By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 8, 2019 | En Español
ATLANTA—Sixty-five specially trained advocates will now be assisting the faithful whose marriages have broken apart.
The new court advocates, made up of permanent deacons and laywomen and men, were recently commissioned by Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, diocesan administrator, to serve in the Metropolitan Tribunal in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Tribunal leaders hope these trained volunteers expedite a lengthy process. Some applicants for marriage annulments wait up to two years for a ruling. The delays have consequences for these believers. Some who have civilly remarried may not be able to receive communion, while others may not be able to be received into the church.
Advocates with lived experience
Warren Stoughton has worshipped at St. Jude the Apostle Church, Sandy Springs, for more than 50 years. He is one of the new advocates who understands what it can be like to reconsider a failed marriage.
“I got involved with the program because I went through the program,” said the 71-year-old. Stoughton said he was a “little bit skeptical” when he sought an annulment more than 30 years ago, but he desired to remarry in the church.
“As Catholics, we are taught marriages are permanent. You are asked to examine a failure,” he said, making it a challenge for people to recall what went wrong. However, said Stoughton, looking again both at the happy times and bad times can be “very cathartic.”
Stoughton said, “I’ve had the pleasure of watching families become whole and in full communion with their faith communities.”
Advocates answer questions, help educate people about the faith and work with clients to prepare the best case for why they believe a marriage was invalid.
“You very gently steer them through the process and gently hold their hand,” he said.
Olga Fuentes, 72, believes that patience and understanding are needed as people navigate the process. A native Spanish speaker, she is motivated to participate as an advocate because she enjoys listening to people and putting their best case forward.
She also comes to the position with experience. Her husband received an annulment in the early 1970s. She said it wasn’t handled well, particularly the interviews.
People are “in constant stress, mentally and spiritually,” she said about the process. Fuentes feels the work is a blessing to relieve strains faced by people trying to live their faith.
Many people misunderstand it as a “Catholic divorce,” she said, but the work is different from a civil divorce.
“We are trying to verify, to find out if actually the sacrament took place or not,” said Fuentes.
Examination of a marriage’s foundation
Tribunal officials’ aim is to better serve Catholics whose marriages ended up broken. Researchers at Georgetown University estimate some 32% of ever-married Catholics have experienced divorce.
The church offers a solution for some divorced Catholics—to seek an annulment (formally known as a “declaration of nullity”). It is a declaration by a tribunal judge that the sacrament of marriage was not valid from the outset. The decision is based on church law and given for a variety of reasons, from “grave defect of discretion of judgment” to fraud and deceit.
However, a survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found only 15% of divorced Catholics sought an annulment. Some Catholics mistakenly feared what it would mean for their children—when in fact, an annulment has no effect at all on the legitimacy of children, custody or support. Others have found the process too lengthy or costly.
Father Daniel Ketter, the judicial vicar overseeing the tribunal in Atlanta, said his goal is for the new advocates to be well trained to serve their clients.
“Additionally, I want those the advocates work with to come away feeling they have been well served by a church that cares for them,” he said in an email.
Reforms draw new applications
Sitting in the tribunal conference room at the Chancery of the archdiocese, Chief Advocate Joe Tovar and Court Administrator Luis Capacetti explained how recent reforms strained the resources of the already busy Atlanta church court.
Capacetti said the Atlanta Archdiocese has been one of the busiest tribunals in the country, especially as the Catholic population boomed over the past 15 years. The number of new applications and cases puts it on par with the country’s largest archdioceses in New York and Los Angeles, he said.
In recent years, applications have ranged between 500 and 600 annually.
The court was already stretched “before the floodgates opened,” with the 2015 changes, said Tovar.
Those 2015 changes came from Pope Francis to streamline the process. He introduced three significant reforms, including making the process free. The changes eliminated a required second review of all positive declarations of nullity and authorized bishops to act as the sole judge in unique cases. The number of applications to the Atlanta tribunal jumped to 777 the first year following the reforms.
New advocates to ease bottlenecks
The court used five advocates, three who were only part time, at the tribunal to serve hundreds of applicants. The new volunteer advocates will aim to alleviate those burdens. “You are going to have more hands working,” said Tovar.
The tribunal for years depended on case sponsors to facilitate applications. The sponsors focused on administrative tasks, getting documents and other information in order before applying. The new format is a canonical position in the court, Capacetti said. The new model of advocates gives them more authority to better serve clients, he said.
“Advocate is a figure contemplated in the law,” he said.
The new advocates attended two mandatory meetings and were required to complete 10 online classes. They received training in canon law and marriage, learned legal principles to make a case for an annulment and practiced writing legal briefs for court judges. The volunteers will receive continued training to ensure their work meets court standards.
The second class of field advocates begins training in October.
For Sandy Spera, the changes allow her to deepen her role in a ministry she values. She serves as a pastoral assistant at St. Brendan the Navigator Church. Since 2014, she has worked with Catholics seeking an annulment.
“If I bring someone back to the faith, that is important to me,” she said.
Spera is hopeful her clients can see resolution faster now. However, she added, “Quicker does not mean easier.”