Inside the Marriage Tribunal

YOU had intercourse with your husband before you were mar¬ried; how many other people did you have intercourse with before that? When was the first time you had intercourse'? Are you going with some¬one now? Do you have intercourse with him? Where do you have it? Do you have it in a car?"


Eileen Morgan (that is not her real name) was describing how she was questioned by the Dublin Regional Marriage Tribunal when she was applying to have her marriage annulled. There were five priests in the room, though one of them left during the interview. Questions were thrown at her from all sides and she says they did not give her a chance to answer properly. She got annoyed and told them it was none of their business. Eventually she walked .Eileen got roamed at 18. She was already pregnant. Her husband walked out nine weeks later. He stole all the money in her mother's house and drew out the money she had been putting by in a local club to buy baby clothes. He came back to see her once in the hospital just after she had had the baby. He shouted round the ward: "That bastard isn't mine" and left. That was 11 years ago and she has not seen him since. She applied for an annulment the following year. I felt it was a way of finishing with him for good. I was very bitter about him at the time. And I thought it would keep him away from the child." When she went to get a copy of her marriage certificate she got a frosty reception at the church. At the time of the wedding she had given her husband envelopes with money for the priest, the sacristan and the altar boys. Apparently he had taken the money out and given them the empty envelopes.

Her first interview at the marriage tribunal was alright. She got a cup of tea, the priest was sympathetic and she just told him her story. Months later she was called back for a second interview. It was a different priest. The atmosphere was formal and he wrote everything down.

His tone was disapproving. He said: "We get this all the time, these young ones getting married at 16 or 17 and thinking we can get rid of the marriage for them." He asked her very personal questions about her sex life. "He suggested I had a boyfriend in Dublin when I was going with him (her husband, who was from outside Dublin) and maybe the baby wasn't his at all. He was only short of calling me a prostitute."

She was due to go to work after the interview but could not go. "I felt so degraded that I just couldn't face it. I thought: Is that how I appear to other people?" They wanted her to have a psychiatric test but she would not agree and anyway she could not afford the fee. The priest told her it was part of the annulment procedure and if she did not want to go through with it she could drop her application.

They interviewed her mother and contacted witnesses like her doctor and her former teachers. They probably had difficulty tracking down her husband and she did not hear from them for a couple of years. Then they called her for another hearing. She did not want to go but her mother, who was very religious, persuaded her to go.

This was the hearing with the five priests, three judges and two others. It was all tape-recorded. They asked her about sex before marriage again and about" the wedding night when the marriage had not been consummated. Her husband had got drunk after the reception and went up and fell asleep on the bed. When she came up and got into bed he woke up and went and sat in a chair for the rest of the night. They asked when they first had intercourse after the marriage and how many times in the night.

Eileen was involved in a relationship with a fellow at the time and he had driven her to the hearing and stayed outside in the car. They asked her who he was and was she sleeping with him.

Her father had died when she was 12 and she had run away from home. He had been strict and had hit her sometimes. They suggested she hated him because he hit her and because he seemed to prefer her younger sister. "They said I hated men because of that and that the reason the marriage wasn't consummated the first night was because I was frigid and I put him out of the bed."

When she ran away she stayed with a girlfriend and her brother and another boy. "They suggested I was selling myself to them."

The questioning about her father upset her a lot. They also said some of her answers contradicted what she had said earlier and accused her of lying. That was when she walked out. She was fed up with the whole thing. Some time later she got a letter from the tribunal and threw it in the fire without opening it. They got in touch with her mother and wanted her to contact them again but she would not.

Eventually she got another letter which she did open - telling her she had got the annulment.

The letter did not give the grounds for the annulment but some time later when she was sick in the Mater Hospital a priest came to see her. He handed her a bill from the tribunal for £ I 58 but when she refused to pay it he said that would be alright. He told her the annulment had been granted because they had both been immature and neither of them was capable of accepting the responsibility of marriage.

She asked had she not taken the responsibility of looking after the child on her own and had she not looked after her younger brothers and sisters before that when her mother was working. He said it had been granted because the husband had been immature and had a split personality.

Eileen's annulment was granted seven years after she first applied. "If I knew then what I know now I would never have started it and I certainly wouldn't have answered all their questions. I felt degraded and humiliated by the whole thing. I wouldn't advise anybody else to go through with it."

Eileen Morgan had a harrowing experience with the Catholic marriage tribunal a couple of years ago. Although the formal hearing before five priests has since been done away with, the questioning of women on the details of their personal life continues. Other women interviewed for this article did not find the process as harrowing as Eileen did but they all remarked on the difference between the relaxed and sympathetic initial interview and the more formal subsequent hearings.

They said the priests were "strict" or "very official". And the women were embarrassed at being questioned about sex by a priest. One middle-aged woman said: "He asked about sexual behaviour in the marriage, was it normal. But what is normal where sex is concerned?"

Ten thousand people have been involved in applications to the Catholic marriage tribunals for marriage annulments since 1977. The success rate isn't high. About 500 decrees of nullity have been issued affecting 1,000 people. Applications are still being lodged by over 600 couples a year. With more and more marriages breaking down and no civil divorce allowed III the Republic many people see an annulment as the only way out of a hopeless situation.

Fr Alex Stenson is a Judge Instructor with the Dublin Regional Marriage Tribunal which works out of an annexe at the rear of the Archbishop's House on the Drumcondra Road. He is one of six priests who work there full-time under Monsignor Gerard Sheehy, the Presiding Judge and the most senior figure in the tribunal system. There are eleven full-time clerical staff and a number of other priests work part-time for the tribunal as well.

There are four regional marriage tribunals in Ireland - in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Armagh. They were set up in 1976 to replace a system of diocesan tribunals some of which never really functioned and to cope with the vast increase in annulment applications. The idea was to pool resources and standardise procedures. There is a National Appeals Tribunal for the whole of Ireland with different personnel which automatically reviews all cases decided by the regional tribunals. It is also based at the Archbishop's House.

Fr Stenson stresses that annulments are not a form of "Catholic divorce". People often come to the tribunals thinking that because their marriage has broken down they can get an annulment but unless there is a possibility that there was a defect in the original marriage the tribunal can only say "Sorry, we can't help you."

The tribunals operate under canon law, a code of rules and regulations laid down by the Vatican and only published in English for the first time last November - until then it was only available in Latin. They are courts which administer the Church's law as it stands. They are not counselling or welfare agencies and even if enforcing the law causes hardship they have to enforce it. Their sole function is to determine whether or not the original marriage was valid.

Fr Stenson explains that there are a number of traditional grounds for annulment like the marriage of close blood relatives, mistaken identity, duress or non-consummation, hut these are not so common nowadays. The most common grounds now are defects of form, consent or capacity for the relationship.

Defects of Form are fairly straightforward. They arise if the parties did not go through the proper Catholic marriage ceremony, for example, if they were married in a registry office the marriage would he considered null.

Defects of Consent arise if one of the parties was not capable of giving full consent to the marriage, cg if he or she was mentally disturbed or under the influence of drink or drugs at the time of the ceremony. They could also arise if one of the parties "positively excludes some essential clement of Christian marriage", i.e. if he or she had the deliberate intention of leaving after say five years or of not being faithful, or of not having children.

Fr Stenson agrees there has been a big increase in the number of annulments granted compared with 20 years ago when they were very rare. The increase has been mainly on the grounds of Defects in Capacity for the Relationship. Again there were traditional reasons for this like impotence - showing the Church's stress on the sexual clement in marriage - hut in recent years the tribunals have taken account of new developments in psychology and psychiatry. They now stress factors like immaturity and personality disorders which, while stopping well short of insanity, prevent one or other party from forming a lasting and loving relationship.

All these things have to be proved however and this leads to the probing and questioning about their personal lives which some of the women applicants resent so much. Fr Stenson claims that this does not happen in all that many cases and that the questioners try to be as sensitive as possible. He says they do not have many complaints of insensitivity. In his experience, he says, most complaints come from people who did not get annulments. Those who do get them are usually happy enough.

Someone seeking an annulment most of the applicants are women - contacts her or his regional tribunal, usually through a local priest. The tribunal sends out a basic questionnaire and then invites the applicant for a preliminary interview. This is relaxed and informal and is conducted by a priest who Joes not take part in the judicial process.

Some months later the applicant is interviewed by a judge instructor. This is more formal and can take two or three hours as the priest probes all areas of the marriage that might have a bearing on the nullity application. The applicant has to take an oath like in a civil court. Fr Stenson acknowledges that this interview call he traumatic for the applicant who may have been under a lot of stress. Some applicants go to pieces during the interview.

After this the tribunal contacts the other party to the marriage to get his or her view of the situation and interviews or writes to possible witnesses like relatives or the family doctor. They may ask the applicant to take a psychiatric test. Then a review body considers the evidence so far and decides whether or not to admit the case. A lot of applications never get beyond this stage because there is obviously no case for nullity or because it is impossible to get evidence to corroborate the applicant's story. If the case is accepted there is a fairly good chance that a nullity decree will be granted eventually.

All this can take a long time because of the difficulty of contacting the other party and getting his or her cooperation. Often a deserted wife has no idea where her husband is and even if he is found he won't cooperate. The whole process from start to finish often takes three-and-a-half to four years and a lot longer if there are complications.

Some applicants lose interest as the proceedings drag on. Fr Stenson thinks the delay can sometimes be a good thing because some of the applicants become reconciled while they are waiting.

When the case is accepted a priest is appointed as an Advocate to further the applicant's cause. Usually he docs not see the applicant hut reviews the papers and marshals the arguments in favour of a nullity decree. The papers are then passed to the Defender of the Bond, a priest whose function is to protect the marriage bond. He looks for any flaws in the applicant's case.

The applicant and witnesses might he interviewed again and then the papers are passed to a court of three judges who make the decision. They used to interview the applicant in formal session with the Advocate and Defender of the Bond present as in Eileen Morgan's case that may still happen but normally the court just reviews the papers now.

If the court decides to annul the marriage the book of evidence is automatically sent to the National Appeals Tribunal where it is reviewed by three more judges. They usually uphold the decision of the regional tribunal and a nullity decree is then issued to both parties, usually about six months after the initial judgement. The decree does not state the grounds on which the marriage was annulled.

If the regional tribunal rejects the application then the applicant can appeal to the Appeals Tribunal and from it to the Vatican courts.

Many people assume that a nullity decree means that the parties are free to remarry, but quite a lot of decrees are accompanied by a vetitum, an order barring one or both parties from remarrying. It is logical enough. If the court decides that the marriage was null and void because one party was incapable of forming a proper real relationship then it should bar that person from starting another marriage.

The vetitum can be lifted by individual bishops, however, if they feel the reason for imposing it no longer applies. Apparently, they do not notify the marriage tribunals, so it is impossible to tell how many are actually lifted.

The interviewers, judges and Advocates in the tribunals are all priests. Fr Stenson does not feel this is embarrassing for women applicants. "We don't seem to have any particular difficulty," he says. "Women don't seem to have a problem talking to them." In his experience women are not upset by the questioning. He does not think that it is a big problem.

Women and lay people generally could be involved in the tribunals. They are in the US. But Fr Stenson says there are no qualified women or lay men in Ireland. He stresses that the tribunals are Courts administering the canon law. He and all the other priests have degrees in canon law. He himself spent three years in Rome doing a thesis on marriage and the canon law.

The courts sit in secret. The applicants are not present and do not hear any evidence other than their own. They have to take an oath not to reveal what they were asked or what answers they gave. They do not know how their evidence is presented or on what grounds the court makes its decisions. There is no outside scrutiny

The interviewers and judges do not know how much an applicant has paid - finances are handled quite separately. Only about thirty per cent of the tribunal's running costs are met from contributions from applicants.

Church annulments are beginning to cause a serious legal problem in the Republic. If there is no vetitum attached, a nullity decree says that the person involved is "in what concerns the law of the Catholic Church, free to contract marriage". About 400 people have been given such clearance over the last five years. But Church annulments have no legal standing as far as the civil courts are concerned. Unless they secure a divorce or annulment in the civil courts, which are of the court's judgements as there is with civil law.

What guarantee is there that the courts are consistent and fair? Fr Stenson says the system has its own built-in safeguards and would not be improved by law scrutiny. He is adamant that the courts are not influenced by outside considerations and 'especially not by money. The current cost of an annulment is about £400, or £450 if a psychiatric examination is required. Applicants are always told that if they cannot pay the full cost it will not matter and less than half do pay the full cost very difficult and expensive to get) the parties are still married in the eyes of the State.

In Britain there is no problem. The Church authorities there require applicants for an annulment to get a civil divorce before they apply to the marriage tribunal. In the North staff at the Armagh regional tribunal deny that they request applicants to get a civil divorce but there is little doubt that people who wish to remarry after an annulment are quietly advised to get a divorce first.

In the Republic, however, since there is no civil divorce, Catholics who remarry after getting a Church annulment are committing bigamy. The Church authorities apparently keep no record of remarriages after annulments but Church sources confirm that there are at least twenty per year.

Bigamy is prohibited under the Offences Against the Person Act (1861) and carries a penalty of up to seven years imprisonment. People who aid and abet the committing of bigamy, such as the priest who officiates at the marriage ceremony, also commit an offence.

The Director of Public Prosecutions' office is unwilling to comment on the situation but there have been no prosecutions for bigamy in the Republic within recent memory. Evidently all concerned are turning a blind eye to an embarrassing situation.

There are other awkward consequences to the disparity between the laws of Church and State as well. Since remarriage after an annulment is illegal according to the civil law, the wife and children of a man whose first marriage has been annulled have no maintenance or succession rights. Some day soon there may be an unpleasant and embarrassing tussle in the courts between the dependants left by an annulled marriage and those left by a second Church-sanctioned marriage over the estate of their mutual husband and father.

Getting an annulment can be a long and harrowing experience. Once granted it may soothe the conscience but in practical terms it may cause nearly as many problems as it solves.