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Catholic Times reports on the work of Tribunal Services

From Catholic Times, February 4, 2007


Diocesan tribunal determines validity, nullity of marriages

Although many Catholics may have heard of a declaration of nullity regarding marriage, the two priests serving in the diocesan Office for the Tribunal believe it is important for people to fully understand the process that happens in their office.

Father Kevin Laughery and Father Dean Probst are both parish pastors and canon lawyers who serve in the tribunal. Father Laughery is judicial vicar and a diocesan judge and Father Probst is a diocesan judge.

Tribunal process helped him ‘move on’ with life

Having a marriage declared null can be stressful, but it forces a person to take a serious look at his or her life, says one resident of the Springfield diocese.

Kurt* sought an annulment almost immediately after his divorce was final. He and his former wife were both Catholic and had been married a total of eight years including the time they were separated, but had no children.

“I think it was only about two months after we were divorced when I officially started the process. There wasn’t any special person in the picture or anything like that. I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my future. I just basically wanted to move on with my life.

“I had spoken to a lot of people who said that they wish they would have gone ahead and done it sooner,” Kurt says. “The longer you wait, the harder it is to recall information and the harder it is to find witnesses who will remember things.”

Following the recommendation of the diocesan Office for the Tribunal, Kurt went to his parish office to seek the assistance of a trained advocate. “You fill out a lengthy questionnaire (now about 75 questions) which is called a Marital Dynamic Survey (MDS). It took me probably 24 to 30 hours to complete the first draft and then it took several more drafts working with my advocate before it was turned over to the court expert,” Kurt says.

“In my case, a psychologist took the information I provided and made a psychological analysis,” he says. “Of course, the final decision is up to the priest (tribunal judge).” It took about a year for Kurt’s case to be completed, which is a little longer than average, he admits.

When all the information was documented, Kurt asked to read the testimonies of his personal witnesses, the psychologist, and tribunal judges, which is allowable in all cases for both spouses. “You have to read the testimonies in the tribunal office; you can’t take them out of there. But, reading those testimonies was eye-opening,” he says. “It definitely makes you think.”

Kurt calls getting a marriage declared null “a lot of hard work” and cautions that people should never take the marriage commitment lightly. “In my case, I would be allowed to marry (again) in the church, but I would need proof of premarital counseling,” he says. “But I do believe that if they made getting married as tough as it is to get a marriage declared null, there probably would be a lot fewer people getting married, at least in the Catholic Church.”

However it is Kurt’s deep love of the church and his committed faith that made him desire to have his marriage declared null. “I felt a real sense of relief when the process was complete,” he concludes. “It really is a painful process. But if it does anything, it teaches you patience. It also helps you examine your life and the reasons for your divorce. It should help you to avoid making future mistakes.”

(*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of this individual.)

The two priests are assisted by Becky Donaldson, who is office manager, advocate and notary and by Brother Joel Mark Rousseau, FFSC, who is secretary and notary. Additionally defenders of the bond, who currently come from outside the diocese, defend the marriage bond in the hearing of matrimonial causes which involve the validity or nullity of a marriage already contracted.

“I’m sure that questions occur. Many Catholics know we teach that marriage, once validly entered, cannot be dissolved, by any means other than death. So, what are we doing?” Father Laughery says. “What we are doing is affirming the indissolubility of marriage that has been validly entered, but we also recognize that marriage comes about through the consent of the parties and there can be a lot of obstacles in the way.

“There can be problems with what a person intends. Do they intend a permanent, exclusive relationship open to children? Withholding a right of marriage can be an obstacle to giving valid consent,” Father Laughery says. “There can be an immaturity that leaves you seeing relationships between people in a very inadequate way.”

“We believe the marriage is more than the trimmings of the wedding day,” Father Probst says. “While consent before a priest or a deacon is what makes a marriage valid, marriage must also be properly understood by both parties and must be capable of being lived out by them.”

For this reason the tribunal office asks the following questions, says Father Probst: Has the marriage been celebrated in proper form? Has the person been baptized? Has the person been previously married? What was the reason for marriage and what was the cause for divorce? What was the intent for each party in regard to having children? What was their understanding of what marriage was?

“We understand marriage as something much richer and deeper than simply signing a contract. It is a complete gift of self and therefore we do ask people to be brutally honest about themselves,” Father Laughery says. “We ask them to trust us with their life story. A lot of what we learn about people’s struggles through their petitions helps us to understand human nature a lot better.”

Although people might think the tribunal only deals with marriages that took place in a Catholic church, that isn’t so. “In our theology and law, we look upon marriage as a natural institution, therefore any man and woman can get married,” says Father Laughery. “When we see someone who has exchanged marriage consent, we recognize it.

“If a person is coming to the tribunal and that person is not a Catholic, obviously they are probably coming to us because they intend to marry a Catholic,” he says. “We do still have to process any and all previous marriages no matter what the religion of the parties. That’s very important.”

“The teaching of the church is that marriage ends either by death of a spouse or by decree of nullity,” Father Probst says. “If they are marrying a Catholic we have to make sure they are free to marry.”

A person who wants to start the tribunal process should first call his or her parish office or the tribunal office to obtain a copy of a petition and to get in touch with an advocate. Having an advocate is highly recommended so the petitioner has someone to “walk through” the process with him or her. The tribunal has a list of advocates if a parish is unable to help appoint one.

“In a petition we have a list of questions and we want a developed description of what problems you’ve had and so on. That becomes the history of the marriage that we’re examining,” Father Laughery says. “It is on the basis of that history that we accept the petition and determine the possible grounds of nullity.” A copy of the marriage license and divorce decree is needed in all cases, as well as the baptismal certificate of Catholic parties.

Petitioners wonder if an ex-spouse has to be involved in the process, Father Probst says. “The ex-spouse does not have to participate in the process, but this person is notified of the impending process so that he or she can participate,” he says. “The integrity of the process requires that both parties have the right of defense or plainly put, have opportunity to provide information.”

Unlike in civil law, there is no courtroom in canon law. The petitioner and/or the respondent may be interviewed by the judge in the case, but most generally, the person provides responses to questions through an advocate. “The process really exists in writing. In fact, (canon) law requires that everything be put in writing. There are very few face-to-face meetings.”

Many people want to know how the church can declare null a marriage which has lasted for many years and has produced a number of children, Father Laughery says.

“We do not say that the marriage in question didn’t exist. We recognize that something real was happening there,” he says. “Children are the outstanding example of the reality.

“But, the law says that any marriage that is entered into in good faith by at least one party, that even later if it is proved to be null, has a special status,” Father Laughery says. “We do not judge the legitimacy of children in such circumstances.”

“So, children of a presumed valid marriage are legitimate even if the marriage should be proved invalid,” says Father Probst.

“In our society we have many, many coming-of-age sorts of experiences to the point that real emotional maturity is quite a bit removed from the physical maturity to have children. We definitely take that into account,” Father Laughery says.

“We talk a lot about practical judgment proportioned to the gravity of what you are getting yourself into,” he says. “If you have not had to make very many decisions in life and the marriage decision comes and you just don’t have a track record of making decisions, then that is a factor.”

People who come to the tribunal should realize that the judges are only following canon law. “Very often we hear people, out of a very understandable frustration with our process, asking, ‘Why do I have to do all this?’ We are not judging a person’s morals. It is just the law,” Father Laughery says. “We are just trying to establish a fact. Was it a valid marriage or wasn’t it?

“We do need to bring up Jesus because really our teaching on marriage is founded upon some uncompromising statements of Jesus in the Gospels,” he continues. “Our process is saying we take marriage absolutely seriously.”

People can easily quote the words of Jesus in the Gospel about marriage and divorce which is the foundation of the church’s teaching on marriage, Father Probst agrees. “However, one must recognize in that teaching Jesus said that Moses gave a decree because people were hard of heart. Jesus speaks of marriage in terms of two people who will live out his teaching of love. We’re looking at the idea of marriage as Jesus would put forth to us rather than just simply a legal document.”

As is any legal process, when a case is introduced to the tribunal, it usually takes months for the tribunal process to be completed. “Depending upon the type of case, it generally takes between eight to 10 months,” says Father Probst. “Lack of witness testimony, or delay in obtaining, can prolong a case.”

All declarations of nullity require at least two witnesses. “A witness is someone who can give testimony about the marriage, maybe the courtship or they might know more about the background of the couple,” Father Probst says. Both petitioner and respondents have the right to see what the other party and witnesses have submitted and to respond to the information. “This is called the right of defense.”

“The people who work in the tribunal have learned a lot about human nature. We’ve learned to be compassionate to people and compassionate to ourselves. People can expect they will be treated with the respect they deserve,” Father Laughery says. “We listen to the person’s story and we do our best to consider that particular personal story, but we are only declaring what is or what isn’t.

“Sometimes we do have to give a negative decision. We do have an appeal process that exists. But I also stress that people need to understand that what we are doing is a legal thing. We are just trying to determine a fact. It is not a moral judgment.

“People should understand that a negative decision does not mean that they are separated from the church,” Father Laughery concludes. “Their parish priest can guide them in understanding the manner of participation in the parish that is still possible for them.”

(For more information on declarations of nullity, contact your parish office or the tribunal at (217) 698-8500, ext. 119.)

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