BOSTON (RNS) In a series of changes to its process for annulling marriages, the Archdiocese of Boston has become the first in the Roman Catholic world to hire a child advocate to assess how divorce is affecting particular children.

Divorced couples seeking dispensation from the church now must allow an advocate to collect information about their children's emotional, spiritual and physical well-being. The advocate's report goes to church judges, who have power to rule on annulment requests and to prevent future church marriages for couples deemed negligent in parenting.

The advocate's report requirement is among a series of new procedures designed to update the marriage annulment process and bring it into conformity with post-Vatican II canon law.

"It's really rounding out the court as the universal law would envision it," said the Rev. Michael Smith Foster, presiding judge of the metropolitan tribunal. Current canon law, which dates to 1983, emphasizes concerns for children amid high divorce rates and allows for a stronger role for laity in church judicial matters, Foster said.

Other changes aim to make the process faster and friendlier. The archdiocesan court staff previously consisted of two nuns and nine priests. The jurisdiction's 1,500 annual cases took 12 to 15 months on average to resolve. This year the court staff added three lay people to its team of judges and marriage defenders with hopes of reducing the duration of an average case to somewhere between nine and 11 months.

Petitioners entering the court building quickly experience a changed atmosphere. In the past, a divorced individual had to approach an elevated bench where only priests sat and rendered judgments.

"The whole intention was to intimidate and frighten with the rationale being, we'll get the truth," Foster said. He called the revamped setting more "pastoral."

Today, petitioners waiting in a warm lobby leaf through art books as classical music plays. They later make their cases in the private office of a judge, who might be a lay woman, and hear verdicts in what Foster calls "a living room setting."

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