Joseph P. Kennedy II put in his request after 11 years and a set of twins. By the time Princess Caroline got hers, she had a new husband and three children. Sharon Stone's beau, Bill MacDonald, whisked her away for "a honeymoon" while awaiting his.

Annulments. They're not just for virgins anymore.In truth, says the Roman Catholic Church, they never were. Nor are they a privilege of wealth and fame, dependent upon huge gifts to the church or in any way threatening to the legitimacy of children.

But what they most definitely are is popular - more popular today than at any time in the 2,000-year-history of the church. And nowhere are they more popular than in the United States, where at least 72 percent of all the world's annulments are granted.

Or as one religion writer recently concluded, "The United States is to annulments what Nevada is to divorce."

The who's who of American annulees includes Frank Sinatra, Lee Iacocca, Pat Sajak and Lee Radziwill. Sen. Ted Kennedy is reportedly seeking one from his first wife, Joan, although he is already remarried to Catholic lawyer Victoria Reggie. The first wife of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan sought and was granted an annulment after 23 years of marriage and five children.

But most of the church's 50,000 or so annual petitions for annulment come from lesser-known men and women who simply want to get on with their lives. "I wanted to finish that chapter of my life. I wanted closure," explains a Pasadena, Calif., paralegal whose 22-year marriage was recently annulled.

Of the many myths surrounding the annulment process, says Msgr. Craig A. Cox in Los Angeles, the "most pernicious" is the notion that one must be rich, famous, or well-connected to get one.

The annulment, properly known as "a decree of nullity," is a process by which the church finds a marriage - already ended in divorce - to also be invalid according to church standards. Many divorced Catholics seek the decrees so they may remarry in the church and continue to celebrate Communion and other sacraments.

Historically, some skeptics have viewed annulment as an ecclesiastical wink at broken marriages. "The process is medieval and un-Christian," talk-show host Phil Donahue recently told USA Today. "A group of celibate men decide whether an agreement you made 20 years ago was valid in the eyes of the church . . . In my case, that union brought five children into the world. How do I explain it to them?"

Because Donahue divorced and remarried Marlo Thomas, also a Catholic, without having his first marriage annulled, he may no longer receive church sacraments. "Now, at weddings and funerals, people crawl over me to get to the (Communion) rail," he says. "I guess it is public punishment for my sin."

But for many Catholics who go through it, the annulment process feels therapeutic and cathartic. Increasingly, church lawyers say, the annulment is viewed as a compassionate theological response to the fact that some unions are simply not meant to be.

As overseer of the Los Angeles region's marriage tribunal, Cox sees hundreds of such ill-begotten unions every year. Some are easy to spot - the marriages for immigration, the shotgun weddings, the marriages made for money, not love. But many are not.

Some of the 700 or so cases that come before the tribunal's canon lawyers are not so obvious. And it can take years of investigation and psychological evaluation to determine whether a marriage - even one blessed by the church - was truly made in heaven.

A full 98 percent of the annulments given American Catholics are granted on psychological grounds - reasons drawn from testimony of witnesses and the couple themselves. "We want to know the important facts about the courtship and the wedding day itself," says Cox. "What transpires after that is not of interest to the church, but one's intentions at the time this contract was made are critical."

This emphasis on thoughts and behaviors and the church's acceptance a decade ago of such grounds is considered a major reason for the dramatic rise in U.S. annulments.

But Vatican officials, who have unsuccessfully attempted to crack down on the U.S. church for granting so many annulments, wonder whether the rise truly means Americans have more mental problems than the rest of the world.

"Well, I can't comment on that," says canon legal scholar Father Pat Cogan at Catholic University in Washington. "But I can say that the American Catholic Church is exceedingly vigilant in providing for trained persons to work on (annulment petitions)."

Industrialized nations also have more divorces - the rate is about 50 percent for the United States - and many more therapists to help those breaking up understand what happened.

"From modern psychology," says Cox, "we've come to understand that the way humans work is perhaps more complex than earlier generations fully appreciated." For earlier generations, "invalidating impediments" to marriage included such arcane reasons as inability to consummate a marriage, murder of a previous spouse or consanguinity (marrying a blood relation).