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Judge panels deciding annulment cases

A practice for deciding marriage annulment cases that was once the exception, used for complex or difficult cases, has now become the rule.

Employing panels of judges rather than a single judge for annulment cases, a practice adopted last month, has become the preferred method for the Archdiocese of Omaha’s Metropolitan Tribunal, said Father Scott Hastings, head of the tribunal as judicial vicar.

Other recent changes were encouraged by Pope Francis and began in late 2015, including shortening the process, eliminating fees and emphasizing more personal and pastoral contact with those seeking an annulment.

The decision to use panels of judges was triggered by a December 2015 change in canon law that relieved dioceses of a mandated second review by a tribunal of appeal when an annulment is granted, he said.

"Once that automatic oversight was removed, it was my desire, with the support of our staff, to work toward using panels, because they provide an extra layer of oversight without that second level of review," he said. "And the church’s clear preference is to use a panel."

The change also supported the recent hiring of Elizabeth Sondag, the archdiocese’s first lay person and first woman as a tribunal judge.

Canon law requires that only a priest or a deacon serve as a sole judge, Father Hastings said. The tribunal will benefit from a panel with a lay woman because she provides another professional and personal perspective to that of priests and single or married deacons, he said.

Other changes to the annulment process include decreasing the average length of time involved from up to two years down to one year, eliminating the $25 filing fee and the $350 offering for receiving a decree of nullity, and an increased emphasis on a more pastoral approach, Father Hastings said.

Part of that pastoral care is "a more deliberate, face-to-face approach," he said.

Previously, people seeking an annulment simply submitted paperwork. Now, each person is invited to meet with Father Hastings at the beginning of the process.

As cases progress, the parties involved also might be interviewed in person and all continue to have the opportunity to review evidence and related documents.

"Our focus is one-on-one accompaniment for people during a difficult period in their lives," Father Hastings said.

While mandatory secondary reviews have been eliminated, appeals of the tribunal’s decisions will continue to go to a tribunal of second instance, which for the Omaha archdiocese is located in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The Omaha archdiocese is the tribunal of second instance for the Lincoln and Grand Island, Neb., and the Rapid City, S. D. dioceses, he said.

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