Pope Francis would like to see free annulments, but marriage tribunals say they actually lose money on annulments. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Marriage tribunals say their work already done at a loss

  • February 7, 2015

Pope Francis is hardly the first Catholic to express dismay over long, expensive, bureaucratic processes laid out for people seeking annulment of a mistaken, failed marriage. But in most of Canada, annulments are available at no cost and canon lawyers from coast to coast have been working on making the process faster and less bureaucratic.

“How I wish all marriage proceedings were free of charge,” Pope Francis told members of the Roman Rota, the Church’s highest appeal court for marriage cases. “Some procedures are so long and so burdensome, they don’t favour (justice), and people give up. Mother Church should do justice and say: ‘Yes, it’s true, your marriage is null. No, your marriage is valid.’ But justice means saying so. That way, they can move on without this doubt, this darkness in their soul.”

In Toronto, there’s no bill at the end of an annulment proceeding, said Fr. Alex Laschuk, assistant judicial vicar of the Toronto marriage tribunal. People are asked for a donation equal to about 25 per cent of the cost of a standard case — $1,800. But payment is voluntary, and no decision is held up waiting for a cheque.

“Most of the donations we get are from people who cannot afford to give donations. And the people who can afford to give do not. That would be my appraisal,” said Laschuk. “It’s the single mothers who send in $100 a month over several years and it’s the doctors who frequently send nothing.”

The Toronto tribunal maintains a staff of more than 30 people, many of them trained in canon law and counselling. The testimonies of witnesses can run into hundreds of pages, which must be transcribed, photocopied and bound. Letters are sent out by registered mail. Psychologists and other experts are sometimes consulted at standard fees.

“You can’t turn on a light bulb without paying a bill,” said Laschuk.

In Antigonish, N.S., the standard fee requested for an annulment is $900. But judgments are not withheld from the people who can’t afford it.

“Many of our cases are done gratis,” said Antigonish judicial vicar Fr. John Barry. “So when that is done, the diocese pays for it.”

Barry is one of a number of Canadian canon lawyers who have made suggestions for simplifying and speeding up the process. At the last convention of the Canadian Canon Law Society Barry proposed doing away with the automatic appeal of every decision to the national tribunal in Ottawa.

Under the Vatican’s current rules, whenever the decentralized regional tribunal for eight dioceses in Atlantic Canada renders a judgment, no matter how clear-cut that first instance may be, all the paperwork is then forwarded to Ottawa for an appeal — even if neither party is seeking an appeal. 

Barry doesn’t want to get rid of the national appeal tribunal, just cut down its workload so that it’s only dealing with difficult cases.

“It takes more time and it costs more money,” said Barry. “If it can be done at the local level with people who are qualified, canonists, I mean that would be a great thing.”

The real problem marriage tribunals across Canada face is a falling work load.

“People just don’t bother any more,” said Barry.

Parishes find themselves performing fewer weddings as Catholics opt for civil weddings and beach resort weddings. The idea that Catholics must be married in a church before a priest has less weight than it once did and at the other end the idea that the Church should have anything to say about how a marriage is dissolved is just as easily dismissed, Barry said.

“Fifteen years ago we were in the area of 150 cases (per year). Now we’re down to about 20,” said Barry.

“We prepare someone for priesthood for five years, for religious life for five years, for a wedding — which is a lifetime commitment — at best we might give them a weekend,” said Laschuk. “In a society that’s completely against what they’re committing to. So I think we have to really work on how we prepare candidates for marriage to make sure they know what they’re getting into and that they’re accepting of that.”

When Pope Francis speaks of mercy and dealing with people gently, canon lawyers are all ears, said Laschuk.

“They’re trying to give people resolution in their struggles, their broken marriages, their suffering.” 

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