‘They are not God’

Woman says Catholic Church had no right to annul her marriage

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on January 15, 2016
Francis Puddister.
Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

Lorraine Parsons was divorced in the 1980s, and knew her ex-husband sought an annulment back then, but says she was dismayed to learn two years ago the deed was done without her involvement.

The now elderly St. John’s woman doesn’t want to involve her family or her ex in the issue publicly, but said her problem is with the Catholic Church and its ability to carry out such a process, particularly on non-Catholic marriages.

Some might say Parsons’ concerns are rooted in long-abandoned generational mores or, she acknowledged, might judge her as being bitter.

But Parsons teared up at times describing how, to her, an annulment affects the status of her one offspring on paper. She said it depicts her as an “unwed mother,” even though her child became an adult decades ago.

Parsons said she got the divorce from her husband and retaining the marriage isn’t the issue, it’s the fact that its very existence has been erased.

“How can the Catholic Church take your marriage and do what they can with it?” she asked.

“They are not God.”

She received a letter in the 1980s from the Catholic Church that her ex was seeking an annulment. It was addressed to her with her maiden name even though she had legally taken her husband’s surname.

Parsons said neither she nor her ex-husband were Catholic and so they were not married in a Catholic church, but he was seeking to remarry a Catholic.

The letter invited her to take part in the process, but said it would go ahead without her if she declined and her objection would not prevent it.

Parsons did decline and said she knew nothing of the outcome until a couple years ago, when she ran into someone she had not seen for years, but who said they had heard about the annulment.

Although she knew her former husband had remarried, Parsons said she is unware of Catholic process and would not have figured  an annulment would have taken place, since she was never notified of the outcome.

She has since recovered a document from the annulment file and tried legal proceedings to access all the file — she said she was told it had been shredded because of its age.

The one late-1980s document she did receive — which looks somewhat similar to a legal decision one might find in Supreme Court — lays out the facts of the case and refers to witness testimony. It’s stamped with the seal of the Halifax Regional Tribunal Branch Office, St. John’s division.  The gathering of evidence included interviews, reviewing documents and letters, and obtaining medical records or psychiatric assessments.

Personal details being discussed in a church that is not her own bothers Parsons.

“How dare they put me down,” she said. “I am self-educated and proud of what I have done.”

The nullity of marriage document delves into intimate details of the marriage and the spouses’ personalities, and refers to witnesses’ statements.

Parsons objects to that process going ahead with or without both people involved in the marriage.

Vicar general Father Francis Puddister presided over annulments for about 30 years as sole judge, up until a year ago, when he assumed new duties.

While he can’t discuss specific cases, he said when someone applies for an annulment, the church is required to contact both parties, but the process can indeed go ahead without the consent of the other spouse. When the decision is made, a copy is sent to both former husband and wife and the right to appeal is made clear. But there can be instances where one party has made it clear during initial contact they don’t want to be contacted ever again.

“That can make it a little bit sensitive,” Puddister said.

“I can’t say absolutely that everybody is told about the decisions.”

However, Puddister said even if the church hasn’t reached both parties in every case, usually divorced couples are in communication.

He said from time to time people do object to the Catholic Church’s ability to grant annulments, but the church informs them it is an internal process that is confidential, and has no effect on civil law or the status of children.

Annulments of first marriages are still required for a divorced person to marry in a Catholic church.

But requests for annulments have declined over the years, as more people opt to have civil weddings, or just live together.

Puddister estimates there are about one-quarter of the annulment requests in recent times compared to when he started presiding over them 30 years ago.

Recently Pope Francis directed new rules that simplify the annulment process for certain cases, in which a short form is used for couples who have no objections.

Puddister said the short form is a welcome change.

“Some cases are straightforward. It’s very obvious why (the marriage) broke down,” he said.

The annulment process helps people not only to have their new relationship celebrated in the church, but gives them some peace of mind because during the process they have focused on why their first marriage failed, Puddister said.

Annulments aren’t free. According to the Basilica of Cathedral of St. John the Baptist website, a standard fee of $900 is requested by the Archdiocese of St. John’s, although costs can range from $1,000-$1,500, depending on expert testimony. However, the fee can be reduced or waived in cases of financial difficulty.

bsweet@thetelegram.com