NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a major court victory for the diocese of Peoria, Illinois, a New York appellate court voted unanimously to send the remains of Ven. Abp. Fulton J. Sheen back to his midwestern hometown.
In a 5-0 vote Tuesday, a New York appeals court ruled that Joan Sheen Cunningham, niece and closest living relative to Sheen, with legal rights over his body, could have her uncle's remains disinterred and transferred back to Peoria.
"I'm awfully glad it's gone our way," said Cunningham in comments to Church Militant. "This is the third time [the court] has ruled in our favor. I just hope that this will be the end of it."
"It's been a long haul," she added.
The court order noted that the "Supreme Court properly found that there are good and substantial reasons to disinter Archbishop Sheen's earthly remains and transfer them to St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria where he made his first Holy Communion, was ordained a priest and received his first pastoral assignment, and where a shrine is proposed to be erected to honor his life's work in the Church."
The diocese of Peoria and New York have been deadlocked over Sheen's body for five 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. New York insisted that Sheen's body remain at St. Patrick's Cathedral, where they had plans to build a shrine in his honor and take over his cause for canonization — a reversal of Cdl. Egan's prior claims that New York had no interest in Sheen. The Peoria diocese has spent approximately $1 million over the past 16 years advancing his cause.
"While it is undisputed that burial in a crypt at St. Patrick's Cathedral is a high honor," the court order continued, "the testimony of Archbishop Sheen's family and respondents' witness Msgr. Hilary C. Franco demonstrates that Archbishop Sheen lived with an even higher intent and purpose in mind, namely to attain Heaven and, if at all possible, sainthood."
"We have considered respondents' arguments and find them unavailing," the order concluded.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the Peoria diocese wrote:
Today's decision is the third time that the New York court system ruled in support of Joan Sheen Cunningham's petition. After each previous decision the Archdiocese of New York has appealed the decisions. The Diocese of Peoria hopes that the Archdiocese of New York will end the legal disputes and acknowledge that the Court has ruled.
The diocese expressed hopes that the New York archdiocese would "end the legal tug-of-war" and allow Sheen's cause for sainthood to advance by dropping all "legal contestation" over his body.
"It does not go without notice that today's ruling comes in this hundredth year anniversary of Sheen's ordination to the priesthood at St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria, the very place that Joan hopes to transfer him," the statement noted.
Joe Zwilling, spokesman for the New York archdiocese, issued a statement saying, "The trustees of Saint Patrick's Cathedral disagree with the court's ruling and will have their attorneys carefully review it while deciding next steps."
Tuesday's ruling upheld a lower court ruling handed down in June last year, where Judge Arlene Bluth of the Supreme Court of New York ruled that Cunningham met the legal threshold to have her uncle's body removed.
"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 at the time. "That possibility — to become a saint — is sufficient grounds to remove Archbishop Sheen's remains."
Bluth had initially awarded Cunningham the right to move Sheen's body in a ruling issued in November 2016, but the New York archdiocese appealed, successfully blocking transfer of Sheen's body.
In a 3–2 ruling issued on Feb. 6, 2018, the appeals court overturned the lower court ruling, holding that the testimony of Msgr. Hilary Franco — who claimed that Sheen wanted to be buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral, where he currently rests — was compelling enough to deserve closer examination. The case was sent back to Bluth's court for an evidentiary hearing.
Bluth's June 2018 decision upheld her original decision granting rights to Cunningham to have her uncle's body removed.
The full press release of the Peoria diocese follows:
PEORIA -- It is again with great joy that Bishop Daniel Jenky, Bishop of Peoria, Illinois, and Promoter of the Cause for Canonization of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, announces the unanimous decision of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, ruling in favor of Joan Sheen Cunningham’s petition to transfer the earthly remains of Archbishop Fulton Sheen from New York to Peoria.
Today's decision is the third time that the New York court system ruled in support of Joan Sheen Cunningham’s petition. After each previous decision the Archdiocese of New York has appealed the decisions. The Diocese of Peoria hopes that the Archdiocese of New York will end the legal disputes and acknowledge that the Court has ruled. The Court has heard the many and protracted legal arguments from the Archdiocese of New York. The court has determined that the primary witness of the New York Archdiocese, Msgr. Hillary Franco, supports Joan Cunningham’s position: “Archbishop Sheen lived with an even higher intent and purpose in mind, namely to attain Heaven and, if at all possible, sainthood.” The Court also ruled stating that it has considered all other arguments from the Archdiocese of New York. They have determined that they are “unavailing.” This means that their arguments were ineffective and inadequate. The Court has ruled that Joan Sheen Cunningham has “good and substantial reasons” to transfer the remains of Archbishop Fulton Sheen to Peoria.
The Diocese of Peoria calls upon the New York Archdiocese to end their failed legal contestation, which has only resulted in three rulings against them. Further appeal is not only unprecedented but extremely costly to all the parties involved. Further litigation will only delay the execution of the Court’s decision. Joan Cunningham, as the nearest living relative to Archbishop Sheen, has a good and substantial reason to transfer the remains of Archbishop Sheen to Peoria. Now is the time to end the legal tug-of-war and begin the final stages of the Cause of Beatification of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. It is our hope that the Archdiocese of New York will acknowledge that it is time to move on and begin to assist in advancing the Cause of Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
We look forward to working with the Archdiocese of New York to carry out the Court’s decision allowing Joan Sheen Cunningham to transfer the earthly remains of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. But even more we look forward to celebrating with people from all across our country and the entire world in celebrating the Beatification of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, including our many friends from the Archdiocese of New York. It does not go without notice that today’s ruling comes in this hundredth year anniversary of Sheen’s ordination to the priesthood at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, the very place that Joan hopes to transfer him.