By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 19, 2008
The archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal is reaching out to Catholics in parishes in a continuing effort to improve a scuffed reputation earned when the faithful faced years of delays as they petitioned the church’s court system for a marriage annulment.
At its worst, people waited on their petitions to the church’s court system in some cases for 10 years.
“It doesn’t do anyone any good. We are constantly reminding ourselves that behind any piece of paper is a person,” said Father William King, who was brought to Atlanta as the judicial vicar in 2006 to lead the rebuilding project. Father King serves as the vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Harrisburg in Pennsylvania where he lives while commuting to Atlanta every few months.
The overhaul cleared the backlog and the number of cases handled by the church’s court system has jumped since 2006. More experienced staff, hiring canon law experts from around the country and an increase in the budget helped turn around the office, according to Father King. The changes to the office were spurred by a critical audit by the Canon Law Society of America.
Figures from tribunal officials show the church’s justice system resolved more than 1,400 cases in 2006, up from barely 250 cases a few years ago. In 2007, some 719 cases were settled.
The tribunal is an important church office. Its action touches Catholics as they seek God in the sacraments. If a Catholic divorces and remarries outside the church, Communion, reconciliation and other sacraments can be denied, according to church teaching.
This issue is pressing considering nearly one in three Catholic marriages ends in divorce after 10 years, according to a 1995 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our ministry is the door to allowing Catholics to re-enter the Catholic community if they have married outside the church after a divorce,” said Diane Barr, the court administrator, in an e-mail.
Some 2,000 annulment cases clogged the system as the overhaul started and most would have been petitions seeking annulments to previous marriages so the petitioner could celebrate a church-blessed marriage.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said the office failed people by its inaction.
“It is a matter of justice that people should be able to have their marriage cases reviewed,” said the archbishop in an interview last fall.
“They should not be forced to wait years and years to have the church review their request. The sad part is many of those people left the church. They simply gave up on us because they had come to us in their need and we had not responded. They felt they were being ignored and their legitimate request was not attended to,” said Archbishop Gregory, whose own parents divorced when he was young.
And now the changes are being felt in the parishes, according to two church leaders.
Father Al Jowdy, pastor of St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceville, said he has seen a turnaround at the tribunal that is focused on people.
In the past, parishioners “suffered tremendously” waiting as their cases languished, he said.
But recent changes have made the tribunal more efficient and changed how it treats fellow Catholics, he said.
“It treats everybody in the process as adults and respects their gifts,” he said.
Father Victor Galier, pastor of St. Matthew Church in Tyrone, said he has seen an improvement in the service to people. In the past, he cautioned people that cases could take up to 20 months.
“It just seemed everything was bogged down,” he said.
Now, cases are handled much more efficiently, he said. “It makes it what it should be.”
Along with the clearing of the old cases, the tribunal staff is reaching out to the Catholic community by going on the road. Staff members are making presentations in parishes to educate people about the church’s teaching and the tribunal procedures.
There have been about a dozen parish meetings, and close to 200 people have learned about the role of the tribunal. The presentations, including a Spanish program, begin again in the fall.
Justice System Of The Church
The Metropolitan Tribunal is the justice system of the church. It occupies about half the second floor of the Catholic Center, at 680 West Peachtree St.
Its lawyers are guided by the complex and ancient legal code of the Catholic Church.
The church’s law—all 1,752 sections of it—is compiled in a collection of seven books. The laws cover every aspect of church life, emphasizing the role of “the people of God,” allowing for cremation of the dead and the functions of a pastor. The words “marry,” “marriage” and “married” come up 250 times in the law books.
There aren’t any dramatic cross-examinations of witnesses in these courts. In fact, there isn’t even a courtroom. The work is done with canon lawyers writing briefs and exchanging them with judges to issue rulings.
The roles of the tribunal members are similar to lawyers in any courtroom, but with different names. There is “the advocate,” who acts on behalf of people bringing the petitions, like a prosecutor bringing a case or a plaintiff’s lawyer in a lawsuit. Similar to the defense counsel is the “defender of the bond,” arguing on behalf of the validity of the marriage.
The tribunal’s Web site said a case can cost from $25 for a simple process to $1,000 to send a case to the Vatican. Officials said no one is ever turned away because of financial difficulty to pay a fee.
The tribunal’s main task is marriage-related. At times derided as “Catholic divorce,” an annulment recognizes there was a flaw in a marriage from the beginning even as the couple celebrated a wedding.
In his booklet “12 Myths About Marriage Annulments in the Catholic Church,” Father King wrote that a divorce focuses on the end of a marriage, while “an annulment looks at the very beginning, the moment the couple said ‘I do.”’
An annulment “is concerned with religious and spiritual realities” not the legal realities of marriage, he wrote.
“An annulment, or a declaration of invalidity, by a Catholic Tribunal recognizes the legal, historical, emotional truth that the marriage did occur, but that the marriage—though real—was not valid in the way Jesus and the Church see marriage, or was not a sacrament of Jesus,” Father King wrote.
The official church teaching is that divorced Catholics should receive an annulment before remarrying. In fact, the church recognizes all marriages as valid, even between two non-Catholic partners. So, if a Catholic desires to marry a divorced non-Catholic, the non-Catholic’s marriage must go through the annulment process. The complexity and the types of annulments considered by the tribunal vary depending on the marriage situation.
“We’re trying to preserve the permanence of marriage in a throw-away society,” Father King said.
The official church teaching surrounding remarriage and divorce is clear. A second marriage should not take place unless an annulment is granted. However, a survey by Catholic University sociologists found 66 percent of Catholics believe a person can be a good church member without obeying the teachings on marriage and divorce.
‘Avalanche Of New Cases’
A 2005 audit from the Canon Law Society of America identified glaring problems at the tribunal. Archbishop Gregory brought in the reviewers after he learned about the problem shortly after taking over as archbishop.
“The pastors told me in no uncertain terms that they were annoyed that so many cases they had introduced had not been handled,” he said.
The audit’s findings fueled the changes. The experts “said I had, pretty much, to take some very drastic action, which I did,” Archbishop Gregory said.
The office worked out of inadequate facilities, had an inefficient computer system, and was flooded with petitions. Examiners found the office in need of more experienced administrators and an up-to-date management program was necessary for case organization.
Father King, the judicial vicar, said tribunals across the country share Atlanta’s problems as the caseload has grown with an “avalanche of new cases.”
The growth of divorce among Catholics in the United States, an increase in annulment applications, and rule mandates from the Vatican helped to clog tribunals in many parts of the country, said Father King, who has helped revive tribunals in dioceses in Texas and Ohio.
“We’re not the only tribunal to have gone through the growth period,” he said.
In 2005, the Vatican released new guidelines to direct tribunals, restating the requirements for annulments. Church statistics show there were 56,236 annulment hearings in 2002, with 46,092 approved. Nearly two-thirds of the approved cases came from North America.
According to Father King, approximately 1,400 marriages were nullified in 2006 in the Atlanta Archdiocese and 75 were upheld as valid marriages. Some 450 cases were withdrawn as advocates counseled people their cases would likely be denied.
In 2007, 556 marriages were nullified, 87 were upheld as valid marriages and 66 were withdrawn. Tribunal staff also handled 750 requests for marriage dispensations, close to double the dispensation requests from the year before, according to tribunal leaders. In contrast to a petition for an annulment, a dispensation is a “relaxation” of a “merely ecclesiastical law,” according to the church’s law books.
One of the early changes instituted by King was relocating the tribunal back to the archdiocesan headquarters instead of at church-owned offices in south Fulton County.
“This is an integral part of the ministry of the archdiocese” that deserves to be located with other ministries, said Father King.
New leadership oversees the tribunal. Barr was brought in as the court administrator. Trained as both a civil lawyer and a canon lawyer, Barr earned her canon law doctoral degree from St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. Her specialties include rights of the faithful, marriage invalidity procedures and clerical misconduct issues. She directed the Office of Canonical Affairs for the Boise Diocese before coming to Atlanta.
“It has a heart in a lot of ways,” Barr said about canon law.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the tribunals, from the idea that it takes a lot of money to apply for an annulment to the concern that children are somehow illegitimate if an annulment is granted, Barr said.
“There are many other misconceptions, and we try to respond to these by educating the Catholic community whenever possible,” she said.
Other additions in the office are the new chief auditor, Conventual Franciscan Brother Nicholas Wolfla, who came here from Texas, and the new advocate, David Castronovo, who was hired from his training at the prestigious Roman Rota at the Vatican.
The tribunal staff wants to repair any damage done by the backlog and to work together with parish staff and pastors to listen to frustrations, Father King said.
“We can’t get comfortable,” he said.