Working to make annulment process ‘less painful’

Last February, the Diocese of Camden’s Tribunal held two workshops focusing on a process that can be very painful for families: the securing of an annulment.

In comparison to a civil, state divorce, an annulment deals with the break-up, and dissolution, of a marriage. Whereas “a civil divorce concerns the circumstances of a marriage,” according to the diocesan office, such as whether there was adultery, abandonment or abuse, “a church annulment concerns the circumstances of the relationship of the parties who had given their consent to enter that marriage.”

Only after Tribunal judges receive testimony from both parties, and witnesses such as family and friends provide facts to present “a clear and accurate picture of the courtship and early years of the marriage,” can an annulment be granted or denied.

The diocese provides advocate volunteers for petitioners to guide and support them through the process.

At St. Joseph Parish in Somers Point and Sts. Peter and Paul in Turnersville, individuals who have gone through the annulment process in the Diocese of Camden from 2008-11 were invited to respond to questions on, for example, how effective their advocates were in assisting them with the process, what was most and least helpful to them in the process, and how did the annulment process affect their relationship with their families.

Father David Klein, Judicial Vicar and full-time judge in the Tribunal, knows the time-consuming process of obtaining an annulment can be “painful.” The goal of the workshops, he said, was for diocesan officials to ask themselves, “What do we have to do to this process to help families and not hurt them?”

Through the workshops, and in receiving feedback via telephone and letters, the Tribunal is getting information to “help us better examine our own way of currently dealing with people through this process, in order to make better changes to serve the people,” Father Klein said.

“We hold the sacrament of marriage to be sacred,” he said, and at the beginning of each annulment process, the Tribunal is “starting from the premise that we believed you when you said ‘I do’ on your wedding day.”

Petitioners “need to provide testimony to overcome the church’s presumption” to prove that their marriage was not binding.

In fact, in the practice of Catholic marriage courts, an annulment is a decision that the apparent marriage was null from the start. It declares that since there was no sacramental marriage, there is no marriage bond. The court document conveying such a judgment is called a decree of mullity.

In speaking with the petitioner and respondent, their families, their bridal party, their friends, their neighbors and co-workers, the office of the Tribunal attempts to answer the question, “Did these individuals understand and intend the sacrament of marriage?”

Church teaching on marriage is often misunderstood.

In July 2013, Pope Francis suggested that as many as half of all Catholic marriages might be invalid, “because people get married lacking maturity, they get married without realizing that it is a lifelong commitment, they get married because society tells them they have to get married.”

A few months later, addressing members of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, the church’s highest tribunal, Pope Francis said members of a marriage tribunal, including the official responsible for defending the bond of marriage, must aim to provide justice but also pastoral care to the couples involved.

The Camden Diocese’s Tribunal is seeking to put renewed emphasis on pastoral care, while adhering to church teaching on marriage.

“Maybe we have to tone it down a bit,” Father Klein said.

“Perhaps we’ve come across as a bit too aloof, a bit too distant, maybe even harsh. We’re being asked to judge, but that doesn’t mean we have to be judgmental in how we help people through the process.”

“Do we know we need improvements? Absolutely,” Father Klein said.

“We’re looking at everything we do, to make the changes we feel we need to make, to make the annulment process a less painful one.”

Cherry Hill resident and Holy Eucharist parishioner Lori Antico, 56, first contacted the Tribunal almost five years ago to receive an annulment from her ex-husband. She wanted to marry her then-boyfriend.

After becoming frustrated with the “awful” questions they asked her, the “challenging” paperwork, and the fact that she could communicate with the Tribunal only by mail, Antico and her boyfriend were married by a Unitarian minister.

When her annulment to her first husband did go through, in 2012, she had planned to have her second wedding blessed by the Catholic Church, but her second husband died in 2013.

She admires the Tribunal’s efforts at reform, calling the February workshop “excellent.”

“They’re eking forward,” she said. “They need to streamline and update the annulment process.”

Five years ago, Mary Jane Kelso, 67, first began the annulment process after divorcing her husband of 20 years.

She called the process a “traumatic” experience in “bringing up everything (about her marriage) … it was emotional.”

“However,” she added, “I understand why they have to do it.”

Less than two years later, she received her annulment, and just recently celebrated her third anniversary with her second husband, Joe.

Kelso is thankful for a parish priest at St. Thomas in Brigantine, where she is Director of Music and Liturgy, who provided her with the initial annulment papers and was an advocate for her during every step of the process.

“Every person going through the process should have an advocate” to help them, she said.

Responses from the Tribunal, Antico and Kelso, along with others’, has been collected by the diocese’s Office of Faith and Family Life and sent off to Rome.

“The responses for this survey will be used to guide the conversation in September,” said Mary Lou Hughes, co-director of the office.

Even though the workshops are completed, and feedback was gathered for September, the Tribunal has not stopped asking questions or its efforts to improve. Last May, Tribunal staff and diocesan officials met to discuss responses to the recent questionnaire, continuing to re-evaluate its processes.

“The questionnaire is important,” said Deacon Leo McBlain, who serves as the Tribunal’s Defender of the Bond.

He credits a “toxic” culture that emphasizes individualism and relativism, and “doesn’t help understanding” the annulment process.

“Many people are looking for a fast solution to the problem, and don’t realize it would be irresponsible on the church to do that,” he said.

“The church has to be very thorough. If (the process) is not responsible, and too casual, it would not be faithful to the church, or to the people.”

At the same time, Deacon McBlain said that “a little more education and understanding of the sacredness of marriage in the Catholic Church, is needed.”

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