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Annulment: the kangaroo court.

This article is occasioned by Catholic Insight's articles by Joseph Tevington ("A quarter century of annual addresses to the Roman rota," Feb. & Mar., 2006), and the Editor's note stating "The current assault against family and marriage is unmatched. Nothing like it has happened before."

In February 1979, Pope John Paul II, in his first address to the Roman rota on the thirtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, spoke on the topic of the Church and Human Rights. He stated that

"The Church's vocation includes a committed effort to be a spokesperson for that thirst for justice and dignity which men and women our age experience so strongly ... The profound respect owed to the rights of the human person which requires urgent and solicitous protection, should persuade the ecclesiastical judge to observe exactly those procedural norms which are intended precisely to ensure the rights of the person."

The following is my personal complaint against what I consider an assault on family and marriage. Before the Church considers an annulment, a Catholic couple has to be divorced in civil court. Annulment of a previous marriage is required by the Church when a divorced Catholic wishes to remarry in a Sacramental marriage within the Church.

Impediments to marriage and 'procedural norms'

Two years after my 35-year marriage ended in civil divorce, my former spouse applied to the Church for an invalidation (annulment) of our marriage. The process starts at the parish level of the spouse wishing the annulment. A priest trained in Canon Law will help the spouse to draft and word a document called the Petition. The procedure is supposed to be similar to a civil court process, with a Prosecutor, Defendant, Witness, Judicial vicars, Judges, and Appeals, if necessary all the way to Rome. It is my contention that there was no intention of allowing me, the defendant, to respond to the charges contained in the wording of the Petition--rather, it turned out to be about manipulating code language and the process of "procedural norms."

From the following list of criteria, a priest trained in Canon law helps the Petitioner to draw up the "Petition," with the goal of a positive outcome from the Apostolic Signatura (the highest supervisory court) of Rome. This list includes "instability, stubbornness, excessive dependence, despotic authoritarianism, exaggerated self-worship, I narcissism, child of alcoholic parents, or dysfunctional family, transvestism, an explosive personality, especially i fit can be linked to serious psychic illness, superficiality, simple naivete, light mindedness, lack of common sense, and incompatibility."

Most annulments are granted under Canon 1095.2 which refers to "those who suffer from a grave deficit of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and duties mutually handed over and accepted."

From the criteria, canon lawyers and the Petitioner spouse create the "grounds," or "impediments" to the marriage. The Petition format is designed to "formulate a doubt" that the defendant/respondent spouse could not have known what he/she was doing the day they said, "I do" to the vows and commitments of their Sacramental marriage. Therefore he or she is said to have suffered from a "grave lack of discretionary judgment."

Most Catholics are aware of the importance the Church attributes to Sacramental marriage. Yet if a Respondent spouse wishes to defend his or her marriage vows against the allegations in the Petition, they are called "contentious Respondents." With such all-encompassing criteria (see above) to work with for Canon 1095.2 it is not surprising that some priests actually boast they can invalidate any marriage.

When the Petition is drafted, it should be sent by registered mail delivery to the Respondent spouse. If it is withheld from the Respondent, Canon 1502 requires a procedure "to specify the reason ... he has chosen this course of action." Many Respondents are not even aware of this "procedural norm," but the consequences of its being withheld result in a rubber stamp approval for the Petitioner spouse.

A Decree by the Apostolic Signatura of May 6, 1993, states, "The practice of the Petitioner's tribunal directly contacting and hearing the Respondent cannot he allowed. Rather the Respondent's own judicial vicar must contact the Respondent." Despite this decree, in my case the Petitioner's tribunal were in fact the first people to contact me. It took my judicial vicar six months to write the first of two letters. On first reading, these letters seemed innocuous--until I investigated the true meaning of the canonical codes he quoted.

Procedural manipulations

At the beginning, an important part of "procedural norms" covers what is called the "competent" tribunal to hear the case. The Apostolic See has very specific "norms" in place to protect the Respondent's rights. Yet this did not stop the two tribunals involved (mine in Ottawa and his in Halifax) from riding roughshed over my rights as a Respondent and "fixing" the outcome for the Petitioner. To facilitate this they manipulated two of the four canonical codes governing the "procedural norms" for "competency" (Canons 1673.3 and 1673.4). Canon 1673.3 was manipulated by overlooking the fact we did not live in the "same Conference of Bishops" area. Then Canon 1673.4 was manipulated by telling the Petitioner to come up with "three new witnesses" to technically qualify as "the place where most of the witness statements must be collected." It did not matter that these witnesses would have to take an oath on the Bible and to speak the truth on the issues raised in "formulating a doubt" on the marriage 35 years earlier. Nor did it matter that these individuals had "no knowledge relevant to the issues" (Canon 1549). These extra witnesses were in fact "procedural" manipulations of the "norms" for "competency." When the intended actions of tribunals are about dishonesty, what a tangled web they weave. Nine tribunal "fixes" were written into the two letters I received from my judicial vicar.

Another, more obvious, example of "procedural" manipulation occurred when my judicial vicar wrote, "Canon 1529 allows for some latitude in some cases were there is a question of discovering the truth and administering justice with the greatest possible guarantee of success. It is for this reason ... in exceptional cases that this tribunal might for grave reason advance the time for admitting the proofs (witness statements) in order to ensure that they are available." For a lay reader, "discovering the truth" and "administering justice" seem to be honourable, honest intentions. Except by now I was suspicious of tribunal intentions. The "procedural norms" of the Apostolic See for Canon 1529 read, "Except for grave cause the judge is not to collect the proofs before the joinder of the issues. To respect the right of the Respondent, the investigation should not proceed until he or she has at least had an opportunity to contest the claims of the Petitioner, to secure the services of an advocate and nominate witnesses." This letter was ignoring all procedural norms of this Canon.

"Grave reason:" this means a witness must be in danger of death or unavailable at a later date. This did not apply to the case--all witnesses were very much alive and available.

"Joinder of the issues:" this meeting is supposed to "focus the investigation." It never happened and I suspect it was never intended to happen.

"Secure the services of an advocate:" At no time did my judicial vicar recommend or ask me to find an advocate. I suppose as long as I was ignorant of Canon law rules, he was free to manipulate "procedural norms."

"Nominate witnesses:" there was no "respect for the rights of the Respondent" as required by this canon. My witnesses were nominated within six weeks of the initial phone call from the Petitioner's tribunal in April 2001, and interviewed within four months, all before I received the first letter from my judicial vicar-the letter informing me they were adding "3 additional witnesses" for the Petitioner.

In conclusion, many Catholics are concerned about the validity of so many annulments in Canada. With a ninety-eight percent approval rating, Rome has complained publicly that this is unacceptable. How can the tribunals of Nova Scotia and Ottawa "discover the truth" and "administer justice" when they both had no intention of being truthful themselves? Every priest who claims this process to be "emotionally healing," should consider the abuse sustained by the spouse whose integrity has been emotionally "assaulted" by deception. Mothers, fathers, wives and husbands have had family values wiped out by Canon lawyers and then are left to bear the pain of their deceptive "annulments."

Bishops are in a position to stop this willful misrepresentation of Canonical codes. Families are the backbone of congregations, so the "assault against families and marriage" has to start in our own backyards. My experience was the most demeaning and abusive of my life.

Pat MacLeod writes from Ottawa.
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Author:MacLeod, Pat
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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