While the Metropolitan Tribunal assists the archbishop’s office in determining whether marriages are null, the Tribunal’s work isn’t a simple matter of paperwork.
The staff attempts to provide pastoral care to people throughout the annulment process — one that can be fraught with emotion — and into post-annulment life.
To do that well, the staff needs help, said Father Paul Beach.
The Tribunal is seeking those with counseling, psychology, psychiatry or social work degrees to serve as expert witnesses. Expert witnesses read testimony from someone seeking an annulment and advise the judge in the case.
Father Beach, judicial vicar and director of the Tribunal for the Archdiocese of Louisville, has worked with the Tribunal in some capacity for more than 20 years.
He deals with 125 to 150 annulments each year. Each case involves judges, advocates, notaries and expert witnesses.
Deacon Scott Hedges, a volunteer expert witness for the Tribunal, explained that expert witnesses read testimony, taking into account the whole person who is seeking an annulment, and aid the judge in deciding whether the couple were competent to enter into marriage.
“The expert witnesses aren’t making the decisions, the judges are,” said Deacon Hedges in a recent interview. But the judges are asking for advice regarding “whether or not there was a pre-existing issue that might have contributed” to the marriage ending.
For instance, if the couple entered their marriage unwillingly, if there was abuse of any kind in the relationship or if one person suffered trauma in their family of origin that impacted the marriage — those things could impact their ability to form and live marriage relationships, qualifying them for an annulment, Father Beach said.
The Tribunal also seeks to bring healing to the divorce and annulment processes, and when possible, Deacon Hedges said, it tries to create a network of professionals to provide counseling and additional services.
“We try to bring some level of restoration,” he said.
Very often, the annulment process is a mystery to people or it has a bad reputation, Father Beach said.
Usually, it isn’t until someone is going through the process that they “have the opportunity to find out, ‘Hey it’s not a situation where you pay your $500 and the church gives you this Catholic form of divorce,’ ” he said.
The question that members of the Tribunal find themselves asking is “How can we really help people moving forward, not just looking backward?” Father Beach said. “How can we help you enter into a relationship that is everything that marriage is supposed to be? A relationship that is healthy, lifegiving, loving. … That’s the real pastoral element.”
To help achieve that, the Tribunal is looking for expert witnesses who are both specialists in their field and steeped in the Christian anthropology of the sacrament of marriage, Father Beach said.
That way, they’re able to “marry those two visions and can be of assistance to those who have gone through the annulment.”
The Tribunal has “a few really excellent experts,” according to Father Beach. For expert witnesses such as Deacon Hedges, working with the Tribunal is a calling that he sees as part of his ministry.
“I’d like to emphasize that it really is geared toward trying to provide healing or reconciliation for the folks involved,” he said.
Last year, Deacon Hedges served as an expert witness for 34 cases. That works out to about three cases a month. He also has a full-time job as the chief medical officer and director of laboratory services for Seven Counties Services and is the deacon assigned to St. Martin of Tours Church.
“They would give me more (cases) if I would take them,” he said. “The problem is time. I have my diaconal responsibilities and I also work a full-time job.”
Deacon Hedges is one of only three expert witnesses for the Tribunal.
This is why the Tribunal is seeking more help, he said. The number of cases overwhelms the current number of expert witnesses. “The ability of the Tribunal to respond to the needs of the faithful increases dramatically” when the number of available expert witnesses increases.
“As an expert witness, it’s really quite rewarding to participate in these cases. As a psychiatrist, it’s a unique way of providing service back to the church that is consistent with my profession,” Deacon Hedges said of his doctorate degree. “To be able to provide expert testimony is a very fulfilling ministry. I think of the work that I do as part of that ministry.”
Those interested in serving as an expert witness should contact the Tribunal at 585-3291 or firstname.lastname@example.org.