By Msgr. Steven Aguggia
Last of Three Parts
For the past two weeks, I have been writing about the meaning and process of marriage annulments.
How does this play out in the Diocese of Brooklyn?
The diocese has a Tribunal (the Court of the Bishop of Brooklyn) in Douglaston, and its staff is at the service of the people of the diocese.
Who can approach the Tribunal? Basically, the answer is simple: anyone who was married in the diocese or anyone who lives in the diocese or whose former spouse lives in the diocese.
The process usually begins on a local level, in a parish. Often persons who want to have their marriage examined by the Tribunal approach a priest or deacon or a pastoral associate in their own parish. These people will be directed to call the Tribunal (718-229-8131) and a letter with information about the process will be sent to them.
Our diocese has many deacons and others who have been trained to assist people with gathering information and documents, a task that can seem quite daunting. However, with the assistance of these dedicated “case instructors,” it can be easier. Once the information is gathered, it is sent to the Tribunal and a case is opened.
What kind of information is needed? Aside from what you might suspect (baptismal and marriage certificates, divorce declaration, etc.), people are asked to provide an “autobiography,” which recounts details of their courtship and marriage. (An outline is provided to facilitate this). Sometimes recalling these experiences can be difficult, but the case instructor and Tribunal personnel are available to assist. You will also need to ask “witnesses” or persons who knew you at the time of the courtship and wedding to provide their view of what happened.
The process, which takes place at the Tribunal follows. The ex-spouse will be contacted to offer him or her opportunity to offer an “autobiography” and to take part in the process. At no time will the two parties have to have any contact with each other.
Once all the testimony is collected, the petitioner is invited for a “hearing” during which the judge will discuss the situation and clear up anything that is not clear. The respondent is also invited for a “hearing” at this time if he or she has agreed to participant. Sometimes an “expert witness” in psychology (a psychologist or psychiatrist) will be asked to examine the evidence to offer information to the judge to assist him in making a decision. Once the investigation is complete and required reviews have taken place, the judge will make a decision on the case. The parties will be informed as to whether the judge determined, with moral certainty, that the marriage was valid or not.
At this point people often say that they “got an annulment.” This is misleading and faulty terminology, though. It implies that one can get an annulment like one can “get” a new car or a new suit. It is more accurate to say that a declaration is made that the marriage was null from the start. The Tribunal merely states what is there already, the truth. It does not grant an annulment; it makes a Declaration of Nullity. The decision may also be negative, that is, that the nullity of the marriage was not proven.
Clearing up misconceptions, let’s first deal with the length of the process. How long does it take? Recently, Pope Francis made some changes. The whole process is now going to be shorter since a mandatory appeal to an Appeals Court has been eliminated. Additionally, there may sometimes be the possibility of an expedited process in some cases and under certain conditions, two parties agreeing that both want the marriage investigated, for example. Certain grounds also must apply for the expedited process to be used, as well.
While some people have called this expedited process a “Catholic divorce,” it is not a divorce at all. That is because the same kind of investigation into the possible nullity of the consent is involved. It is not simply something for which someone can apply. All in all, the normal process should be complete within a year.
As to finances, there is the question about the fee? In accord with the Holy Father’s wish that the process be made readily available to people, there is no fee charged. The Tribunal previously had a fee which helped to cover the expenses which were incurred in the running of the office and in paying for the services of professionals. As we enter into the Year of Mercy, proclaimed by the Holy Father, this fee is being eliminated. Although there are always expenses associated with work such as this, the elimination of the fee is an opportunity to allow all people in need of God’s mercy, as expressed through the Tribunal’s ministry, to experience it.
The work of the Tribunal is the work of mercy and reconciliation. Those who are in this ministry do it with these goals in mind. The supreme law is the salvation of souls and it is the desire and hope of the bishop that through the ministry of his Tribunal, the people of God are brought closer to the experience of salvation, that they grow in holiness by being able to pursue their vocation to marriage in a Christian way, faithful to the ideals of Christ Himself.
Msgr. Aguggia is the judicial vicar for the Diocese of Brooklyn.