The Diocese of Rockville Centre is dropping most of its fees for people seeking marriage annulments partly in response to Pope Francis' calls to reach out more to divorced and separated Catholics.
Obtaining a Declaration of Marital Nullity used to cost $1,100, but now only a $100 registration fee will be charged, said Bishop William Murphy, spiritual leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
"The preparation for the synod for the family in the fall has led me to consider ways here in the Diocese of Rockville Centre to help people -- particularly those Catholics married outside the Church -- to be reconciled to the Church and to live fully in the Communion of the Church," Murphy said, referring to a meeting Pope Francis has convened of church leaders in Rome.
Rockville Centre is among a growing number of dioceses that have dropped the fees recently. Others include Ogdensburg in upstate New York, and Cleveland.
Some 18,558 annulments were granted by dioceses and archdioceses in the United States in 2013, said the Rev. John Beal, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The process typically takes nine to 18 months.
Divorced Catholics who remarry without obtaining an annulment are not permitted to receive Communion in the Catholic Church, serve as eucharistic ministers or be sponsors at baptisms and confirmations, Beal said Tuesday. They could also lose their jobs if they teach at a Catholic school since they publicly violated church teachings, he said.
Pope Francis has been calling attention to a particular concern for families and pastoral care for them, the Diocese of Rockville Centre said in a news release.
"Pastors should search for ways to minister to divorced and separated Catholics so that they do not feel excluded from the mercy of God," the pope has said.
In January, Francis indicated he no longer wanted the Church to charge for annulments.
"The sacraments give us grace," he said. "And a marriage proceeding" -- like an annulment -- "touches on the sacrament of marriage."
"How I wish all marriage proceedings were free of charge!" he added.
The $1,100 fee in Rockville Centre only partially covered the cost of maintaining a professional office of canon lawyers and support staff, and other expenses involved in processing the cases, the diocese said. The rest of the cost was subsidized by "the generosity of the people of the Diocese," it said.
"While the fee has always been waived for those who could not afford it, the very existence of a fee might have discouraged others from applying," Murphy said in the news release.
Dioceses that already were subsidizing a large part of the annulment process will now pick up even more of the bill if they reduce the fees, Beal said.
Murphy said he decided to reduce the fees after consulting with diocesan leaders including the Rev. Msgr. James Pereda, the diocese's Judicial Vicar who handles annulment cases.
"By taking this step and planning appropriately for the Tribunal budget for the coming year and beyond, I hope and pray that those who have been unable or unwilling to seek a Declaration of Nullity will now be more willing to do so," Murphy said.
A Declaration of Marital Nullity is a judgment by the Church that a presumed valid marriage, which ended in divorce, was lacking from the very beginning an essential element or ingredient required for valid marital consent, the Diocese of Rockville Centre said.