Judicial Vicar explains changes to annulment process

BRAINTREE -- Judicial Vicar Father Mark O'Connell, head of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Boston, explained changes to the annulment process announced by Pope Francis, in a Sept. 8 interview with The Pilot.

Father O'Connell sent out a brief outline of changes that apply to the annulment process, which go into effect Dec. 8, coinciding with the beginning of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy previously proclaimed by the pope.

Since the Church encompasses Eastern Churches in communion with Rome and the Latin-rite, two Apostolic letters "Motu propio" ("on his own initiative") were released -- "Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus" or "The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge" for the Latin-rite church, and "Mitis et misericors Iesus," or "The Meek and Merciful Jesus" for the Eastern Catholic churches.

Father O'Connell addressed the changes in Latin-rite process.

In his Apostolic letter, the pope eliminated the fee many tribunals charge for annulment cases.

Fees collected by the Metropolitan Tribunal in Boston cover some of their expenses while the Catholic Appeal covers remaining expenses, according to Father O'Connell.

According to the tribunal website, the fee for an annulment in Boston is currently $700, which can be paid in monthly installments. However, if a petitioner still cannot afford they fee, it can be waived.

Father O'Connell said he hopes no one has ever walked away from the process because they felt they couldn't afford it.

"We're very clear, if you can't pay for it, then you ask for a waiver, we get a waiver," Father O'Connell said.

This however, is not the case everywhere, he explained.

"In other tribunals around the world, there's a prohibitive fee sometimes that prevents people from coming to it," he said.

He also added that the pope's move to make annulments free may encourage those who never get as far as requesting a waiver, but turn away from the process after simply learning of the fee.

In addition to eliminating the fees associated with annulments, the pope also made a number of changes to streamline the process.

Currently, the tribunal addresses an annulment case in a five-step process that includes the introduction of a case, the collection of testimonies, the review of testimonies and discussion among tribunal court officials, the decision of the judges, and an automatic appeal process.

Father O'Connell said the Boston tribunal takes about a year on average to finish an annulment case, but he anticipates a decrease to about two months in some cases under the new guidelines.

He identified the ways that the papal documents make the annulment process less cumbersome.

First, he said there are what the document called "obvious cases" that could qualify for an expedited annulment.

According to the document, factors in these cases could include:

-- Very brief marriages,

-- Procured abortion to prevent procreation,

-- Stubborn persistence in an extra-marital affair at the time of the wedding or immediately following,

-- Concealing "with malice" one's infertility, a contagious disease, or children from a previous relationship,

-- pregnancy at the time of the marriage such that it forced the marriage,

-- Physical violence to extort a marriage,

-- and the lack of use of reason by one of the parties, proven medically.

The document concludes the list with "etcetera," which Father O'Connell said likely means an outside force that influenced the marriage so much that nullity becomes readily obvious to those investigating the case.

Currently, even after a decision is reached, the annulment process is lengthened by an automatic appeal to a tribunal in another diocese.

In Boston, automatic appeals of Metropolitan Tribunal decisions go to the Diocese of Springfield to maintain objectivity. If the Springfield tribunal agrees with the Boston decision, the case is closed. Is it disagrees with the Boston decision, the appeal is continued to Rome.

"The pope has eliminated that (appeal), so therefore once the verdict is done here, if both parties are in accord, in other words the other party isn't appealing, it's done, fully done, with just the one court. That will save a lot of time," he said.

The pope also increased the venues where annulment cases can be heard.

Under the old rules, the person seeking an annulment (called the "petitioner") could either bring their case to the tribunal in the diocese where the wedding took place, or the diocese where the other party (called the "respondent") lives. If the petitioner had moved away, they could only bring the case in the diocese where they currently live with the consent of the respondent.

And, in the case foreign marriages, the Boston tribunal couldn't hear the case at all, because both parties were required to live in the territory of the same conference of bishops.

"Not every tribunal in the world was effective or even worked, so it was leaving the person stranded from any process whatsoever, because their home diocese may or may not do the case. So, now the court where the petitioner lives is fully competent, so now if the person's spouse lives in a foreign country we can still do the case," he said.

Now, the petitioner will be able to seek an annulment wherever they live.

The document also lowered the requirements of evidence in annulment cases. Even though the moral certainty of the nullity of a marriage must be proven, the standard can now be met with fewer witnesses in a given case.

Father O'Connell said the old standard -- in Boston, the tribunal asked for five witnesses from each party -- could be particularly difficult for those looking to have a marriage from long ago annulled, particularly in cases of short marriages.

"Now that type of person who had a very hard time getting an annulment could get it and get it easily and quickly," Father O'Connell said.

The document also increased the discretion of a local bishop to handle a case personally.

"Right now the forum for an annulment is the tribunal, but the bishop himself can be a judge now. The bishop was always kind of a judge, but this encourages the bishop to be a judge. The bishop, following the same rules as the tribunal, can do this himself," Father O'Connell said.

While not addressed in the papal document, Father O'Connell also noted that the annulment process does not impact the legitimacy of children had in a marriage later declared null, a afctor some cite as a reason for not seeking an annulment.

In all, Father O'Connell said he thinks the changes will almost certainly increase the availability of and number of annulments.

"People had a lot of reasons to stay away from the tribunal. They had the reason of perceived loss of money. They had the reason of 'it takes too long.' They had the reason of 'they ask too personal questions.' They have the reason of 'this is gonna make my kids illegitimate.' All these things prevented people from seeking an annulment, but the pope in the Year of Mercy is eliminating these things one-by-one and showing to the world, 'No, it's not a terrible thing. It's something that I want you to have access to and come again if you have been rejected in the past,'" Father O'Connell said.

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