04/27/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
For parishioners at the Holy Family Chapel in Malibu, the scene this Palm Sunday was a familiar one: Mel Gibson and his close-knit family joined in prayer. The star sat in a pew in the traditionalist Catholic church he built near the clan's home, with most of his seven children, several grandkids and his wife of 28 years, Robyn, 53, by his side.
But at Easter it was clear something was very wrong. None of the Gibsons attended services until a forlorn Mel slipped in toward the end of mass. "Well, she's filed for divorce," the downcast actor-director, 53, told stunned churchgoers afterward.
More surprises followed. According to Gibson, he and Robyn have been quietly separated since August 2006, less than a month after the notorious incident in which he was pulled over for drunken driving in Malibu and made anti-Semitic remarks to his arresting officer (he later apologized and entered rehab). In her April 13 divorce filing, Robyn (who didn't specify a separation date) cited "irreconcilable differences" and requested joint custody of Tom, 10, the only child still under 18 of their six sons and one daughter.
Mel and Robyn, a former dental nurse, weathered tough times, including his battles with depression and alcohol abuse. "The real medal goes to my wife, who's a wonderful woman," he told Diane Sawyer in 2004. But there have been signs of trouble: most recently, reports of Gibson spending time with Russian singer Oksana (right) at his home in Costa Rica and on the Boston set of his movie Edge of Darkness. "There was a sense that his marriage wasn't good," says a set source. "But there was never anything blatant."
Friends say the end of the long-standing union will likely be amicable. "It just ran its course. They always wanted to try and make the marriage work; they really tried," says a source close to both Gibsons. "It was just time."