The Diocese of Knoxville was established as a separate entity from the Diocese of Nashville in 1988, but “the last little thread binding us together” was cut on July 1, 2020, according to Father David Carter, Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Knoxville.
That’s the date the Diocese of Knoxville was officially approved by the Vatican to begin operating its own Tribunal Office.
For the last 32 years, the Diocese of Nashville’s Tribunal Office has handled marriage annulment cases for the Diocese of Knoxville. Now, with the establishment of Knoxville’s Tribunal Office, they will begin handling their own cases.
Cases that were already well into the process on July 1 will continue to be handled through the Nashville office, and “we’ll decide on a case by case basis how best to serve people,” said Father Carter.
To establish its own Tribunal Office, Knoxville had to identify and educate the people who would be on staff. The diocese sponsored a layperson, Tyler Ross, to study theology and canon law at the Catholic University of America, and recruited Sister Catherine Ngozi Okoye, S.J.G.S., who recently completed her doctorate in canon law at CUA, to be a tribunal judge.
Establishing a separate Tribunal office in Knoxville has been a long-term goal for the last 32 years, but “for the past four years, we’ve made a really concerted effort” to make it happen, Father Carter said, as the diocese has grown and gotten the resources to make it a reality.
Nashville’s former and current Judicial Vicars, Father Dexter Brewer, and Father John Hammond, respectively, “have been extremely helpful and very knowledgeable,” in aiding the Knoxville Tribunal office get established, said Father Carter.
Father Brewer “is very well versed in the laws of the Church,” and has been a guide in helping Father Carter learn the “nuances of judging marriage cases,” he said.
Likewise, Father Hammond “has been very helpful and gracious with the transition,” Father Carter said.
Jeannette Buchanan, who formerly led the Diocese of Nashville’s Tribunal Office, is also working with the Diocese of Knoxville as the Defender of the Bond. “She brings a wealth of knowledge on board for this year of transition,” Father Carter said.
Cases from the Diocese of Knoxville represented about 40 percent of the case load of Nashville’s Tribunal Office. With the separation, Nashville will now be handling about 100 cases a year. “We may not be immediately freed up,” said Erin Stracener, director of the Nashville Tribunal office, “but over the course of the next year, our case load will lighten.”
Once Knoxville’s case load fully transfers to their diocese, the Nashville Tribunal staff will be able to engage in more pastoral outreach work in the parishes. “We want people to understand the process, we want people to know us,” said Stracener.
“There are so many misconceptions” about how the Tribunal works, the process and meaning of the annulment of a marriage, she said.
“We want to help people address irregular marriages and get married in the Church,” Stracener said. “We want good things for people.”
“We want to accompany people with compassion and pastoral zeal,” added Father Carter.