CM Exclusive: Abp Sheen’s Niece Says NY’s Inaction Forced Her Hand

News: US News
by Christine Niles  •  •  September 12, 2016   

Joan Sheen Cunningham speaks with on her uncle's cause for sainthood

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NEW YORK ( - Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen's closest living relative is speaking out on the deadlock between New York and Peoria, Illinois over her uncle's remains.

Eighty-eight-year-old Joan Sheen Cunningham spoke with Monday, September 12, about progress on her court petition requesting that the remains of Ven. Abp. Fulton J. Sheen be moved from New York to the Peoria diocese in order to continue his cause for sainthood.

"I think it's going to work out all right," Cunningham told, expressing hopes the deadlock will be resolved. "I really do think we'll get it all squared away."

The court hearing was originally scheduled to take place September 20, but the court adjourned the hearing until November 1 in order to have more time to review the filed documents.

Attorney Steve Cohn, representing Cunningham, also spoke with and said his client has shown "excellent reasons" to have Abp. Sheen's remains moved. "I would be surprised if her reasoning doesn't prevail."

"I feel hopeful that if there is no resolution, the court will agree with our position," he said. "I think our position is very clear and is basically the way the law should be followed."

According to Cohn, court petitions to have family members' remains disinterred are usually "open and shut."

"We're hoping either the court will agree with our decision or the diocese of Peoria's position, and we can make some resolution that will satisfy all sides, which may be possible if everyone will sit down and be realistic," he commented.

Cunningham says she desires to honor her uncle's wishes in his will, made five days before he died, that he be buried in New York, while also honoring the wishes of the Peoria diocese to have his remains in order to move his cause for canonization forward.

"There can be a shrine in Peoria and a shrine in New York," she said. "There's nothing wrong with two places. I see no problem to it."

The remains would be in Peoria, while relics would be in New York. "This is an ordinary thing that they do in the Church," she explained. "They leave relics in one church and they leave relics in another church. And that's how it's going to be."

Cdl. Timothy Dolan's Opposition

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, however, with whom Cunningham has personally met twice, had initially agreed to the proposal, but is now opposed to the arrangements. "I've met with the cardinal before," she commented, "and I can't understand why he kind of changed his mind about things."

According to Cunningham, the Board of Trustees of St. Patrick's Cathedral, where Sheen is currently buried, had agreed that his remains could be moved. "Then I don't know what happened," she said. "Then the cardinal came in and decided he didn't like the arrangements that we were working on, and our only recourse then was to go to the court."

"Those arrangements that we were working on have all been done away with," she added.

She confirmed that the vicar general, Msgr. Greg Mustaciuolo, had shown opposition to her wishes to move her uncle's remains. "I did get a letter from him at one time," she confirmed, and said Mustaciuolo's letter contained arguments "against moving the body."

"I have not heard from him since that one letter," Cunningham commented.

It was Cdl. Dolan's inaction that caused Cunningham to file the court petition. Her initial meeting with His Excellency, which took place in 2014, happened on Cunningham's initiative. "I called the cardinal," she said.

Dolan then met with her, Cunningham's son, and the chancellor of the Peoria diocese. They discussed, among other things, the possibility of having Sheen's remains in two shrines, "but nothing happened," she said, "nothing really happened. The cardinal didn't say too much about it."

The second meeting with Dolan occurred in early 2016, and came about again on Cunningham's initiative. "Nothing happened for the longest time again. I called again and got it going again — not that we really got anyplace, to tell you the truth," she said about her meeting with the prelate. "Actually, it amounted to nothing."

After further inaction on the part of the archdiocese followed by outright opposition, Cunningham felt the need to pursue court action.

"It's just a 14-year tug of war between Bp. Jenky and the cardinal," she lamented.

Testimony of Msgr. Hilary Franco

In the memorandum of law filed by the New York archdiocese opposing Sheen's disinterment, Msgr. Hilary Franco claims Cdl. Terence Cooke had offered Sheen the honor of being buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Franco claims he and Sheen had had conversations about it on multiple occasions during which Sheen allegedly expressed a desire to be buried there — contrary to Sheen's express intentions stated in his will.

Cunningham flatly rejects Franco's claims. "I don't know whether he's imagining it or what. I can't believe that this ever took place," she averred. "If that had ever been told to him [Abp. Sheen], he would've told me."

According to Cunningham, the only offer to bury Sheen in St. Patrick's took place after Sheen's death, when Cooke, then head of the archdiocese, called Cunningham to ask her permission to bury Sheen in the crypt. "He wanted to do it in order to make up for some of the treatment that my uncle had suffered in New York," Cunningham explained, "and I am sure he would've said that he had spoken to my uncle about it. Why would he call and ask permission?"

Archbishop Sheen had suffered vindictive treatment by his ordinary, Cdl. Francis Spellman, who wanted to claim the millions raised by Sheen's Society for the Propagation of the Faith for the New York archdiocese. The case went to the Vatican, where Pope Paul VI issued a ruling in Sheen's favor. Spellman vowed he would get revenge — and shortly after yanked Sheen from his regular duties and sent him off to Rochester. Sheen's brother priests, envious of his success and popularity, also treated him poorly.

On Franco's reasons for making his claims about Sheen, Cunningham said, "I think he'd like to pretend he was closer to my uncle than he actually was. ... I don't think he was as close to my uncle as he claims he was. He did work for him, but you know, you can work for someone and not be close to them."

She added, "And all the time when we used to go down to [Abp. Sheen's] residence ... never once was [Msgr. Franco] invited for dinner when we were all there. He was never around; I never saw him once when I was there."

The novena for Abp. Fulton Sheen's cause begins today and will end September 20.

Watch the panel discuss the deadlock on "The Download—NY vs. Abp. Sheen."


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