NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - A New York court is refusing to allow the remains of Ven. Abp. Fulton J. Sheen to leave the state.
In a 3–2 court ruling issued Tuesday, Judge J.P. Richter of the N.Y. Supreme Court, writing for the majority, held that the lower court was wrong to rule in favor of removing Sheen's body from New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, and sent the case back for a rehearing — even though the archdiocese had never asked for a rehearing.
"The fact that respondents did not request a hearing before the petition court does not bar this Court from ordering one now," Richter wrote. "Because disputed factual issues exist here, the order on appeal should be reversed and the matter remanded for a hearing on the issue of Archbishop Sheen's wishes."
The "disputed factual issues" revolve around testimony by Msgr. Hilary Franco, a priest for the archdiocese of New York, who claims Sheen had told him on multiple occasions that he wanted to be buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral — a claim vigorously challenged by Joan Sheen Cunningham, Sheen's 90-year-old niece and closest living relative. Cunningham, who has legal rights over her uncle's body, brought the lawsuit against the archdiocese in 2016 after her repeated requests to move Sheen's body to Peoria went ignored by Cdl. Timothy Dolan.
"We regret the archdiocese of New York continues this lengthy legal battle," said Msgr. James Kruse, vicar general of the diocese of Peoria, in comments to Church Militant. "We are confident the lower court will issue a ruling in favor of removing Sheen to Peoria, and that his cause for sainthood can once again advance."
Steve Cohn, attorney for Cunningham, told Church Militant, "I believe that, ultimately, Sheen's desires will be upheld by the lower court and that he will eventually be moved to Peoria. I feel that Sheen's wishes were well known, as found by the trial court."
The diocese of Peoria and New York have been deadlocked over Sheen's body for nearly four years, after Cdl. Timothy 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 16 years advancing his cause.
Peoria was rejoicing in November 2016 when Judge Arlene Bluth ruled that Sheen could be removed from the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral and moved to Illinois — a ruling immediately challenged by the New York archdiocese, and which prevented Sheen's body from leaving the state.
After a wait of more than a year, the five-panel court ruled Tuesday that Bluth was wrong to rule in favor of Cunningham, and that she failed to give sufficient consideration to Franco's testimony. Cunningham, however, has blasted Franco's testimony as essentially made up out of whole cloth.
"I don't know whether he's imagining it or what," Cunningham told Church Militant in 2016. "I can't believe that this ever took place."
On Franco's claims that he was a close confidant of 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."
"I don't disagree with my client on this score," Cohn remarked to Church Militant about Franco. "I absolutely agree with the dissent in its opinion upholding the lower court ruling."
Two judges dissented from Tuesday's ruling, arguing that Franco's testimony was "vague and merely speculative as to Archbishop Sheen's burial wishes."
"If Archbishop Sheen knew of the offer to be buried in St Patrick's Cathedral and wanted to be buried there or if he merely had a desire to be buried somewhere in New York," the dissent stated, "he could have expressed such desires in his will, which was executed just five days before he died."
Such a wish was never expressed in his will.
"We continue to call on the faithful to pray for a peaceful resolution to this situation," Msgr. Kruse told Church Militant. "We're confident Sheen's position will prevail and that the lower court will issue a ruling consistent with its original ruling."