Save Our Sacrament - A Canadian Woman's Experience

A Canadian Respondent's experience of success with the Annulment process


The following is a chronological account of a Canadian woman’s journey through the “annulment labyrinth”. It is also a cautionary tale for any Respondent faced with this daunting task. Pat was not familiar with online access to SOS, and so progressed through her case completely on her own without any outside guidance, without even the ‘benefit’ of a tribunal appointed advocate. And yet, with courage, fortitude and perseverance she eventually ’overcame’ the annulment system.


The majority of our SOS Board of Directors and Advisors have also reclaimed their marriage sacrament after the Tribunal of First Instance had declared our marriages ‘null’. This is one SOS Board member’s story.


Jan, for SOS





by Pat M., Ottawa


(For an explanation of terms in this article, see the Glossary at the end of the S.O.S. Canon Law webpage on this website.)


The Legitimacy of Catholic Marriage

While the family was celebrating our grandson's second birthday in March 2001, my former husband of 35 years announced he was going to ask the Roman Catholic Church to invalidate our marriage. He planned to remarry the following Fall. When I recovered from the shock, I did wonder how the church might accomplish this and so I telephoned the main regional chancery office in his province. I told the woman who answered the phone why I was calling. She explained that the process would determine if ours had been a legitimate marriage. I was appalled and said: “of course it was a legitimate marriage. We were married before a Bishop and two other priests were co-celebrants.” Then she suggested that there might have been an “impediment” to the marriage. My response was, “no, there was no impediment. The banns of marriage were read on three consecutive Sundays in the church before the wedding.”


As I learned more about the annulment experience I found that the tribunal personnel use interpretations of words that are deliberately confusing to people ‘outside’ the tribunal system.


In order to have some understanding of this process, eventually I spent time in the local public library which led me to a Catholic University library, when the information in my local library was insufficient. Much had been written about the annulment process in the U.S., but I could not find much about the Canadian experience. Canon 1402 states "all Tribunals of the Church are governed by the canons which follow without prejudice to the norms of the Apostolic See". In my case Canadian tribunals changed the meaning of the 'universal' codes by manipulating the language. I discovered that the seemingly pastoral work of Catholic tribunals was simply veneer, covering what really happens behind their closed doors.


The Summons and Tribunal Competency

The Apostolic Signatura, the highest supervisory court in Rome, issued a Decree on May 6, 1993 stating, “the practice of the Petitioner's tribunal directly contacting and hearing the Respondent cannot be allowed. Rather, the Respondent's own judicial vicar must contact the Respondent.” This quote means that when the Respondent lives in a different diocese than the petitioner, the petitioner’s tribunal must obtain permission from the Respondent’s diocesan tribunal before proceeding with the case (see Appendix guidelines). Most Respondents do not have an understanding of what “tribunal competency” means and in my case this term was note mentioned at first, even though the petitioner and I lived in different dioceses.


On April 9, 2001, I received a telephone call from a woman calling herself the case auditor, informing me of my ex-husband's annulment petition. The woman referred to my former husband by his first name throughout our conversation. I remember thinking this is a very familiar attitude coming from a supposedly objective tribunal staff person. The red flag went up when she said, “When you get this annulment, it will be good for both of you because it will free you both to marry in the church again.”


I thought this was an attempt to present the case as a fait accompli; she expected the annulment to happen. She also told me my former husband was still working on his Petition and she still did not know the “grounds” yet. What I was not told was that I could have objected to the Nova Scotia diocesan-tribunal hearing the case where my ex-husband lived; I lived in the Ottawa, Ontario diocese.


Shortly thereafter I received a registered letter from the Nova Scotia tribunal, which contained the “Summons” and cited the ‘grounds’ under Canon 1095.2, but did not include the Petition. Yet under Canon Law 1508.2 the petition is supposed to be included with the summons. Weeks later, when I eventually, received the Petition, I realized that both my former husband and the case auditor had signed the Petition on March 29, 2001- more than a week before the case auditor's phone call to me, and a month after she had access to the completed Petition! At this point in the process, I became truly concerned about the lack of objectivity in the petitioner's tribunal in Nova Scotia.


I telephoned the Ottawa (Ontario) Tribunal offices to voice my concern and to ask for advice. A tribunal Notary advised me to put my concerns in writing and mail them to the petitioner's judicial vicar in Nova Scotia. On April 17, 2001 I mailed my letter, and as a result the file was sent to my tribunal in Ottawa. But then for some reason unknown to me, someone in the tribunal sent the file to Scotland, “the place of marriage.” (Canon 1673.1.) At this stage, I was asked to name four witnesses on my behalf.


The Creation of Impediments and The Petition

Since most lay Catholics (and many priests and nuns!) are not familiar with the protocols of annulment, Petitioners and Respondents must rely on a priest-canon lawyer trained in church law, for direction, guidance and advice. While this individual coaches the spouse requesting the annulment how to draft the crucially important document called the Petition, the Respondent most often gets no such ‘coaching’.


This petition is designed to “create” impediments (on paper) within the marriage, in order to establish the ‘grounds’ for annulment under Canon Law. The allegations in the Petition are deliberately written to “formulate a doubt” about the validity of the marriage at the moment of the vows, in my case 35 years earlier.


I received the Petition on April 20, 2001. Reading this document left me shocked and devastated. It was full of lies and ambiguities about our marriage, (based on the ‘criteria’ for canon 1095.2) and worse, implicated my now deceased my mother, father, aunts and uncles as responsible for my “impediments”. While Canon law states the “burden of proof” is the responsibility of the petitioner, how could this occur when the people cited were dead and unable to defend their reputations. It was therefore up to me to defend my reputation and that of my family.


Monsignor Clarence J. Hettinger, who worked for decades in the tribunal system as canon lawyer and judge, wrote an article called “The Annulment Mentality” in a prestigious Catholic journal. He presents the criteria that canon lawyers use to help the petitioner identify impediments under Canon 1095.2: “the vast majority of annulment decisions are based on psychological grounds.” Canon 1095, the canon most commonly used to annul a marriage sacrament, states “those who suffer from a grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights” are incapable of contracting marriage, based on one or more of the following impediments: “instability, stubbornness, excessive dependence, despotic authoritarianism, exaggerated self worship, narcissism, child of alcoholic parent or a dysfunctional family, an explosive personality especially if it can be linked to serious psychological illness, superficiality, simple naiveté, light mindedness, lack of common sense, incompatibility.” He points out that many of these are not truly considered “grave” leading to the fact that so many petitions are granted on false grounds. See also Msgr. Clarence Hettinger’s article “Too Many Invalid Annulments”. Both of Msgr. Hettinger’s articles are on the Resource page of this SOS website.)


Respondent Vulnerability

Canon 1508.2 (see Appendix below) requires that the Petition is to be attached to the Summons, and sent registered mail to the Respondent. But too many Respondents are not made aware of this fact by their ’advocate’ nor are they told of their right to see it, although it is a crucial part of the process. If a Respondent is denied access to the allegations contained in this document, as many are, it is the equivalent of being summoned to civil court without the benefit of knowing the accusations against you.


The “impediments” created to meet the “criteria” for the “grounds” under Canon 1095.2 are stacked against Respondents because the goal of the tribunal system in general, and the Canadian system in particular, is to grant the annulment for the petitioning spouse. Further, if the petitioner assumes the” impediment” he should be denying himself the right to marry again in the Catholic Church; however, the tribunals most often allow these “impediment-laden” petitioners to marry again.


Most people know the importance that the church places on sacramental marriage, yet if a Respondent wishes to defend that marriage she is often termed by Church and tribunal personnel as a “contentious Respondent.” Many priests and nuns tell Respondents that the annulment process is a “healing process.” This statement may be true for the petitioner who has successfully made his first marriage sacrament ‘invisible’ with the approval of the Roman Catholic Church, and can enter into another sacramental marriage. But this is accomplished by demeaning the credibility, integrity and the moral fiber of the Respondent spouse.


Respondent’s Interview and Witnesses

On May 29, 2001, I traveled from Canada to Scotland and was interviewed by the Scottish national judicial vicar. I was required to take an oath on the Bible and answer one hundred questions. On my own initiative, I brought with me and submitted a rebuttal to every claim made on the Petition plus a marital history for inclusion in the file. This Scottish judicial vicar was the only priest to interview me.


In July 2001 one of my witnesses called me from Scotland to tell me she had been interviewed from a questionnaire sent by the Ottawa tribunal. My Nova Scotia witness told me she had been interviewed by a local parish nun who persisted in using my maiden name. My friend found the presumption of this nun very unsettling. In all my communications with all parties I had identified myself with my married name. By the end of July 2001, all my witnesses had been interviewed. My confusion and growing distrust of the system increased when I discovered within two months of Scottish interview that my file had been returned from Scotland to Canada, apparently at the request of the petitioner, and was now back in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.


The First Communication from a Judicial Vicar

A letter dated Sept 4, 2001 arrived from a judicial vicar in Ottawa. It had taken him six months to identify himself to me, even though I was a Respondent living in his diocese. Although this letter seemed innocuous when I first read it, one item was problematic for me; an item in the letter read- “to facilitate this process, besides the witnesses already named by both parties to testify in the case, the petitioner has submitted three additional witnesses from the Antigonish (Nova Scotia) diocese.”


The problem with the addition of his three new witnesses was that they knew nothing about us as a married couple. We were new to Northern Nova Scotia community, so it should have been impossible for these people to take an oath and be able to speak to the issues raised in the Petition. On Sept 25, 2001 I telephoned this Ottawa judicial vicar to question the eligibility of these three witnesses. When I told him these new witnesses were very recent acquaintances and knew nothing about the validity of our marriage vows. His response was and I quote, “that is your observation”. I thought that was a strange response and said: “it is not an observation; it is the truth. It is a fact.”


The more I questioned him, the more flustered and conflicting his replies became. He told me he was very busy because he oversees all of Canada and people only come to him when they have a problem. Consider the consequences of that remark on a naïve Respondent. I was coming to him for help with a problem and he brushed me off. This was the only verbal contact I was to have with my Ottawa judicial vicar. I now suspected that I was not hearing the truth from some individuals in the tribunal.


As a result, I spent many hours and days in the library at St. Paul's University Ottawa, checking the exact meaning of the Canon Law codes mentioned in the Ottawa judicial vicar's correspondence. In time I was able to connect the dots, and according to Jan, I was gradually becoming expert in canon law. I learned that


Canon 1673 discusses tribunal competency (see Appendix.) When the Scotland tribunal transferred the case back to Canada it became apparent to me that these tribunals were trying to orchestrate a “competency fix” in order to fast-track a nullity decree for the petitioner's planned Fall 2001 wedding.


This was how it was to work: by arranging for the file to be returned from Scotland, the “place of marriage” (Canon 1673.1) the Ottawa tribunal then ignored the Canon Law section referring to the Respondent’s “domicile or quasi domicile” (Canon 1673.2) They then coached/advised the petitioner to come up with three additional local Nova Scotia witnesses in his jurisdiction (the Antigonish tribunal) so that this tribunal would qualify under Canon 1673.4, “the place where most of the proofs (witnesses' statements) were to be collected.” The tribunal further ignored the provision in Canon 1673.4 which states “the judicial vicar of the Respondent only agrees after he finds out if the Respondent has any objections to make.” I wrote a five page letter of objections which was also ignored.


Apparently the fact that the “additional witnesses” were unable to “speak to the issues in the petition” did not matter to the tribunal. Two of those witnesses were interviewed, and their inability to swear on the bible in order to speak to “the issues” raised in the petition, totally undermined any justice in this case. In October 2001, I received a second letter from the same Ottawa judicial vicar, and it was at this point that I decided to personally write to the Apostolic Signatura.


Lack of an Advocate and Gaining One

I was without an advocate until May 2002 because no one had informed me of my “right to counsel” under Canon Law. As long as I was in a state of ignorance, tribunal personnel believed they could get away with denying me my rights. This is common practice among diocesan canon lawyers both in Canada and in the United States. The tribunal’s unwritten rule regarding Respondents is, “unless a Respondent asks a question, we do not have to provide the information.” This is a prime example of the lack of justice in the entire annulment system.


During one of my many information gathering visits to St. Paul's University in the spring of 2002, a librarian-priest asked how my annulment process was going. I told him it was full of illusion, doublespeak, manipulation, smoke and mirrors, and finally even with an advocate in place, it was a process of ‘bait and switch’. Nine canonical codes were violated in this process, plus codes covering tribunal behavior He then recommended a professor of Canon Law, which is how I finally gained an Advocate in the ‘eleventh hour’. I met with this priest-professor and found he had the qualifications and knowledge to communicate in my judicial vicar's canon-law language, and even more importantly, he regarded Respondents’ rights as equal to that of the petitioner! At that point I asked him to become my advocate and he agreed.


As a result of my advocate’s advice and intervention, my Ottawa judicial vicar learned that I would be appealing my case to the Roman Rota. In May 2002, this Ottawa judicial vicar wrote to the petitioner informing him of my intention to take the case to the Rota. He also claimed in this letter, which I saw, that I was the reason for the difficulties the petitioner was having. The judicial vicar then suggested to the petitioner (my former husband) “should you consider going ahead with the case, I would appreciate it very much if you would inform me, in written form, of your intentions to pursue the case or not”. The Vicar was beginning to understand that this Respondent was no longer naïve


On August 23, 2002 I received a letter from my Ottawa judicial vicar in which he told me that my ex-husband sent him a letter notifying the tribunal of his wish not to proceed with his annulment petition and he wanted his Petition withdrawn. This withdrawal would lead to a renunciation of the petition, and on the advice of my recently acquired advocate, I agreed to this official Renunciation of the Petition.


Seven months later I received a “Decree of Abatement of the Petition”. Part of the wording of that decree stated “whereas, the Renunciation has been admitted by our tribunal and the tenets of Canon 1524 have been diligently followed… consequently we declare that the trial is abated and the file be placed in the Archives until further notice.”


Perhaps I should have been content with that decision, but I had learned such distrust of the annulment system that those last three words were very unsettling. Neither myself nor my advocate had seen a copy of the petitioner’s August 2002 letter, with my former husband’s signature. Because of this case’s history I wondered if it in fact existed. With the encouragement and advice of S.O.S. I sought a meeting at the Ottawa Ecclesiastical offices to view this letter, and found that it did exist.



I’ve written this reflection as my way of speaking out for all Respondents who have had their personal integrity demeaned and perhaps even destroyed by the annulment system. This process is deliberately dishonest in order to justify the approval of an annulment. I also write this Case account to all Respondents who have felt powerless by the Church’s betrayal of their faith and trust, by canonical priests abusing their power and authority.


For these Respondents and for myself, I protest the injustice permeating the entire annulment system.


Catholic families are the core of the Roman Catholic community. The annulment process undermines this Roman Catholic community. This process is like a stone thrown into water causing ripple effects over many generations.


It is my hope by speaking out about my experience, that future Respondents will be helped to save their sacramental marriage!


Biographical Background

My former husband and I were born in Scotland and raised in the traditions and moral values of the Roman Catholic Church. Our religious beliefs were reinforced by Catholic schooling led by the Jesuits and Sisters of Notre Dame de Namure. Following our education, we pursued independent careers in health related fields. After our courtship we were married within the religious structure and faith of the Roman Catholic Church, making our vows before a Bishop and two other priests.


I was 24, and my husband 27 years old when we married in 1961 during a Nuptial Mass. Family and friends witnessed the marriage vows and commitments we made to each other.


Our daughter was born in 1962 and our son in 1963 in Scotland. I supported my husband while he completed his academic career, including one year of further studies at Dalhousie University and two years at Harvard University, Massachusetts. Apart from one-year when I pursued further studies and three years in the work force, I was primarily a busy full time wife, mother and homemaker. Along with the many chores and responsibilities this role involved, I also organized the packing and unpacking for sixteen house and location moves within our thirty-five year marriage, before it lost its anchor.

This marriage was mature enough to withstand the move to two new cultures, career and financial challenges, plus raise and educate two self-sufficient wonderful children with careers of their own. Our marriage is now blessed with five grandchildren.


Our civil divorce was granted in 1998. My marriage sacrament was not annulled.


Thanks to a friend, I connected with Jan and the ‘Save Our Sacrament’ organization.

- Pat M., Ottawa




Appendix/ Canon Laws Pertinent to Annulment, plus commentary


Canon 1402 states All tribunals of the Church are governed by the canons which follow without prejudice to the norms of the Apostolic See.


Canon 1508.2 states “The petition introducing the suit is to be attached to the summons, unless for grave reason the judge considers the petition is not to be communicated to the other party before he or she gives evidence”. The commentary states that if the petition is withheld, the decree of citation should specify why the judge has chosen this course of action. For instance the judge may see a need to obtain preliminary information from a Respondent because his or her review of the petitioner’s claim might give cause to anger or excessive defensiveness which could color subsequent testimony.


Canon 1507.1 states “In the decree which accepts the libelous of the petitioner, the judge or presiding judge must call the other parties to trial, that is cite them to the Joinder of the issues, establish whether they must respond in writing or present themselves before the judge to come to agreements about the doubts.”


Canon 1524.1 states “The petitioner can renounce the trial at any stage or grade of the trial; likewise both the petitioner and the Respondent can renounce either all or only some of the acts of process.”


The commentary states “since the petitioner initiated the process, only the petitioner may renounce the instance itself. Both parties, however, have the right to renounce any and all procedural acts. Should all the procedural acts be renounced and that renunciation admitted, the instance is effectively ended.”


Canon 1522 states “Abatement extinguishes the acts of process but not the acts of the case; indeed the acts can also have force in another trial providing that the case involves the same persons and the same issues; regarding those not party to the case, however, the acts have no force other than that of documents.”



‘Tribunal Competency’ in Canon Law


Canon 1673.1 “the tribunal where the marriage took place always has jurisdictional authority.”


Canon 1673.2 “the place where the Respondent has domicile or quasi-domicile.” Traditionally the Respondents form is privileged since the initiation of a suit places a burden on the Respondent.”


Canon 1673.3 “the place where the petitioner has domiciled providing two provisions are met:

Provision 1 “Both parties must live in the same Conference of Bishops.

Provision 2 “The Respondent's judicial vicar only gives consent after he has the approval of the Respondent.


Canon 1673.4 “the place where most of the proofs (witnesses' statements) must be collected”

Provision 1 “The judicial vicar of the Respondent only agrees after he finds out if the Respondent has any objections to make.”



Recommendations for Respondents who Wish to Defend their Sacramental Marriages


  1. If the Petition document is missing from your Summons letter, strongly request to see this document. It is your right under Canon 1508.2.
  2. When you receive the Summons, plan to defend your marriage and take action early.
  3. You do not have to accept the tribunal’s suggestion for an advocate, that person could lack objectivity on your behalf. Other choices are:
    1. Ask your local Chancery offices for a list of Canon lawyers in your area. If you live in a University area where Canon lawyers are on the faculty, seek an appointment with him or her.
    2. Contact S.O.S. for advice and a possible recommendation.
    3. Try the Internet, some canon lawyers have websites.

Copyright © 1997-2020  J. P. Leary, Ph.D.

All rights reserved.