Petitions for annulments have risen more than 30 percent since Bishop Salvatore R. Matano announced last summer that the Diocese of Rochester would no longer assess local fees for the process.
In a June 2014 letter to priests, deacons, religious and the diocesan faithful, Bishop Matano explained that he made his decision to eliminate the diocesan fees — which could amount to as much as $500 per petition — out of pastoral concern for those seeking annulments. An annulment is a finding by a church court that a marriage celebrated according to appropriate church law was not valid because it lacked an element required for a valid marriage according to the laws of the Catholic Church.
The local policy took effect last July 1. In certain cases, fees may still be assessed by other church courts outside of the diocese.
Father Louis A. Sirianni said a number of people have told him in phone conversations and in person that the policy change has been a great help.
"They felt that before this (change), they could never have applied to the Tribunal … mostly because of fees," said Father Sirianni, judicial vicar in the diocesan Tribunal, which is this diocese’s church court.
Bishop Matano said he is pleased to learn that the elimination of fees is having the desired effect.
"As I expressed in my public letter of June 24, 2014, informing the faithful that annulment fees would be waived in the future in the Diocese of Rochester, those petitioning for an annulment are at a very sensitive moment in their lives and should find in the Church a place to receive counsel, advice and support," he said in a May 2015 statement. "Attaching fees might well have deterred some people. That there has been an increase in the number of people receiving this ministry since that announcement is a source of comfort, as this process can be provide much healing and solace."
In conversations with those who have been assisted by elimination of diocesan fees, Father Sirianni said he also learned that common misperceptions about annulment lingered. Some people, for example, erroneously believed that an annulment costs thousands of dollars. (See the box on this page for other common questions about annulments.)
Fortunately, when the diocesan fees were eliminated, those who held such beliefs felt relief and that they could move forward with their petitions, he added.
"That’s what the bishop had hoped," he said.
But confusion about fees were far from the only misperceptions surrounding the annulment process, Father Sirianni noted. To respond to these mistaken ideas, his office created a video in which the priest answers common questions about annulments. The video will be available this summer at www.dor.org/index.cfm/tribunal.
The process can take from six months to a year and involves several procedural steps. However, it does not involve two people sitting in a courtroom with judges, which may be the image some parishioners may have about the Tribunal’s work, Father Sirianni said.
People often ask, for example, whether a marriage is considered valid if it did not take place in an approved location such as a Catholic church, he said. A Catholic can be validly married in a location other than a church, if "appropriate dispensations/permissions" have been granted, the priest explained. A dispensation is an exemption from church law, generally obtained from one’s local bishop.
Alternately, the Catholic Church may deem as invalid a marriage that was officiated by a priest if that priest wasn’t authorized to marry couples in a particular parish, Father Sirianni added.
"There are so many variations" in cases that come before the Tribunal, he noted, adding that this is why communication with parish and Tribunal staff is very important
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the Diocese of Rochester’s annulment procedure, visit www.dor.org/index.cfm/tribunal/annulment-faq.