News Analysis

Is Fulton Sheen’s beatification a lost cause?

The Cause of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, one of the most prominent figures in 20th-century American religious life, has been put on hold, perhaps indefinitely.  

The Diocese of Peoria, where Sheen was ordained and is now buried, announced the delay on December 3. Two days later, the Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported that the Diocese of Rochester, where Sheen had served as bishop for three years in the late 1960s, had requested the delay.  

Rochester Bishop Salvatore Matano reportedly sent a letter to the Vatican suggesting that Sheen could be named in a forthcoming New York attorney general’s report on sex abuse by clerics in the state, regarding his handling of an abusive priest, believed to be Gerard Guli. Rochester diocese is currently facing a slew of sex abuse lawsuits and filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.  

Not surprisingly, Bishop Matano’s intervention was poorly received in Peoria, which was just weeks away from hosting a beatification ceremony that would have drawn interest from around the world. Peoria was looking forward to the celebration after a bruising legal battle over Sheen’s remains with the Archdiocese of New York. The body was finally transferred to Peoria on June 27.  

In a six-page article on the website, Peoria official Mgr James Kruse wrote: “Rochester diocese’s revelation of these undisclosed cases simply follows the same pattern that the Rochester diocese has executed since this past spring. 

“This pattern is simple: the Sheen Cause takes a step forward and then the Rochester diocese acts to block the beatification. When examining the pattern it is hard not to believe that the Diocese of Rochester acts more to sabotage the Cause and less to protect the good of the Church.” 

Several news stories have speculated that Bishop Matano would not have taken such a step without consulting Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, his metropolitan.  

Cardinal Dolan fought the removal of Sheen’s body to Peoria until losing in court earlier this year.  

“In halting the beatification, it appears Matano might have done the bidding of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the loser in the battle with Peoria over where Sheen’s remains are buried,” Peoria’s Journal Star speculated. Cardinal Dolan had not responded to the claims as we went to press. 

According to Rocco Palmo, author of the widely read Whispers in the Loggia blog, the delay may be indefinite. He tweeted last week that a source in Rome had told him that the “Sheen Cause is over”.  

That suggestion was welcomed in some quarters. Couching his desire to call off the canonisation in an otherwise reasonable argument about the rapid canonisations of modern saints in recent years, Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter wrote that “the Holy Father should use this moment to do more than move the date back a few months. I hope they will postpone the event indefinitely.” 

Vaticanologist John Allen, meanwhile, took the opportunity to coin a phrase, the “Sheen dilemma”, for what happens when a bishop with a reputation for holiness is alleged to have mishandled abuse cases. 

“Going forward,” he wrote at Crux, “in order to claim a halo, any candidate who was in a leadership position in the Church – meaning, usually, a bishop or religious superior – will have to be shown to have had ‘clean hands’ on the abuse scandals. 

“What that new standard leaves unaddressed, however, is what to do in the case of such a figure who’s already been proclaimed a saint, but whose record is later shown to have been suspect in terms of handling allegations.” 

The promoters of Sheen’s Cause argue that a thorough review of his record has already taken place, and that he has passed the test.  

In an interview with CNA, Mgr Kruse defended Sheen’s handling of Gerard Guli. Guli, a priest accused of abusing minors in West Virginia, returned home to Rochester in 1967 during Sheen’s tenure in the diocese. According to Mgr Kruse, the claim that Sheen assigned Guli to a parish was investigated and found to be without foundation. Guli himself, according to Mgr Kruse, denied being assigned to the parishes he was supposedly associated with. Guli was eventually laicised.  

Mgr Eric Barr, a retired priest of Rockford, about two hours north of Peoria, agreed with Mgr Kruse’s assessment, writing at Patheos: “So after all the intense investigations into the life of Fulton Sheen, much more than the Attorney General will do, the bishops out of an exercise of caution decide to postpone beatification. That’s not prudence. That’s cowardice. We are to believe that these bishops fear that Sheen’s life will not hold up to scrutiny. We are told we must capitulate to a secular power just in case there is ‘something’ there, a something that has never been there before.” 

Rochester diocese, meanwhile, insists that it acted for the good of the Church. In a statement, it said: “The Diocese of Rochester did its due diligence in this matter and believed that, while not casting suspicion, it was prudent that Archbishop Sheen’s Cause receive further study and deliberation, while also acknowledging the competency of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to render its decision. The Holy See ultimately decided to postpone the beatification.”