A civil divorce has no effect on the state of your standing in the Catholic Church, and the Church has repeatedly said that separation and divorce are permissible in such cases. You’re still Catholic, you can still receive the Sacraments, be a godparent, etc, etc.
What is NOT permitted is initiating a new romantic relationship with someone else, unless a decree of nullity has been made. That means no dating, no cohabitating with someone else. It doesn’t just mean not getting married to someone else. A divorced Catholic remains “married” in the eyes of the Church, regardless of where their spouse lives.
Application for a review of the validity of the marriage can only be initiated in the US after a civil divorce has been finalized in court. Generally, you basically fill out a questionnaire, get contacted by your diocese’s marriage tribunal, and follow the instructions of the tribunal. Most (but not all) dioceses do charge a nominal fee (ours is $350) to help offset the expense of doing the paperwork. Most dioceses will waive the fee if financial hardship can be demonstrated. It doesn’t cost “thousands and thousands of dollars,” contrary to popular opinion, and it certainly costs less than a civil divorce.
If a marriage is found to be null, that means that although you went through a marriage ceremony in the Church, the sacrament itself didn’t “happen” because of some condition that existed at the time. If the sacrament didn’t happen, you had no sacramental marriage, although it was a valid civil marriage. Your children are not illegitimate.
Your husband may have had a pattern of abusiveness in previous relationships. I mention this because some of his relatives might be able and willing to confirm this in a brief letter to the tribunal. If you have witnesses to his behavior shortly before or at the time of the wedding, so much the better, in the eyes of the tribunal.
Your husband will be contacted that a tribunal investigation has been initiated. You will want to bring to the attention of the tribunal the fact that you have been battered when you first turn in your paperwork. You will not be required to meet your husband in court or conference. Your husband cannot stop the tribunal’s investigation and findings, in other words, he can’t stop an annulment if the tribunal finds that your marriage was null.
I would suggest that while you get your marriage issues sorted out and resolved that you educate yourself about domestic violence. Abusers rarely change their stripes, and there is a definite cycle of abuse. There are also definite warning signs of someone’s potential to abuse as well. Someone mentioned isolating the victim from family and friends–that’s an ominous sign. Monopolizing your time early on in a relationship is another one. Inordinately objecting to a “no” by the partner is yet another one.
And, unfortunately, abuse victims themselves frequently leave one abusive situation and find another one. This is a time for real, in-depth discernment and education. Even if something happened, like your husband dying in a car crash and you were to find yourself free to marry tomorrow, I urge you to take at least a couple of years and stay completely away from the dating game and all of that. A tremendous psychological and spiritual toll has been taken on battered women, and they need time, spiritual assistance, and frequently psychological help themselves to avoid repeating the cycle.
The last thing you need is another one of these people on your hands!