Diocese to eliminate annulment fees

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PROVIDENCE — The Diocese of Providence is joining a chorus of other dioceses across the country in responding to Pope Francis’ call to remove any barriers to individuals seeking to annul a failed marriage by eliminating any fees assessed for the procedure.

Msgr. Albert A. Kenney, diocesan Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, announced on Tuesday the change in policy, which eliminates as of July 1 the $500 fee assessed of those petitioning to have their cases heard before the diocesan marriage tribunal.

“As a response to Pope Francis’ expressed wish, I am pleased to announce the elimination of all fees formerly charged for defraying the cost of the marriage annulment procedure in the Diocese of Providence, effective July 1, 2016,” Msgr. Kenney said.

An annulment, which can only be heard after a civil divorce is finalized, and which is necessary if one or both parties intends to remarry in the Catholic Church, declares that a marriage entered into was not spiritually binding.

Last fall, Pope Francis said that he wished to make the process for divorced Catholics seeking to remain in good standing with the Church less arduous.

Msgr. Kenney said that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, inspired by the Holy Father’s pastoral concern and following the practice of many other dioceses, in accordance with canon law, has decreed the removal of the “requirement of the parties to pay or compensate for judicial expenses.”

The fee, which the diocese defined as more of an expected donation to help offset the annual cost of operating the tribunal, was never meant to be an impediment to anyone seeking to remain in full communion with the Church following a divorce, Church officials say.

“No one has ever been turned away and no case has been delayed because of an inability to defray the costs associated with operating the diocesan marriage tribunal,” Msgr. Kenney said.

Any petitioners whose cases have already begun before the marriage tribunal and are still following the judicial process are not obligated to pay anything further for their cases to continue.

In 2007, the fee to have an annulment case heard was reduced from $750 to the current $500. It has diocesan policy that the expected donation to the General Fund to help support the tribunal’s operations was never a pre-condition or requirement to receive a declaration of nullity.

But with the outright elimination of the fees, Providence will need to follow in the footsteps of other dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Boston, which welcome donations in lieu of fees to help support the Church’s good works, as increased funding must instead be directed from the General Fund to help sustain the tribunal’s operations.

“If a party expresses a desire to make some contributions, we will provide an opportunity to make a special one-time donation to the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal,” which provides financial support to a broad range of diocesan ministries, Msgr. Kenney said.

The tribunal operates as a full-time office at the diocesan chancery, with a staff of four judges (three priests and one lay person, all holding canon law degrees), a counselor, an auditor, two notaries public and a secretary, all tasked with reviewing more than 100 cases that are submitted for annulment consideration each year.

About 20 years ago, officials say, the tribunal heard upwards of 400 and even more cases per year, although a decline in the number of Catholic marriages and those seeking annulments in divorce dropped over the last two decades.

But with Pope Francis’ expressed wish to welcome divorced and civilly remarried Catholics back into full communion with the Church, that number is expected to rise once again.

“I think it will encourage a few more cases each year,” said Msgr. Ronald P. Simeone, diocesan Judicial Vicar and overseer of the tribunal.

He supports the idea of eliminating fees, even though it will prompt the diocese to have to cover the salaries and offices expenses involved in running the tribunal office through other means.

“It creates good will and removes the temptation on the part of a few to think that it is all about money, even though we have always made it clear to all parties that not being able to pay the fee would in no way delay or prevent the process from going forward,” Msgr. Simeone said.

“Still, I must say that over my many years here I have found most people to be understanding and cooperative.”