Catholic Church’s Internal Legal System Charged with Unfairness and Partisanship

By Bai Macfarlane

A Catholic News Agency (CNA) story from June 4, says Pope Benedict challenges US bishops to revive Christian culture: “The Holy Father spoke of the challenges in marriage, in family life.” Gregory Lynne, a practicing Catholic residing in Virginia, observes that, “in regards to marriage and family, the U.S. Catholic Bishops act schizophrenically in the practices and teachings of their diocesan staff including their tribunals.”

In a recent article, Monsignor Cormac Burke – a canon lawyer who served on the appellate court for internal matters for the Catholic Church (Apostolic Tribunal of the Roman Rota) – said there is a widespread problem in the English-speaking world. Specifically, judges in the tribunal courts in the Catholic Church who rule on canon law affecting Catholic marriages commonly have a mistaken bias toward giving annulment decisions and they treat defendant-respondents unfairly.

An annulment, which in canon law is called a declaration of invalidity, is a decree from the Church tribunal system saying that two people were never really married. Cases start when one party alleges that their marriage is invalid. The other party, the defendant-respondent, has the right to argue that their marriage is valid. The law requires that all marriages shall be presumed valid until proven otherwise.

Schizophrenia, in general use, is a mentality or approach characterized by inconsistent or contradictory elements. Mr. Lynne’s concern centers on the Catholic Church’s complacency and/or complicity when her own members force upon their spouses and children no-fault divorce. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that divorce is immoral and a grave offense against nature.

Lynne sees further inconsistency when the local Church tribunals easily issue annulment decrees alleging that spouses were never married in the first place. In Lynne’s experience, his wife forced a no-fault divorce on him and his children

Lynne says, “The priest that married us, Fr. Charles Irvin (Lansing, MI Diocese) (himself a canon lawyer) told me the vows he witnessed between us were disposable.”

Lynne vehemently disagrees, citing the marital commandment (1 Cor. 7:10-11), which “tolerates ONLY legal separation and which also enjoins spouses to seek to reconcile. Meanwhile, lax Church clergy concession toward civil divorce (vs. legal separation) has enticed my wife into bigamy, further alienating our mutilated family with a step-father while the validity of our marriage is still putatively, canonically-intact.”

If the U.S. bishops undermine their own Church’s official doctrine and law on marriage, separation, divorce, and annulment, it unlikely that they will have any effect strengthening marriage and family amongst the culture at-large. The Pope is asking them to revive Christian culture, particularly regarding marriage and family.

“Angelicum Review,” the prestigious journal from the Dominical Pontifical University in Rome, published Msgr. Cormac Burke’s article, “Justice and Transparency in Matrimonial Decisions.” Burke has an extensive website where anyone can read case law from the Roman Rota and he corresponds with readers:

“Among other e-mails that my website brings in, a number come from respondents in marriage cases. They inquire about procedural matters, and particularly about how to proceed if, after a first instance Affirmative decision, they wish to appeal to the Roman Rota. Case after case has served to confirm the impression I formed during my years at the Rota (an impression which was common among the judges there) that, especially in the English-speaking countries, quite a number of local tribunals show a lack of due respect for the rights of the respondent, a reluctance to inform him or her of the ways open to them if they oppose a first instance decision and at times, it must be added, even a certain misrepresentation of the difficulties (especially in relation to costs) which may arise from an appeal to the Rota.

“One senses a trace of partisanship here, as if the Judicial Vicar or the judges involved, yielding to a pro-nullity pastoral stance, had lost the impartiality that is a necessary quality of the just judge.”

Msgr. Burke shares excerpts from a current annulment case being tried by a U.S. tribunal court, in which the defendant-respondent was treated unfairly. The identity and diocese of the defendant-respondent are kept secret, but Burke publishes and criticizes direct quotes from the US tribunal judge’s letters to the defendant-respondent.

The U.S. tribunal judge gave the defendant-respondent disinformation about his right to appeal the first ruling that his marriage was invalid. The defendant was erroneously told that in order to appeal to the Vatican, the defendant had to prove to the local judge that the reasons for appeal were serious enough, plus the appeal to Rome was going to cost the defendant-respondent a lot of money. Former Roman Rota Judge, Burke clarified that the local tribunal does not have any discretionary power to stop someone from appealing to Rome to defend the validly of their marriage.

In Burke’s article, he says, “It is quite common for tribunals to suggest to a party thinking of an appeal to Rome, that this is a very expensive practice. This is not true.” In the early 1990’s there was an agreement between Rome and any U.S. diocese. Burke explains:

“If the Tribunal accepts the petition (cf. c. 1505, §1), it is logical that the Petitioner makes a payment towards the expenses of the case. But if the Respondent is opposed to the claim, there would be no logic whatsoever in requiring him or her to share in the expenses of a case initiated by the Petitioner. Taking this a step farther, if after a first instance Affirmative decision, the Respondent pursues his or her right of defense by appealing to the Roman Rota, justice requires that the local Tribunal facilitates this appeal and does not seek to make it more difficult – e.g. by suggesting that the Respondent must pay something in the order of $500 or $850. This would be totally contrary to the terms and spirit of the agreement mentioned above.”

Burke also exposes the unjust practice of withholding from the defendant-respondent a full copy of the final decision. If the petitioner/plaintiff gets a pro-annulment decision from the lower tribunal, the decision or “Sentence” is supposed to describe the law-based rationale that the judges used to conclude that the marriage was invalid. The defendant-respondent is supposed to get a full copy of the Sentence – which they would need as they correspond with an appellate court to describe their objections and observations. The defendant-respondent in Burke’s article was not allowed to get his own copy of the Sentence.

Lynne said that the Tribunal of the Diocese of Richmond Virginia, in 2003, would not provide him his own full copy of their Sentence declaring his marriage was invalid, even though he made multiple requests. Only after Lynne had appealed Richmond’s decision to the Roman Rota did the Richmond court provide him a full copy of their decision.

Deborah Nuzzo, a defendant-respondent in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, says that in 2010, the tribunal would not let her have her own full copy of their decision.

In and e-mail interview, Nuzzo said “The director of Brooklyn’s tribunal told me that they never give copies of the Sentence to the parties. He went on to say that there is not a Church tribunal in any of the adjoining states who do. When I pressed him to explain, he glibly answered, ‘someone might put this on their refrigerator.’ This was the second time I received the same answer to my question. It is against canon law to withhold this, plus it treats a serious matter as a joke.”

Nuzzo advises respondent-defendants to learn about their rights and inform the bishop every step along the way if rights are being denied, and to save all written correspondence for future defense to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota.

Bai Macfarland is founder of Mary’s Advocates, a advocacy work for the advancement of traditional Catholic marriage and family law.

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