Annulments: Myths and Reality

We’ve talked a few times about the very real healing that can come through annulments but over at OSV Mary DeTurris Poust and Dennis Poust have together written a particularly good piece on the myths (and there are a lot of myths out there) and realities of this process, which is very much a mischaracterized and misunderstood part of the ministry of the church. The Pousts write from the perspective of a couple who has gone through this process together, and that brings a voice of true understanding and appreciation to the piece.

Marriage, in the Church’s eyes, requires that several conditions be met. One archdiocesan website spells it out plainly: The marriage must be celebrated in a ceremony that is legally acceptable in the eyes of the Church; both parties must be free to marry each other; each partner must intend from the beginning of the marriage to accept God’s plan for married life as taught by the Church; and each partner must have the physical and the psychological ability to live out the consent initially given to the marriage.

“If any one of these requirements is lacking from the beginning of the marriage, then the Church tribunal, acting as the bishop’s representative, can declare that marriage invalid from its very celebration,” says the Archdiocese of New York.

So, annulment is not a taking away of something that already existed, but a recognition that a valid marriage never actually occurred because something — an “impediment” — prevented it.

Read it all

Countering the myths, and validating that larger piece, Mary writes a second, very personal article describing the deep healing and sense of freedom and release she experienced by going through the annulment process.

I flipped through the pages and stopped cold. There, mixed in with the usual questions about address and education and sacraments received, was a long list of questions that seemed to strike right at my core. Questions about whether there had been a significant death in my family close to the wedding. There had. About whether I’d ever called off the wedding before finally saying, “I do.” I had. About whether ours had been a long-distance courtship. It had.

On and on, as I read through questions, I began to see that I had been approaching the idea if an annulment from a mistaken and misguided place. With each nod of my head in response to a question, I realized that the Church recognized something I had not: No matter how many priests were on the altar, my ex-spouse and I had not entered into the marriage in a way that could possibly make it truly sacramental. It couldn’t succeed because it had been damaged from the start.

Again, read it all.

If you have thought about annulment but have been reluctant to look into it, do not be afraid. In truth, it’s a healing balm to a wound in the soul.

Also do not be afraid to check out Mary DeTurris Poust’s latest book, The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass

Related:
Restructuring Marriage in the Age of Relativism

How Long is a Marriage?

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About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Kate

    I’m curious–as long as people stay with the process and complete all the forms, are annulments always granted? Are they ever refused?

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    Don’t you think annulments are abused? And why is it all these rich catholics and politicians get annulments, years into their marriage? If there was an impediment, did it need to take 20 years for it to surface? I think most annulments are phony.

    But that’s not to say I don’t have mixed emotions about divorce. Sometimes it takes people a second chance to get it right for many reasons. But Christ does speak out against divorce very clearly. So there’s the dilemma.

  • thomas tucker

    What does that mean that each party must intendto accept God’s plan for married life? would that mean that a woman using artifical birth control would be eligible for an annulment because she didn’t intend to be open to life?

  • newton

    I’m a Baptist, so I cannot say that I’ve had knowledge of any kind regarding the Catholic annulment process. Nevertheless, I know someone who went through it.

    A friend of mine underwent that process before she could be ecclesiastically married to her now-husband. She comes from a very traditional Mexican family. She first married at age 20, at a wedding Mass in Mexico, como Dios manda (Just as God orders), as we like to say. It was fine and dandy. But there was one little thing… No, make it two.

    First, she was pregnant with her first daughter, from the man she married. She had thought as a single girl one slip with that man “was not going to hurt anything”. Second, her husband was physically and psychologically abusive. She has told me before that the five months she was his wife were “the worst months of her life”.

    The night that man threatened to shut off their newborn girl with a common weapon was the last straw. My friend couldn’t care less if she had depend upon her parent’s help to find an attorney to divorce her, nor if she had to make minimum wage working part-time while on welfare and going to college. She and her daughter were not going to be under the same roof as that man, even if her life depended on it. Her parents helped with every need they had during that time and afterwards, and she held steadfast to her faith.

    Some years later, she met her now-husband, who turns out he had a similar history: he had married some girl who then treated their only daughter badly and partied around while he was away working. When he had enough of it, he was able to find out the total extent of her neglect and adultery, and gained total and permanent custody of his daughter.

    My friend and this man became friends almost immediately after they met. About two years later, they had a civil ceremony, and each girl was adopted by the other parent. Not long after, they became the parents of two children. Some time after, they began to plan their Church wedding. My friend began the annulment procedure with the help of their Monsignor about a year in advance.

    At their Church wedding, their children had their different roles in the ceremony. Our Little Fig 1 was a flower girl, too. You could see the happiness, all right. You could also sense their relief at the fact that they could marry como Dios manda, without any impediments.

    The Monsignor, in his homily, pronounced a common Spanish proverb: Dios escribe en palabras chuecas. “God writes with crooked words.” These words shocked me into total awareness. Many times, we don’t understand why things have to happen the way they happen, even the worst things. But as we begin to truly understand ourselves, we begin to find peace and solace, and eventually learn to forgive ourselves and others. Life doesn’t have to be picture perfect: even the Bible tells us that it is not. But God will provide us with the Grace, Peace and Knowledge to understand our situations and move towards true Happiness. It will also help us to develop a sharp knowledge of our own selves, and wisdom, which will serve us well. Just look at the Book of Job.

    The annulment process helped my friend a lot in understanding those principles and finally find the closure she needed. (I don’t know if her husband went through it.) They’re still very happily married and their children are growing in a solid family unit: I truly predict that they are going to be the same way fifty years from now.

    I used to think nothing about it: but nowadays, it strikes me that most Protestant denominations don’t have any kind of annulment procedure, and I believe it is badly needed. I know some denominations have divorce support groups, counseling and the like, but I truly think there should be more to it than all of that. A formal procedure approved by a minister, a synod or a council can cover all those things and give that sense of legality, of punto final (endpoint) to a very painful, very tragic part of one’s life.

    Once again: Dios escribe en palabras chuecas.

  • Greta

    One complaint I often here is the charges the church makes for annulments. Can anyone touch on that issue?

  • Janet

    I received an annulment in 1996. I have come to realize that most people, including myself previous to the annulment, do not understand what they really are.

    They are not just for the rich – I think the expenses for mine were maybe $700. I know that may be out of reach for some folks at any given time, but it wasn’t that much in the vast scheme of things. Most people I know spend much more than that on their daily Starbucks fix. There are people employed at the Tribunal and it is a legal procedure of the Church. Several people need to be paid to work on these cases so I do not begrudge the fee. Plus, it was far cheaper than any legal fees connected with my divorce.

    Any children brought forth from the marriage are NOT considered illegitimate in the eyes of the Church. The Church recognizes the legality of the civil ceremony. What is being dealt with in an annulment is whether of not the SACRAMENT of marriage was approached and embraced in the proper spirit.

    As with any sacrament, you must receive it with the proper ‘dispostion’. Going into a Catholic marriage believing that you can always get a divorce if it doesn’t work out or never intending to have sex without birth control will get you legally married in the eyes of the state and the Church. But it won’t constitute a proper reception of the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church.

    Every case must be examined on its own merits. Every situation is unique. How many of us know someone who got married for all the wrong reasons – they wanted to leave home without running away, they were sexually attracted but not really well-suited, they got pregnant…and on and on and on. Sometimes good marriages can come from such inauspicious beginnings, but sometimes they turn into nightmares that never end. They are married, all right, but does anyone who understands what the proper reception of a Catholic sacrament entails think that the sacrament of marriage was properly entered into in these circumstances?

    And the length of time that they remain in the marriage really doesn’t matter. If the sacrament was invalidly received, an annulment is possible whether they stay in the legal marriage for two years or twenty.

    Are these annulments ‘phony’ as one of the commenters suggested? If the point of an annulment is establishing that the proper reception of the sacrament did not take place, then no, they are not phony.

    And given the state of our culture regarding sex and marriage, I would think that there are more marriages than ever being entered into for all the wrong reasons.

  • http://arturovasquez.wordpress.com Arturo Vasquez

    Not to denigrate anyone’s experience recounted here, but the initial article was beyond appalling. So if I didn’t have the perfect courtship, the perfect childhood, the perfect theological training, guess what, I wasn’t married in the first place! Here’s a good question: why doesn’t the Church ask all of this in the first place BEFORE the couple actually pretends to shack up and play house? Could it be because they would hurt the couple’s feelings, and not receive the checks and the stipends for the church, the ceremony, the mandatory marriage prep, and so on? That seems a little like the tail wagging the dog, don’t you think? Or perhaps a better word: simony.

    And $700 is a lot of money, especially when you add the time, effort, and so on. Perhaps the Church would be a lot more honest in making the process totally free, kept on the diocesan level, streamlined, and so on. Because it seems to me that anyone who could come up with a great sob story and the histrionics to accompany it is going to come out with an annulment anyway, so why get the lawyers involved?

    But then again, what makes people think that if it didn’t “take” the first time, it’ll take the second, the third, or the fourth time? Maybe, as in the Orthodox Church, they should set a limit on three. Third time’s the charm, or you can’t get married, period. At least the Christian East is honest. We in the West just like to come up with legal fictions to get through the sloppiness of life. Sometimes, I think the Church should just get out of the marriage business altogether. My grandparents when they got married (third grade education) were already pregnant and didn’t even know that they needed a ring for the ceremony. They’ve been married sixty years. I know, I know, different times, different sense of “emotional maturity” etc., but it seems that as long as people are ready to make excuses, there are people around who will find them believable.

  • Sarah

    @Greta

    I don’t know about your particular diocese or other dioceses, but the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City pays the annulment costs through their Archdiocesan Development Fund. That way no one has to worry about finances through what might be a difficult process.

    See their FAQ here: http://www.catharchdioceseokc.org/tribunal/q&a.htm

  • David

    I don’t like the implications of this at all. When my wife and I were married I was a secular Jew. We were married in the Church and went through an engaged encounter run by a priest and we got the dispensation for “disparity of cult”. Still I don’t know if I lived up to this at the time: “each partner must intend from the beginning of the marriage to accept God’s plan for married life as taught by the Church”, especially given that at that time I had no faith in God. Today now that I’m Catholic and understand more fully what marriage should be I’d say that it is now true. However the “from the beginning” angle sounds to me like my marriage, or for that matter a great number of marriages, could be annulled at any time or are currently invalid. That’s what I object to: this formulation weakens the confidence in a sacrament being valid.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Rather than enabling “annullments” we should be thinking about keeping marriages together.

    The church’s marriage laws are. . . strange. My aunt, one of the best human beings I’ve ever known, was banned from taking communion, not from any sin of her own, but because she married a divorced man.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    As you point out, David, this line of reasoning does weaken the who idea of marriage being a sacrament—offering up too many easy outs (for those with $700.00 + to spend).

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    It sounds like the Church disapproves of secular divorces, but wants to have a monopoly on dispensing their own “approved” form of divorce.

  • Jenny

    I don’t know much about annulments either, but I tend to agree with David’s sentiments. I know that when I married I had no intention of keeping many of the Church’s marriage laws. I was married in the Church, but had been away for years. Open to life? Not likely. I had very little intention of raising the children I might have Catholic. My non-Catholic husband took the pledges way more seriously than I did. Only after many years of marriage (and skipping Mass) did I revert back to the Church

    So where does it leave my marriage? If I took a mind to divorce, I could easily and truthfully fill out annulment papers giving my state of mind at the time of my marriage making it invalid. But the “impediments” have more to do with my relationship with the Church rather than my husband. But I have zero intentions of divorcing, so it is presumed that my marriage is valid.

    If an annulment states that the marriage never existed, I question why the validity of many marriages seems to rest on a person’s current state of mind.

  • http://none Kathy

    Is marriage the only sacrament whose validity depends on the person receiving it?

  • Mutnodjmet

    I would like to chime in here. I was an Episcopalian married to a Baptist — but my husband was married to a Catholic the first time. So, when I went through RCIA, I had to obtain an annulment for his first marriage.

    It was an interesting process, especially since a third party (me) was trying to collect all the records and spearhead this project. While I appreciated the Catholic ability to keep records, I did not fully comprehend it until then. :)

    However, I chugged along, the first marriage was annulled. When I got the formal paperwork, there was a sparkle in my husband’s eye, and joy was obvious in his face. The secular divorce was initiated, very coldly, by his first wife. The spiritual annulment was more profound, and done out of love. You could tell it meant something — even to a Protestant.

    Non-catholics who think that the church grants annulments willy-nilly or for fund raising purposes really have no concept of the flaming hoops couples marrying in the Catholic church go through. However, there is a lot of evidence that Catholic couples living their vows fully have enormous rates of marital success. I don’t know if my husband will ever become Catholic, but I know the church as really helped our marriage during some rough patches.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Annulment=divorce.

    Same thing.

    There is nothing spiritual, or “healing” about the death of love, no matter what you call it, or how many witnesses you have.

    (And, unless they’re telepathic, how can a witness reliably testify as to somebody else’s state of mind?)

  • cathyf

    I object to the collision between the juridical nature of the process and the claims being made about the nature of the annulment.

    Take this example: A Catholic is in an “irregular” marriage and may not receive Communion or Absolution unless and until the marriage is regularized via annulment of a previous marriage. If an annulment is granted, then when the annulment is granted, and not before the Catholic may return to the sacraments. That totally contradicts the notion that the annulment is a proclamation that the previous marriage was always invalid. If the previous marriage were invalid from the beginning, then the “irregular” marriage was also valid from the beginning. And the irregularity consists of nothing more than the failure to have completed a bureaucratic process that formally recognizes that the subsequent marriage has been valid all along. Denying the sacraments to a Catholic in this state (being in a valid-but-illicit marriage) is a punishment grotesquely disproportionate to the actual crime. Imagine a hypothetical where a Catholic gets her decree of nullity, immediately heads over to her Church for Confession, gets creamed by a drunk driver and killed. She dies in a state of mortal sin because she has been barred from the sacraments, and thus has never been absolved from of some things long since repented of. All because her mail didn’t show up earlier in the day!

    Actions speak louder than words — or more precisely, your actions make clear when your words are lies. If readmission to the sacraments occurs at the point where the decree of nullity is issued, then the point where the decree of nullity is issued is the point in time when the previous marriage becomes null and the subsequent marriage becomes valid. In other words, it’s NOT an annulment, merely a divorce (a dissolution of a valid marriage) hidden under some fancy theological verbiage which is totally contradicted by the actual practice of the Church.

  • http://3acres.blogspot.com Renee

    So if some of the conditions mentioned in the article are present, but the couple remains married, to they need to get their marriage blessed, since if they wanted to divorce, they could get an annulment? Are there null and void marriages all over the place, but the people don’t know, and are living a lie? Or does the lie only happen when the couple decides to split. This really makes no sense to me.

  • Karl

    l The Catholic Church has created a monster in its nullity process, which it steadfastly refuses to reexamine away from the “learned eyes” of those blind to its weaknesses and outright abuses, some of which, in the face of documents and legal facts, the Catholic Church, at the highest levels, yes, the white hat/yarmulke, refuses to address in a meaningful way.

    I speak from more than twenty years of abuse by the Catholic Church due to this “healing” process!

    HOWEVER, there certainly are reasons for nullity. BUT when nullity is determined, the way it is handled is far too permissive of remarriages to new, already “broken in” lovers or whatever you want to call them.

    Even when nullity is real, such facile remarriages do VAST harm to the institution and to other valid marriages.

    I could go on a long time but the process is open to terrible abuse and THERE IS NO WAY TO ADDRESS IT, which, at present is fast enough, easy enough or comprehensive enough. In the present context of out “instant world” this process has not been ” in the laboratory or developed enough” to have been released in the “beta” version, as the unwise bishops, including most guiltily, the Popes have done to our Holy Church.

  • Karl

    Jenny,

    Speak to a priest about his thoughts on your circumstances, along with your husband, with reference to convalidation or perhaps, radical sanation.

    He needs to know all the circumstances to work with you both for the peace and certitude you need in your life due to this turmoil.

    Perhaps neither is warranted but your marriage is worth it.

  • Karl

    Cathyf,

    The Catholic Church presumes the validity of a marriage until the evidence is clear that no validity was present from the start. Thus, you are asking what a human cannot know until the process is complete.

    Marriage requires such respect, as the reflection of the relationship of the Trinity, that marriage is. This cannot be understated or ignored for convenience. Perseverance through trials needs to be embraced, as possible. Not avoided or shunned. I am learning that severe trials, all of them actually, are occassions of grace and opportunities for growth in moving more towards an imitation of Christ.

    However, what are your theoretical couple going to do if nullity is NOT found?

    Are they prepared to face that reality or is it selfishly ignored or worse intentionally not considered?

    What prevents them from separating and living celibate lives? Is there a lifethreatening circumstance which awaits them if they choose celibacy?

    Can they not work to heal the valid marriages they may have abandoned?

    Just some thoughts.

  • cathyf

    Karl, if you believe that it is a grave sin is to abandon a valid marriage in favor of an invalid one, then that is just as true if it is the first marriage that is invalid and the second is the valid one.

    It seems to me that if a person in good faith believes that the first marriage is invalid, and the second is valid, and acts morally upon that belief, then they are doing the best that they can. Just like children from a non-sacramental marriage are not illegitimate as long as at least one parent has entered the marriage in good faith, I think that we need to take the position that if spouses in a second marriage sincerely believe that they are in a valid marriage because the first was invalid, then their relationship can not be adulterous.

    Of course it would be much better if the annulment came before the subsequent marriage, and I’m not trying to claim that remarrying without an annulment should be permitted. My argument is much more about holding access to the sacraments hostage, and about such a grave punishment being used for a sin which does not merit so grave a penalty.

    The second marriage can only be adulterous if the first was valid. The decree of nullity does not make the first marriage invalid, it recognizes that it’s been invalid from the beginning. So a decree of nullity recognizes that the second marriage was never adulterous. So you have denied someone the sacraments for years, in same cases decades, putting them in grave spiritual danger, and you have actively attempted to destroy their valid (second) marriage. All for a sin which turns out to have been venial after all. Then you shrug and say, “Never mind…”

    I suppose an alternate explanation is that the Church doesn’t actually believe that the sacraments are very important…

  • http://seraphicgoestoscotland.blogspot.com Seraphic Spouse

    When I applied for an annulment 14 or so years ago, I couldn’t find ANY books or articles on the subject–at least, nothing that didn’t mention the Kennedys, about whom I couldn’t care less.

    The process was not a happy experience–I always liken it to chemotherapy (since I felt very sick)–but I got my freedom. And freedom was all I wanted, since there was no third party. and it would be over 10 years before I made a truly sacramental marriage.

    The proof of the sacramental pudding may sometimes be in the eating. If your marriage shows the signs of the true presence of the Holy Spirit, then it is almost certainly sacramental. If it is–and always has been–a living hell, then it almost certainly isn’t.

  • Marsha

    In the Archdiocese of Seattle there are charges for annulments – different amounts depending on the type of issue and its complexity. But there is also a fund from which these charges can be paid – and no one is denied the process because of inability to pay. I would guess all dioceses have similar options.

    It is true that there are many marriages in existence – and which will last till death – which had problematic beginnings. If people are willing and able to remain in these marriages while they retain their dignity and wholeness, that is a wonderful thing. On the other hand, it is merciful and right that the church has begun to make available the process which is now in existence which examines the validity of the marriage and frees people from the presumed bonds – if there are grounds for finding the bond invalid – so they can go on with their lives.

    One of the most common reasons for granting the declaration of invalidity is that one person went into the marriage in full agreement with what is necessary, but the other person didn’t. Should the partner who went into the marriage with the right intent be held to a celibate life because her partner lied – or was incapable of making a true assent?

  • Rainey

    Whenever I hear of yet another Catholic acquaintance of ours getting an annulment (one recent one was after the couple already had 7 children), I joke with my husband (my soulmate, I’m blessed with a truly happy marriage of nearly 20 years and 6 children) that if we ever get sick of the whole thing, no doubt our marriage can easily be annulled, too, as it seems nearly impossible for anybody to meet all the standards necessary for a true marriage according to the modern Church. After all, I came from a family with a lot of Catholic dysfunction and a broken marriage. No doubt that scarred and damaged me in some ways.

    At what point does it become a sin for a couple to have intercourse in Catholic marriage that might not have met all the qualifications? I mean, surely you can start to figure out the marriage might have been a bad idea from the get-go before child #7 shows up. That perhaps one of you wasn’t truly prepared for what Catholic marriage involved and therefore wasn’t capable of assenting to it.

    Maybe my husband and I aren’t really married, either, and just haven’t figured it out yet. And like some of the other posters above, what happens when you realize that your marriage didn’t actually meet those standards at the time, although you are very happy together at this point? Do you have to stop being intimate until you can find a priest to bless your marriage, even though you have already been “married” in the Church?

    I’m not sitting in judgment on anybody who has sought and obtained an annulment; it’s certainly not my place to judge. I’m just saying that it truly does seem like not much more than a Catholic version of divorce (if you have enough money and influence and friends in high place, anybody can get one, after all), and the Church should just come out and admit it. Otherwise it truly does seem like just so much hypocrisy.

  • http://www.caelumetterra.wordpress.com Daniel Nichols

    I know that there are valid reasons for annulments; I have seen some in my own family (like my sister, whose husband-to-be slept with another woman the night before he “married” her.)
    On the other hand, I also have an old friend, a DRE, a former member of a charismatic covenant community, who married his wife when they were both committed Catholics, who after 5 children and 20 some years of marriage, cheated on his wife, left her and moved in with the adulterous partner, sued for a divorce, then for an annulment, got it, and then married the other woman IN THE CHURCH ( the bride wore white)…..
    Or take Newt “Mr Catholic” Gingrich, hitting on the Catholic voters like he once hit on women, with Number Three, the choir girl, on his arm, duly annulled and married in the Church.
    Please.
    There used to be a canon against marrying a partner in adultery, still in force insofar as I know among the Orthodox. Would that it were reinstated today, as the current situation is a scandal, not least to those of us who are trying to be faithful to a Church seemingly intent on undermining its own credibility.

  • Karl

    AASeraphic,

    In a context of honesty, your approximations hold up, but frequently, reality interferes.

    These situations, more often than the “experts”, would like to face, dishonesty is the norm. The end “a new sexual plaything” or ” a way out”, justifies the means and “poof” suddenly history/reality/the facts all are rearranged to suit the desired end. Events, conclusions, observation….whatever are mentally reformatted to support whatever it will take to get that end result, which here is nullity.

    It was a good thing that others saw this happening too, in rather short order, because my wife succeeded in turning my presentation of the facts into a morass of lies through various means. This was able to be ignored in the US where nullity is a given but under the scrutiny of the eyes of Monsignor Cormac Burke, et al, the consistancy of my story, when compared with the witnesses I proposed, and even with some of the testimony of her parent’s(who support her “right” to nullity), simply overwhelmed her own
    rearrangement of our life together.

    To this day, although her own mother now recognizes the validity of our marriage, my wife refuses to face her “creation” and to reconsider her continuing adultery. Why? As best we can tell, her mental state cannot accept the enormity of her contrivance and its consequences. Her parents are too old to pick up the pieces or to accept their part in enabling her, although her father does not care one lick about truth. He abandoned her mother similarly.

    My wife simply will not listen to the truth…..and her priest supports this, as does the bishop, while Rome will not respond to me, while it knows, fully, of the complicity in the contrivance, from the beginning, of its clergy.

    I believe, most people, would not consider a denial of a nullity petition, as it is supposed to be meant….a stern admonishion to accept the reality of a valid marriage and to work, for the rest of one’s life, to heal that valid marriage.

    Thus, in many cases if not most cases, your rule of thumb is invalid, because nullity is taken as a “right”, the Church representatives knowingly lie about that, even to themselves and enable many to “cold-cock” their consciences.

    It is a massive scandal for which the Church is currently under judgment and shall remain so until, from the top, Rome grows up.

  • Karl

    Renee and Rainey,

    You both see the flies in the ointment. The theory behind annulments may be good on paper but the functional reality and the scandal of the real abuses of the process have rendered this process to be an ongoing cancer upon the faith. The wagons of Church have circled in the defense of this failure just as those wagons circled in the defense of clerical abuse of children. Too late and only through massive civil litigation, did the Church face this much smaller in scope abuse scandal. There is no similar way that those of us harmed, irreversibly, by this much larger and more serious abuse by the Catholic clergy(priests, bishops and the Pope’s, knowingly) can force it upon the conscious attention of the Catholic Church because the state is in support of the Church ministry of forcing divorce to enter the nullity abuse machine.

    The injustice going on is truly, incomprehensible.


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