Ray Miller decided to apply for a marriage annulment after his divorce so he could remain in good standing with the Catholic Church if he ever remarried.

Three years later, he's still waiting.

Miller has had to answer questions about intimate details of his marriage and to solicit family and friends as witnesses. He watched in astonishment as a dispute over the signature on an envelope undid everything.

"Why would they treat people like this?" he asked. "There's more interest in the letter of the law than doing what's right for people in need."

The process of declaring a marriage void has long frustrated faithful Catholics. Recently, no less than Pope Francis has called for a review, and has appointed a commission to "streamline" the process.

Because the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, Catholics who remarry without getting an annulment are barred from taking Communion and other sacraments. Their first marriages are still considered valid, so they are in effect committing adultery with a new spouse.

For the 1.4 million Catholics in Minnesota, and North and South Dakota, the road to annulment leads to the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. The Metropolitan Tribunal oversaw nearly 6,000 petitions over the past decade from Twin Cities Catholics. It also is "court of second instance," an appeals court of sorts, for all three states.

But the chances of getting an annulment from the Twin Cities archdiocese are among the lowest in the nation, and the waits are among the highest, according to a review of the Canon Law Society of America's 2012 annual report, the most recent available.

Compared to 164 tribunals nationally:

• St. Paul had the third-highest denial rate. Twenty-four percent of the 2012 decisions were denials. The national average was 4 percent.

• St. Paul had a backlog of 283 Twin Cities cases at the start of the year, the eighth-highest. Its appellate court had 148 cases pending, the largest number.

• The cost of processing just the Twin Cities annulment petitions was $553,000, the sixth-highest.

Turnover behind delays

The Rev. Timothy Cloutier, judicial vicar for the archdiocese, said the cases "go through a rigorous review because of the seriousness of the sacrament." When petitioners have appealed their decisions to Rome, "our efforts have been repeatedly validated," he said in an e-mail.

Cloutier acknowledged long waits, saying they were caused by staff turnover. In 2013, for example, the tribunal lost four canon lawyers.

"Each time a judge left, the cases needed to be reassigned, the courts — each consisting of three judges — needed to be reconstituted, the instructing judge needed to familiarize him/herself with each of the cases," he said.

Miller's case apparently was caught up in that process. His grounds for annulment — that his ex-wife didn't want children — were among the most common, but it still took a year for the tribunal to decide, he said.

"Getting any kind of an update on where my case stood was nearly impossible, even for my advocate, who is very familiar with the tribunal staff," he said. "We were simply told 'Be patient.' "

Miller's petition was sent to the Winona Diocese for a second court review. Judges there said his ex-wife's signature on a receipt for a certified letter was not legible. Though his ex-wife verified it was her signature, the petition was denied.

It's now back at the St. Paul tribunal, before a new set of judges and staff.

Kathleen Roberge is a St. Paul attorney who has been waiting almost two years for her petition to be approved.

"There's no accountability, no deadlines," said Roberge. "When you're a lawyer, you follow timelines and rules. If you don't, you lose the case. There's nothing like that here."

The church has argued that the annulment process contributes to healing and closure of a marriage. Miller agreed that answering the questions gave him insights into his marriage. Others, however, say it can be counterproductive.

"When we first started, I felt it was really good for us, really opening," said a Twin Cities woman who did not want her name used; her fiancé is seeking an annulment from a previous marriage.

"But we've never been able to close it. We're constantly talking about his ex-wife to the point of becoming toxic and unhealthy."

She said the annulment staff even asked her fiancé to provide his therapy records. He provided a "very exposing" letter from his therapist, she said, but the tribunal wanted his therapists' notes. His ex-wife and diocese staff also would be able to see them, she said. Her fiancé did not want to provide the notes. The case is still pending.

Working on complaints

Cloutier said he is working to address such complaints. The tribunal is trying to standardize certain policies "which had been at times arbitrary and not well-grounded," he said.

"Some information may also have been given out that served to confuse rather than clarify," he said. "That is wrong."

Cloutier apologized for the problems, saying. "For those times we have failed in our mission, I am sorry."

Some Catholics wonder who exactly is making the decisions about their marriages. A look at the 20-some staff and judges listed on the archdiocese's website shows strong connections to the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, one of the most conservative in the archdiocese.

Both Cloutier and adjutant judicial vicar the Rev. James McConville are "clergy in residence" at St. Agnes. Judge/auditor Nathan Allen is a deacon. Advocate John DeJak is a former dean at St. Agnes School. Cloutier's predecessor at the tribunal, the Rev. Christopher Beaudet, served on weekends at the church.

"I've never heard of such a concentration of staff representing a single viewpoint," said Charles Reid, a professor of civil and canon law at the University of St. Thomas, who worked as a tribunal judge in Minnesota for more than a decade.

"You expect random distribution across a diocese. It's called diversity."

The tribunal also hired as a judge last year Marc Balestrieri, a California canon lawyer who waged a campaign in 2004 to have the Vatican declare presidential candidate John Kerry a heretic and to excommunicate him because of his abortion-rights position.

In addition, the Star Tribune has reported that the tribunal has hired priest sex offenders who couldn't work elsewhere.

Possible changes

Last week, Pope Francis raised the prospects of removing the annulment fees, which are $600 in the Twin Cities.

Other proposals would eliminate the "court of second instance" and make the annulment process an administrative procedure, not judicial.

Archbishop John Nienstedt said he agreed that the annulment process could be more efficient. "For example, presently marriage cases in the first instance require a hearing before three judges, two of whom must be ordained clerics. It could be more efficient to have three judges, where only one is a cleric, or to have some cases adjudicated by one judge alone," he said in a statement.

Nienstedt said he looked forward to implementing any changes approved by the pope.

As for Miller, he is so frustrated that he's questioning whether he should remain in the Catholic Church. He notes that even if the St. Paul tribunal rules in his favor again, his case still has to move to an appellate court. And that court might look too familiar.

Said Miller: "There's no guarantee it won't be Winona."