A divorce is a civil act that claims to dissolve a valid marriage. From a civil legal perspective, a marriage existed and was then dissolved. The Catholic Church does not recognize the ability of the State to dissolve a marriage.
An annulment, on the other hand, is an official determination by a Church Tribunal that what appeared to be a valid marriage was actually not one (i.e., that the marriage was in fact invalid). While a civil divorce says that it dissolves an existing marriage, an annulment declares that a marriage bond never existed in the first place.
While the process of seeking a declaration of matrimonial nullity may be emotionally challenging, many find that this can actually be part of the healing process that helps the person to return to a state of wholeness. The important thing to remember in initiating the process is to approach it without any sense of shame, guilt or undue trepidation. Marital failure does not mean that either party was a failure as a person.
An annulment does not declare that the spouses never really loved each other, nor that the divorce was more one partys fault than the others, nor that one party is a better Catholic than the other. In no way does the process concern itself with compensation, reward, favours, retribution or sentiment in determining a decision. A declaration of nullity (i.e., annulment) is simply a determination that, at the time of the wedding, some essential element for a valid marriage was lacking. For instance, one of the parties did not intend lifelong fidelity to the other person or excluded children entirely. Another example would be that one of the parties was incapable of marriage (due to some constitutional weakness, such as mental illness or some psychological condition that prevented making the marital commitment grave immaturity, etc.). In practical terms, after nullity is declared (if it is declared), the Church considers the parties free of the marriage bond that would have otherwise arisen. The parties are then considered free to contract marriage in the Church.
Christ the Lord calls upon the community of believers, the Church, to be a community of healing and reconciliation. The legal procedures of the Church and their application are based on the teaching on marriage of the Lord Himself (i.e., that marriage is a permanent covenant between one man and one woman). However, the Church also cares very much about those who have suffered through the pain of separation and divorce, and thus has, over the centuries, developed these procedures with care. Ultimately, they represent the Churchs desire to find pastoral solutions for people in such difficult situations while remaining faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and upholding the rights of all involved.
Any Catholic (or non-Catholic) who believes that his or her marriage was invalid is welcome to approach the Sydney Office of the Tribunal. The Sydney Office of the Tribunal is a part of the Regional Tribunal of Sydney, a provincial tribunal encompassing the entire State of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. The Moderator of the Tribunal is the Most Reverend Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, and the Judicial Vicar is the Very Reverend Peter Blayney.