Captain Moonlight's Notebook: The Catholic way of ending it all

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The Independent Online
I GOT in contact with one of London's two Judicial Vicars, Rome's local equivalent of Chief Justice, to find out how one goes about getting one's marriage annulled. Monsignor Ralph Brown, Judicial Vicar for the diocese of Westminster, does not wear a wig and gown, more cardigan and dog-collar, and he hangs out with his colleagues in canon law - male and female - in two floors above a parish club in Old Marylebone Road.

I hasten to explain that my marriage is not at risk and that I was merely making inquiries following the publicity given to the Vatican's decision - some reports say reluctant decision - to make Princess Caroline of Monaco's two children legitimate. They were born of a union which was entered into illegally in the Church's eyes before her first marriage was annulled.

Having spoken to Mgr Brown and London's other leading canon lawyers I have come to the conclusion that it is not too difficult to get an annulment and that press reports that there is one law for the famous and powerful and another for you and me are rather wide of the mark. The grounds are surprisingly liberal - there are about a dozen rules - and deal solely with the situation at the time the vows of marriage were taken.

For example, if the Prince and Princess of Wales wanted to have their marriage annulled I am fairly certain the case would speed through Westminster's marriage tribunal in Old Marylebone Road under the catch-all canon law of 'lack of due discretion'. This means one or both partners suffered from a grave lack of judgement concerning their marital obligations when they signed on in St Paul's on 29 July 1981. She, for instance, had just turned 20, was probably immature, believed perhaps that marriage was merely romance. He could claim that he had acted impulsively after a hasty courtship without realising he had nothing in common with the girl. There would be no question of their case going to Rome. Since 1983 only annulments dealing with heads of state are handled by the Vatican; their families go to the local Catholic bishops.

The case would probably take about a year, would automatically go on appeal to Birmingham - the appellate court for the Westminster diocese - and, depending on the number of witnesses who would need to be interviewed, would cost Buckingham Palace about pounds 550 - cheaper than lawyers' fees for a civil divorce. And there is no question that the royal couple need be Roman Catholics.

The tribunal passes judgement on every form of marriage - Protestant, pagan, the works, so long as it involves consent. Although, if you are a Roman Catholic who married in a register office your vows are automatically invalid. According to Mgr Brown more than half of the several hundred cases that come before him each year concern non-Catholic marriages - cases where one of the partners usually wishes to marry a Roman Catholic.

You start by petitioning the tribunal which consists of three judges, priests or religious sisters who have been trained in canon law. If your case is considered difficult you are assigned an advocate, another canon lawyer. Interviews take place privately and are typed together, on average some 80 pages, and given to each of the three judges to read. They pass judgement by majority and are required to explain in writing how they reached their decision, which canon law was used and how it related to the case in question.

According to the most recent statistics for Britain and Ireland (north and south) church tribunals in 1991 annulled 1,344 marriages. I couldn't find any statistics on how many applications failed.

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