Guide for Respondents
Your former partner has approached the Marriage Tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church to ask for the circumstances of your marriage to be considered with a view to establishing its validity or otherwise according to the vision of marriage that is taught and encouraged by the Catholic Church.
Many questions will arise in your mind, I am sure, as you react to this development. Firstly, if you are not a Catholic and neither was your former partner you might feel indignant that the Church should take any interest in your marriage and its circumstances whatsoever. The Catholic Church presumes that every marriage contracted according to the law of the land by baptised and non-baptised people to be valid marriages unless there are reasons to reverse this presumption. Marriages between baptised Christians of other denominations are held to be sacramental, i.e. a bond underwritten by Christ himself within the mystery of the Church, even if the persons themselves do not hold marriage to be a sacrament. Any individual who may wish to marry a Catholic, and have themselves been married before, has the right to ask about their status in the eyes of the Catholic Church. To establish that status normally requires a formal nullity investigation.
- The equality of the parties
- The Citation of the Respondent
- The ‘Pro-Forma’ response sheet
- The rights that you have
- The right to give evidence
- The right to see the petition
- The right to call witnesses
- The right to see the evidence
- The right to an Advocate
- The right of Appeal
- Common Misunderstandings
- Useful addresses
The equality of the parties
Both parties have the same rights within the process, which is in some ways similar to the divorce process but also in other ways significantly different. The person initiating is called the petitioner (or plaintiff) and the other party (yourself) the respondent. The petitioner is in effect saying to the Church “Yes, I know I have been married, but I believe that it was not a valid marriage due to the following reasons…., and therefore could be considered null on the following grounds….”
The petitioner has already initiated this process and has told their side of the story to the Tribunal, having completed a preliminary questionnaire, and then having been formally interviewed. The priest/judge who interviewed them will have decided that there is a reasonable case to be investigated. So the next phase of the process has begun.
The Tribunal, by sending you an initial letter, wishes to know whether you wish to be involved in the ‘instruction’ of the case, i.e. by being interviewed yourself about the marriage and its circumstances. If you do not wish to be interviewed you may still read the petition that has been drawn up outlining the essential facts of the case as seen by your former partner.
This, as you will see, gives you four possible responses to the citation letter. The consequences of each option are as follows:
- To take a full part and come to the Tribunal Offices for a formal interview. This would involve a potentially lengthy interview (two to four hours) with a priest who is a fully qualified Canon Lawyer. It is possible for a woman who would prefer to be interviewed by a woman for this to be arranged, but please specify this preference in your reply.
- To be formally interviewed in your local area at a mutually convenient time and place by either a priest judge or a specially trained ‘lay auditor’ who is a mature Catholic lay person who takes evidence on behalf of the Tribunal. These are located throughout the area of the Diocese.
You are asked to answer the same questions as the petitioner has so that the Tribunal judges can make an objective as possible comparison between your two accounts of the marriage, its formation and its demise.
- To opt not to be interviewed but to be kept informed of the progress of the case and of its final outcome. By taking this option you can still, at any stage up until the ‘Acts of the Case’ (i.e. all the statements of the parties and the evidence of the witnesses) have been completed, change your mind and choose to be interviewed. The advantage of being interviewed early on is that your perspectives and opinions will be known when the questions for the witnesses are formulated and this may not be the case if you are interviewed near the completion of the case.
- You can opt to waive all your rights with regard to the case and entrust the whole process to the justice of the court. Again, you can change your mind about this at any stage and opt to take part. We will have informed you officially of the grounds in the “Joinder of Issue” as this is a requirement of Canon Law, but if you have opted to waive your rights this is the last communication you will receive.
In publicity about the Tribunal process it has been suggested that respondents have not always been fully informed about their rights, and this information is designed to avoid this allegation being made in the future. As you will gather from the ‘four options’ you have a right to be fully involved and a right to have the absolute minimum of involvement and we understand both reactions. One word of caution, however, should be said at this stage. You do not have the right to stop the process or to constrain the petitioner in any way. This is a Church process and has no relation to any civil financial settlement or custody agreements and the one should have no bearing whatsoever on the other.
You have every right to ‘tell your story’. This is normally done by means of a formal interview (options 1/2), but you can also submit written statements and any other documentation you may feel is relevant. Statements made and documents drawn up for the civil divorce are not normally used since they deal with the breakdown phase of the relationship whereas the nullity investigation focuses more on the development of the relationship, the courtship etc.
You have every right to see the petition, and a copy will be enclosed with the citation.
You have every right to name and call witnesses, and these can be people in any part of the world as we can ask their local Tribunal office to arrange to collect their evidence on our behalf. Both parties can ask people, both family and friends or colleagues, who are reasonably knowledgeable about the marriage and its difficulties to act as witnesses. These individuals must be willing to co-operate freely with the Tribunal process and they will need to give up two to three hours to be interviewed, usually locally, by a member of the Tribunal team. We do write to all witnesses before they are interviewed to inform them about what will be expected of them. We try to make this part of the process as painless as possible. You have the right to know the names of the witnesses that your former partner has called.
You have the right to inspect the ‘Acts of the Case’ once these have been completed. Occasionally the judge may deem some information that has been given to be confidential and not to be disclosed to either party. If you feel that this may affect your ability to defend your account of the marriage you should make this known to the priest/judge who will be with you if you choose to read the evidence. In fact, few people choose to exercise this right, but if you wish to see the ‘Acts’ please inform the Tribunal Administrator and you will be notified when they are complete and arrangements can be made for you to read them. N.B. you are not allowed to take the evidence away, it remains the property of the Tribunal. You may, however, have a copy of your own evidence at any stage.
You have the right to appoint an Advocate, i.e. a person skilled in Canon Law who will read the case on your behalf and further any perspectives and arguments you may have. If you wish to appoint an advocate, please speak to the Tribunal staff. An advocate will usually make a small charge for their services which is payable by yourself, not the petitioner.
You have the right to appeal against the decision of the Tribunal of East Anglia to the Metropolitan Tribunal of Second Instance at Westminster. They consider the case and either (1) ratify the judgement of the First Instance court or (2) ask for further investigation of the case, or (3) overturn the decision of the First Instance court. If you disagree with their decision, particularly if they ratify an affirmative decision in the First Instance (i.e. a Nullity is considered proven), then you can ask for the case to be sent to Rome to the highest court of the Catholic Church, the Roman Rota. In fairness it should be stated that this could be a lengthy process as well as involving potentially costly legal fees. If a case is presented to the Roman Rota both parties need to appoint ‘Rotal Advocates’ who are trained both in civil and church law and therefore tend to charge in line with solicitors fees in this country. Therefore the cost of sending a case to Rome can be several thousand pounds and this is normally borne by the person who asks for the case to be appealed.
Some common misunderstandings
The most important point that should be understood is that the Church is trying, in so far as is humanly possible to arrive at the objective truth about your marriage with all its positive and negative aspects. A judgement that it was not a valid marriage pertains to the establishment or not of the sacramental bond and does not reflect on the rights and the wrongs of the individuals and the choices that they made.
A declaration of nullity has no effects whatsoever on the standing of the parties or any children of the marriage in civil law. It is often said that the party seeking an annulment is ‘trying to make the children illegitimate’ and this is simply not the case. Logically the Church respects the civil law with regard to its effects, one of these being that the civil contract of marriage makes all children legitimate. If a Catholic who is bound by the ‘form’ of Catholic marries outside the Church, his or her children are always regarded as legitimate. It is, in fact, impossible to illegitimatise anyone by any means whatsoever.
You are always at liberty to contact the Tribunal Office to speak either to the administrator or to one of the priests who are trained Canon Lawyers. The office is open from Monday – Friday, 09.00 – 13.00 (apart from staff holidays.
Westminster Metropolitan Tribunal
46, Francis Street,
Telephone: 0207 798 9003
Fax: 0207 798 9012
The Sacred Roman Rota
Palazzo della Cancelleria,
Telephone: 00 39 6 6988 7502
Fax: 00 39 6 6988 7514
(N.B. Italian only is spoken on the phone, but they will accept correspondence in English)