. “If you think you have a valid marriage, don’t ask for an annulment. Because that would be a lie.”

The court collects information about failed marriages from people seeking annulment, their spouses, their priest, relatives and friends who have agreed to testify about the thoughts and conditions that went into the initial decision to marry. marry.

“A lot of people find it to be an intrusion into their lives,” Muench said. ”I often get the answer, ‘I want to get on with my life. Why are you bothering me? ”

Muench said that while he can declare a marriage invalid, it does not invalidate those involved in the marriage, their obligations to their children, or the legitimacy of their children.

“We’re not here to pass judgment on anyone’s life,” he said. ”We are not here to make excuses. We are here to listen and try to figure out if there was something missing from the marriage early on.


Only one spouse should request an annulment, but the other should be informed and allowed to respond. A finalized civil divorce is a prerequisite. The Diocese of Richmond does not charge for cancellations.

The plaintiff usually starts by talking to a priest, deacon, or field attorney, who tries to weed out cases that are likely to fail. Stronger cases go to the matrimonial court of the local diocese.

The plaintiff must provide a packet of information to the court, which includes a petition form, a letter from the priest or lawyer, a baptismal certificate, a marriage certificate and a divorce decree.

Some dioceses require a written essay or interview. They look for evidence that the marriage was doomed from the start. They can interview siblings, relatives, friends, colleagues, doctors and psychologists.

The person requesting the cancellation is assigned a ”lawyer” to plead the case. On the other side is the defense attorney for the marriage – the ‘defender of the bond’.

The final decision is made by a maximum of three judges and is automatically reviewed by an appeal court. The whole process can take anywhere from a year to 18 months, or even longer if contested.


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