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  • What is a judicial vicar?

    Just as the United States has a judiciary branch, so too every diocese has a judicial arm. It’s headed by the bishop, who typically designates a judicial vicar to oversee it. In the Diocese of Arlington, the tribunal is headed by Father Robert J .Rippy, who originally was appointed to the position by then Bishop Paul S. Loverde in 2015. 

    In 1986, Father Rippy was asked by Bishop John R. Keating to pursue a degree in canon law. He studied at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, one of only three schools in the world where someone can earn a degree in canon law, a necessary requisite for being judicial vicar.

    Ninety-nine percent of the work the tribunal does is on annulment cases, said Father Rippy. “But can a Catholic be put on trial? Yes,” he said. In the wake of the priest sexual abuse crisis in 2002, Father Rippy and several other canon lawyers were trained on how to conduct trials of priests accused of sexual misconduct. However, most of the cases are sent to be adjudicated at the Vatican, he said.

    In annulment cases, it’s the marriages that are put on trial, he said. “We investigate marriages to see if they were valid in the eyes of the church and Christ,” said Father Rippy. “(It’s) not the Catholic answer to divorce. It says that what looked like a marriage for x number of years wasn’t.”

    First, they look to see if both parties of the marriage were capable psychologically of entering into a marriage. “Secondly, on the day of their wedding, did they exchange the essential obligations of marriage — fidelity, permanency and openness to children (and) the obligation to look out for one another,” he said. “If we can prove there was a defect in their consent, we issue a declaration of nullity.”

    Last year, the tribunal accepted 211 formal cases. “There are various types of annulments, but the formal case is the one generally pursued by most people,” said Father Rippy. A majority of formal cases are granted an annulment, but not all. Others are withdrawn, sometimes until more evidence can be presented. 

    In this diocese, the annulment process begins in the parish with the petitioner meeting with their pastor or parochial vicar. After the initial hearing with the tribunal, it takes about 16 to 20 months to reach a conclusion, according to Father Rippy. 

    “As Pope Francis has stressed, it’s the job of the tribunal to mete out the Lord’s mercy and compassion to those who have experienced the pain of divorce,” he said. “It is a healing ministry — we see that perfectly in here.”

    © Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

    @Zoey Maraist