One of my favorite songs is, The Waiting, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Not just because I saw them give an incredible concert performance of the song way back when, but more because it so aptly describes one of the prominent difficulties of the human condition: “The waiting is the hardest part.”
I think we all understand the significance of learning patience but how long is too long to wait for something as important as a decision on the annulment process? This is a question on the minds of everyone that files for an annulment and often a source of frustration because there doesn’t seem to be a definitive timeline.
I was recently asked this important question in an email: “Why aren’t annulments given priority so that they are completed within a reasonable amount of time?”
The annulment process is critical to the future of many, many Catholics and so it’s only natural to want to hear an answer sooner, rather than later. But it never really happens that way. Let’s look at some of the reasons why this is the case.
- First, almost every tribunal has more cases than they can handle in a timely manner. Approximately 300 declarations of nullity came from the United States each year back in the 1960’s; today, more than 60,000 a year are handled 1. That’s quite a dramatic increase and requires a lot of time and dedicated personnel to address. I believe that for at least the first part of the process (paperwork) all cases are treated on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Next, administrative employees at tribunals do more than process cases. A researcher I work with says her discussions with tribunal employees reveal they spend a large portion of their day fielding phone calls from people calling to ask questions about filing for an annulment or about their existing cases which depletes their time to work through files.
You Are Part Of The Team, Too!
There are some other significant reasons that don’t rest squarely in the hands of a tribunal, but involve the petitioner.
- Annulments often take a long time if the petitioner does not return the paperwork in a timely manner or does not get the paperwork from their witnesses back in a timely manner. I, myself, was culprit in this case. When I received my annulment questionnaire and read through it, I promptly tossed it into a desk drawer and didn’t take it out for several weeks. It was just too painful to think about. Hey – it’s natural and nothing to be ashamed of but it’s still part of the reason why some annulments take too long. In the end, my annulment process was about 2 years long and I had a lot to do with that.
- There are also many cases where the petitioner returns their questionnaire with minimum information… one or two sentence answers which provide insufficient information. When this is the case, the tribunal will suspend the case due to lack of information. They then must go back to the priest or parish representative assisting with the case and ask them to speak to the petitioner to see if they can provide more information. If they can’t or won’t, the case will be dropped. This process can take months and certainly backs up the flow of follow-through on other cases.
- Oftentimes the petitioner will lose interest in the case during the process and will stop communicating with the Tribunal and/or their priest or advocate. This causes a lot of time spent trying to contact the petitioner and a lot of time waiting for a response, keeping the case alive and in the mix which clogs the system. Dr. Edward N. Peters, well-known Canon Lawyer, author and speaker states in his article, Annulments in America: Keeping Bad News In Context:
- Even after official acceptance of a petition, however, it can happen that a petitioner loses interest in the case, or witnesses fail to come forward in a useful manner, or other factors emerge which prevent the case from moving forward. Almost invariably, a petition which “stalls” does so for the same types of reasons which would have resulted, had the case gone to sentence, in its being denied.
- There are also difficult cases often times that take a long time to track down and gather pertinent information to fortify the deliberation process.
In all, there are many reasons why the annulment process takes time and rest assured, it’s not to cause you frustration. Next, we’ll take a look at the rise of annulments in America, another burning issue to contend with.