NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - Confirming fears of further drawing out costly litigation, the archdiocese of New York has filed an appeal to block the latest court ruling over Abp. Fulton J. Sheen's remains.
"It mystifies me that the archdiocese would intentionally deprive Abp. Sheen and all the Catholics throughout the world of the opportunity to have Abp. Sheen continue to fulfill his destiny as an intermediary between GOD and the people," Steve Cohn, attorney for Joan Sheen Cunningham, told Church Militant. "I can only attribute this appeal as a continuation of the archdiocese's vendetta against Abp. Sheen."
In a ruling handed down on June 8, Judge Arlene Bluth of the Supreme Court of New York ruled that Cunningham, niece and closest living relative to Sheen, with legal rights over his body, met the legal threshold to have her uncle's body disinterred and moved to Peoria, Illinois.
"The Court must consider the fact that Archbishop Sheen dedicated his life to the Catholic Church and that becoming saint would be the highest honor he could achieve," Bluth wrote. "That possibility — to become a saint — is sufficient grounds to remove Archbishop Sheen's remains."
"This is truly good news because it answered the concerns of the Appellate Court," the Peoria diocese said in a press release the same day. "Therefore, it is everyone's hope that Cardinal Dolan as well as the New York Archdiocese will cease their legal resistance and respect the ruling of the Superior Court."
The archdiocese, however, is refusing to comply with the judgment. After the June 8 ruling, Cunningham had brought a petition to St. Patrick's Cathedral to remove her uncle's remains from the crypt, but was rebuffed by cathedral trustees.
In its pre-argument statement, the archdiocese makes clear it does "not consent to the disinterment and relocation of Archbishop Sheen's remains," opposing the court ruling "on the grounds that Archbishop Sheen's expressed and unconditional wish was to be buried in New York and no good and substantial reasons exist to disinter Archbishop Sheen's remains after nearly four decades of repose."
The archdiocese also accuses the lower court of misapplying the law, disregarding evidence of Sheen's "clear intent" and improperly ruling on matters of Church law, among other things.
The diocese of Peoria and New York have been deadlocked over Sheen's body for four years, after Cdl. Dolan — failing to honor the promises of his predecessor Cdl. Edward Egan — refused in 2014 to hand over Sheen's remains to Peoria so his cause for sainthood could advance.
Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria had opened Sheen's cause for canonization in 2002, relying on multiple assurances by then-head of the New York archdiocese Cdl. Egan that New York had no interest in opening Sheen's cause, and that New York would hand over Sheen's remains to Peoria — the city where Sheen grew up, went to seminary and was ordained.
The Peoria diocese has spent approximately $1 million over the past 15 years advancing his cause.
The last time the Sheen case was heard before the appellate court, the court ruled 3–2 in favor of sending the case back for an evidentiary rehearing, specifically with regard to testimony by Msgr. Hilary Franco, who claims Sheen told him multiple times he had wanted to be buried at St. Patrick's Cathedral — claims vigorously denied by his niece Cunningham.
"I don't know whether he's imagining it or what. I can't believe that this ever took place," Cunningham told Church Militant in 2016. "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 Cdl. Terence 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.
"I think he'd like to pretend he was closer to my uncle than he actually was," she said of Franco. "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."
Cunningham, now 90, was sent to live with Sheen at age 10, who raised her, educated her and cared for her as a father.
"The record before this court suggests that there was no relative closer by blood or emotion to Archbishop Sheen," Bluth wrote in her June 8 decision.
Cunningham has 30 days to respond to the appeal.