By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published November 17, 2016
ATLANTA—Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter in September 2015, decisively changing the Code of Canon Law and the Catholic Church’s marriage annulment process and making the process less expensive and time-consuming. As part of a pastoral outreach, the pope hoped to encourage simplicity and speed for couples seeking a declaration of nullity. The changes to the annulment process went into effect last Dec. 8, the opening of the Year of Mercy, with the goal of streamlining the process, especially in the length of time involved.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory recently announced the final change required in the local Tribunal process, with the news that the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio, headed up by Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr, has now been designated as the local appellate Tribunal for all judicial cases heard in the first instance by the Metropolitan Tribunal of Atlanta, effective immediately.
The Atlanta Tribunal has been restored as the court of second instance for the other dioceses of the Province of Atlanta, which are Charleston, South Carolina, Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, and Savannah. The bishops of the province accepted this proposal at their meeting in June, and the decree made by the Vatican Sept. 23.
One key change in reducing the length of time was removing the necessity for appealing the first instance decision of the Tribunal to a second Tribunal in most circumstances.
Until Dec. 8, 2015, when a formal annulment case was decided affirmatively, an appeal was issued automatically, and a panel of three judges in the Provincial Court of Appeals reviewed the decision. Affirmative decisions were required at both the Tribunal and the Court of Appeals for a marriage to be declared null. The change made last year by Pope Francis made one court decision sufficient to declare a marriage null.
With the elimination of the automatic second appeal, the Court of Appeals in Atlanta was closed earlier this year, as the much reduced number of cases requiring an appeal (from some 600 cases each year to under 10) could be handled without this separate court. The Court of Appeals had served as the second court until then, reviewing the affirmative decisions from marriage tribunals in Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Charlotte and Raleigh.
The remaining appeal cases involve situations when one of the parties in the marriage appeals a Tribunal decision, whether it was affirmative or negative, or where a Tribunal member whose formal role is to defend the validity of the marriage chooses to challenge the first court’s ruling.
Luis O. Capacetti, court administrator for the Metropolitan Tribunal of Atlanta, said that the changes to the annulment process were for “the sake of the people, to make things easier.” He will handle the small number of second instance cases for the dioceses of the province, and the Tribunal in Cincinnati will handle the two to three second instance cases annually for the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Capacetti said that the Court of Appeals website will be shut down. Those seeking more information on any aspect of the annulment process should consult the main website for the Atlanta Metropolitan Tribunal at http://archatl.com/offices/metropolitan-tribunal.