As director of Adelaide Archdiocese’s Tribunal, Sue Rivett’s role is to adjudicate on marriage annulment applications. As a woman whose own marriage broke down, she’s able to bring empathy from her own experiences to the task.
Sue Rivett often reflects on what her life might be today – and how her extensive involvement with the Catholic Church may have been different – if she and her then husband hadn’t bought their first home in the northern suburbs of Adelaide.
What if she had lived elsewhere and had different neighbours… would she have sent her three sons to a Catholic school? Would she have converted to Catholicism? Would she have studied Canon Law and ended up working in her ‘dream job’ as a Director of the Adelaide Archdiocese’s Tribunal?
A lot of ‘what ifs’, but for Sue there is no doubt in her mind that this was God’s plan for her.
‘As Catholics we don’t believe in predestination but more the element of taking the opportunities and recognising them’, explains South Australia’s only lay female canon lawyer. In fact, only a handful of women, both lay and religious, have the License in Canon Law in Australia, though many women are involved in Tribunal work and have qualifications from the Institute of Tribunal Practice in Sydney.
Becoming a lawyer upholding the laws of the Catholic Church is even more interesting given Sue didn’t join the Church until her mid-thirties.
Raised an Anglican in the United Kingdom, Sue was seven when her family emigrated to Australia. Sue continued to attend church and even taught Sunday School in her late teens, but as is often the case drifted away when life got busy in her twenties.
Sue’s first close association with the Catholic Church came when she and her husband bought their home in Tea Tree Gully in the north of Adelaide. When her first son was getting near school age a neighbour suggested they consider sending him to St David’s Parish School, which was just down the road and in easy walking distance.
‘Really from the time he started school I took more interest in what they were teaching him. The priest and the pastoral associate at the time ran a Tuesday morning group for parents of any denomination to come and have discussions about the faith. It was very casual and relaxed… and a very free atmosphere where you could ask questions and debate.’
Those discussions struck a chord with the 34-year-old mum and some months later she asked the priest what she would need to do to become a Catholic. To her surprise, there were no compulsory classes to attend or ‘tests to pass’ and it was simply a matter of setting a date in the diary! Sue recalls how receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion for the first time felt ‘so right’.
‘It was a sense of this is where I belong, of coming home. And I have never ever regretted that decision.’
For Sue it was just the beginning of a journey and her involvement in parish life. With three young boys then at school Sue also started working part-time as the pastoral associate for the Tea Tree Gully parish, which required her to complete several units of a theology degree at the Catholic Theological College. This whetted her appetite for further study.
‘I left school when I was 15 and I really loved this study, especially the scripture, systematic theology and church history. When I did the necessary unit I thought I would like to go on and get my degree.’
It was during this time that the then judicial vicar, Monsignor Tiggeman, organised a program for priests so they could be better equipped to assist people preparing applications for marriage annulments.
The assistant priest at Tea Tree Gully invited Sue to accompany him on the program, recognising that some people going through this process would prefer to speak with a woman.
‘I really did get interested in the annulment process and how to help people to make their applications and for quite a while I helped them at the parish level.’
Finding a new path
While work was going well and she was enjoying new challenges being presented, Sue wasn’t prepared for the upheaval that was about to rock her world.
‘Then life changed because my marriage broke down.’ After 28 years she was suddenly alone, having to support herself and she needed more work. She asked around and was given some part-time work in the Archdiocese’s Tribunal, typing up evidence. For a while she juggled three jobs – as a cleaner, pastoral associate and her role with the Tribunal – but it was the latter that she really felt a calling. Her skills in conducting interviews and her willingness to learn were noted and in 2006 Sue was invited by Archbishop Philip Wilson to study Canon Law.
This was a major undertaking as it meant she would spend two months every year for the next five years studying at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.
For a brief moment she questioned if she was up to it, but knew this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
‘I was used to the marriage area of Canon Law but not everything else and thought the rest would be very dry. But it was really something you could get your teeth into and it was fascinating – I’m still learning.
‘The study was very intense… we had to fit 13 semester weeks into four so there was quite a lot of work.’
Sue was the oldest in the course – most were young priests or deacons – and one of only three women, although another two joined later.
Despite being away from home for lengthy spells and swamped with study, Sue flourished. In 2011 she graduated and was duly appointed a judge with the Adelaide Tribunal, taking over as director a couple of years later.
A woman's perspective on annulment
While Sue believes women bring a different perspective to the job, ‘at the end of the day you are talking about the law’ and that must be followed.
Having been through the annulment process herself, Sue has a great deal of empathy for those who pass through her office doors.
‘It’s tragic when any marriage falls apart, but very rarely is it just one person. Even if it was the other person who was largely responsible for the breakdown in the marriage, the one left still has to work through all that pain and confusion and what did all that mean?
‘This process helps them to do that.
‘No-one listens to your story in a divorce procedure but in an annulment procedure we do listen and the people who give us feedback say that is very helpful to them.
‘We try to make it as relaxed as we can and we are impartial.
‘At the end of it the majority feel really free, it’s a release and they can start again. For those who are faith-filled, it’s a bit of a comfort that the Church recognises their pain and journeys with them.’
As for Sue, she is adamant her faith journey is continually evolving. At 69 she has no thoughts of retirement and besides her work in the Tribunal she is also the executive secretary to the Bishop’s Commission for Canon Law.
‘This is my future. I gain life from this job. It’s a bit like faith – faith is part of you, part of your life and this job is not just a job… it’s a valuable job. I love it.’