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Keeping them in the fold

The Roman Catholic Church may be an unlikely place to find a divorce support group _ let alone one led by a couple married 53 years.

To Richard Scarinci, who is Catholic, marriage is supposed to be forever.

"Once you commit to somebody, I believe you're committed to that person for life," he said.

But for more than a year, Scarinci and his wife have been moving toward divorce. Scarinci, who works for Coca-Cola, said he came home one day and "my little boy gave me a hug, and she told me to get out. I said, "Where do you want me to go?' "

When they first separated after nine years, the 35-year-old Tampa man, a father of three, said his head "was pretty much scrambled."

The belief that God condemns divorce, coupled with the Roman Catholic Church's teaching that marriage ends in death, left Scarinci struggling to reconcile his religious feelings and his own matrimonial failure.

Feeling lost, he started attending a support group for divorced and separated people at St. Paul Catholic Church on N Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood.

"It was good to be with people," said Scarinci, who doesn't plan to remarry. "If I didn't have the group at the beginning, I would've blown my head off. I lost everything."

Some might find St. Paul an unlikely setting for a group geared toward the divorced because of the Catholic faith's stance on divorce. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce and requires a church annulment before allowing divorced members to remarry and receive the sacraments.

It is one of only a half-dozen churches of 73 in the Diocese of St. Petersburg's five-county area to offer a support group for separated and divorced Catholics, said Joe Grote, director of the diocese's Family Life Office. It is perhaps the most enduring.

Rarely does a Catholic church offer a divorce support group in the theologically conservative South, according to Bishop Chuck Leigh with the Apostolic Catholic Church in Tampa, which is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.

"Most Roman Catholics who are divorced must quit and join a church like ours or join an Episcopal or Lutheran church," said Leigh, a dean with the Florida Council of Churches.

But more and more churches, including Catholic churches, are offering support programs for their divorced worshipers.

Grote said churches need to change their attitudes toward divorced people.

"We do take a role in strengthening marriages as we should and to curb divorce," he said. "But for those people who are divorced, we have to continue to meet their needs."

Divorce is a prickly issue for all Christian churches. On the one hand, they must teach biblical principles about marriage, such as Mark 10:9, "what God has joined together, let no one separate." Yet with more than half of all U.S. marriages ending in divorce, churches risk alienating members if they ignore _ or ostracize _ their divorced parishioners.

"Divorce itself does not remove people from the Catholic Church," said Deacon Greg Kovalesky, a pastoral associate with St. Paul's. "I think that's a real misunderstanding."

Charles N. Davis, board member of the Catholic reform group, Catholics Speak Out, said Catholicism typically treats divorced people "poorly."

"We have a situation where the catechism of the Catholic Church still calls divorce a sin," said Davis, who lives in South Carolina and who has written a book about the issue. "At the same time, you can't receive an annulment unless you've received a divorce. It puts you in a quandary."

A 1999 study by the California-based Barna Research Group showed that Christians are more likely to divorce than non-Christians; 27 percent compared to 25 percent, respectively.

Of Christian denominations, the same study said Baptists have the highest likelihood of divorce and Catholics and Lutherans have the lowest.

George Barna, president of the research firm, said the statistics have shown for a while that Christian divorce rates are higher than the general population. And while it may be alarming, he said,"Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing."

Finding spiritual peace

Dick Ray, who started the St. Paul support group with Corinne, his wife of 53 years, said some people mistakenly believe that the church does not accept separated or divorced people.

But the Catholic church wants to keep its members in the fold and practicing their faith, he said.

"The church wants to be supportive of them and their spiritual life," said Ray, who began the group in December 1994. "We do everything we can to heal that wound . . . get them more involved in the church. We encourage everybody to pray, do everything spiritually and read the Bible."

The goal of the St. Paul group, which is open to people of all faiths, is to give divorced people a place to share their difficulties, develop friendships with others and find spiritual peace and guidance, Ray said.

"It's a comfort to know you're not alone," said Ray, who lives in Hunter's Green and has two adult children who have been divorced.

At the support group meetings each Friday night, men and women of all ages gather to talk. Some have been married a few months. Others have been married for more than 30 years.

But as Mrs. Ray puts it, regardless of their backgrounds, "These people become friends and partners in pain."

Every week a different speaker presents a topic such as forgiveness, anger or friendship and leads the group through a discussion.

Sometimes the speakers are professionals, such as therapists. But most often they're divorced members of the group, who come to give the others insight based on their own personal experiences.

"Their approach is to always be there for people," said Richard Hartsfield, a Presbyterian-ordained minister who has been attending the St. Paul group for about three years.

Hartsfield, a counselor, has been divorced twice, most recently in 1998. He said his second wife left him soon after his son from his first marriage was killed in a car accident.

"Divorce was never in my plan," said Hartsfield, who lives in Tampa. "As a minister you feel a sense to be a good role model, keep stuff together, set a good example. It just wasn't happening."

But when he looked around for help from several Protestant churches, Hartsfield recalls being told: " "We're right in the middle of the group. It's not a good time right now.'

"It was like, hold your pain until it's convenient for us," Hartsfield said. Finally, he stumbled upon the St. Paul group.

"I found it to be a little amazing that a Catholic church would have such a group," he said. "I thought if any church would be in denial of divorce, it would be the Catholic church."

Hartsfield said he appreciates the friends he has made, but mostly he enjoys the support and the laughter.

"We usually go around the room and say as much or as little as we want," he said. "There's not a lot of advice giving. It's more listening to people and letting them vent."

The Rays said they began the group after getting a call for help from a man named Peter whose wife had just left him.

"He was completely devastated," said Ray, a retired executive with the Boy Scouts of America. "I had a simple answer. Get involved in a workshop for separated and divorced people. But there wasn't one.

"I was surprised."

So the Rays queried St. Paul's priest at the time, the Rev. Austin Mullen, who is now at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in New Tampa. "We said, "Why don't we start one at St. Paul that meets every week,' " Ray said. "He said, "Yes let's start one, but it has to be spiritual.' "

The Rays organized the group and keep it going.

"You never have to wonder where my wife and I are on Friday night," said Ray, 73. "We tell all our friends, "Don't call us on Friday night.' "

They see the support group as a way of giving back.

"You have to do something with your life," Mrs. Ray said. "You just can't lolly through life. Plus, we have the time to do this."

"You are worthwhile'

On a recent Friday night, marriage and family counselor Patrick Rahill, a former priest, asked the dozen or so support group participants to take turns and tell a little about themselves.

Hartsfield talked about how he never wanted to be divorced and about how he struggles between demonizing his ex-wife and "sugar-sweet remembrances."

Scarinci explained that he had been separated a year and was simply waiting on the papers before his divorce was final.

"I'm doing really good," he told the others, smiling. "I'm just getting on with my life."

Rahill told the group that eventually their roller-coaster feelings would even out, but "for right now, it's normal. It's a journey isn't it? You're still worthwhile. The fact that you're sitting here, doesn't it mean you're not vanquished?"

"I think that's a good statement," Ray chimed in. "You are worthwhile."

"They are all worthwhile people," Mrs. Ray added.

After an hour and a half, the group wrapped up its discussion of anger. Ray asked for a show of hands of those who would be joining them for some customary socializing at Bennigan's.

The evening was ending. But first, the men and women gathered in a circle, held hands and recited the Lord's Prayer _ together.

_ Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or

To learn more

The Divorced and Separated Support Group meets at 7:30 p.m. Fridays at St. Paul Catholic Church, 12708 N Dale Mabry Highway.

Corinne and Dick Ray, married 53 years, started a support group for divorced and separated people seven years ago at St. Paul Catholic Church on N Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood.