Vatican approves Austin’s first non-canonist lay judges

Thomas Howard (far left) and Harvey Bollich (far right)  join Father Christopher Ferrer and Deacon Michael Forbes as judges in the diocesan Tribunal. Howard and Bollich are the first lay judges on the tribunal staff for more than a decade. (Photo by Shelley Metcalf)

By Paul Madrid
Special Correspondent

In an historic moment for the Diocese of Austin, Bishop Joe Vásquez recently received permission from the Vatican’s head tribunal to appoint Austin’s first non-canonist lay judges for marriage nullity cases.
Effective June 1, Harvey Bollich and Thomas Howard will serve two-year terms as judges of the Tribunal of the Diocese of Austin. They are the first lay judges on the tribunal for more than a decade and also the first lay judges without degrees in canon law ever to serve this diocese.
Father Christopher Ferrer, the diocesan Judicial Vicar and the chief judge of the Austin tribunal, said the Vatican, by law, requires judges to hold a degree in canon law.
“Additional judges could help handle the increased cases in response to Pope Francis’ reform of the marriage nullity process. Although we do have other canon lawyers in the diocese, many of them have substantial pastoral responsibilities,” he said.
Because only canonists can serve as judges normally, Bishop Vásquez decided to request an indult — a dispensation from the law that would allow him to make the appointment — from the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. 
“It is very rare for the Signatura to grant these kinds of indults,” Father Ferrer said, “but I am not surprised that it was granted for Tom and Harvey. In addition to their expertise in theology and civil law, they have years of excellent service here as assessors and extensive canonical training through continuing education. In light of that, I was confident that the Signatura would look favorably on the bishop’s request.”
Bollich was pleasantly surprised when he heard news of the approval. He holds a doctorate in theology from the Aquinas Institute of Theology and has an almost 50-year history of experience in church work, serving as faculty for various Catholic high schools and colleges, including Holy Cross College in New Orleans and St. Edward’s University in Austin. His work with the diocesan Canonical and Tribunal Services department began in 2008.
When Howard heard that the Vatican had approved him to serve as a judge, “I was excited and at the same time scared of the prospect of being a judge as opposed to just an assessor.” Howard holds a law degree from the South Texas College of Law. 
Prior to his work with the tribunal, he practiced civil law and also taught for six years in the School of Management and Business at St. Edward’s University. His work with the tribunal began in 2011. He also serves as president of the Board of Directors for Catholic Charities of Central Texas and is a professed Secular Franciscan.
Father Ferrer explained that each lay judge will work alongside two other clerical judges, forming a panel of three judges for each case. 
Bollich explained that the panels meet several times a month to decide the cases that are ripe for decision. If the judges do not all agree on the outcome of a case, then majority vote decides the matter, Father Ferrer said.
Because of their new roles, Howard expects “more collaboration” with the existing judges of the tribunal, and Bollich thinks that this collaboration will give the tribunal “a broader perspective on how to interpret and apply matrimonial law.” Both judges have similar approaches to deciding cases. 
“I always remember that we are dealing with people who, for the most part, are trying to get back in full communion with the church,” Howard said. “This is a healing ministry.”
Bollich agreed. “My highest priority is to seek justice, compassion, reconciliation and spiritual healing for the parties involved in every annulment case. This is work, I believe, for the good of the faithful and the church,” he said. 
Father Ferrer eagerly welcomes the new judges.
“Their service as judges will help the diocese administer justice swiftly in a manner sensitive to the needs and rights of those in need of justice and healing,” he said.