PEORIA — Yet again, the New York Archdiocese is trying to stop Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s remains from being moved to Peoria.
The archdiocese has filed a second petition with the Court of Appeals, New York’s equivalent of the Illinois Supreme Court. On May 2, the Court of Appeals rejected an archdiocese argument claiming that lower courts had made constitutional errors in repeatedly giving permission to a Sheen relative to transfer his remains to Peoria, where he was ordained as a priest 100 years ago.
"This newly filed motion is the New York Archdiocese's sixth attempt over the past three years to thwart the wishes of Archbishop Sheen's family," Monsignor James E. Kruse, vicar general for the Peoria Diocese, said Monday. "It is with great regret that this time-consuming and costly litigation continues, which also delays the celebration of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen's beatification."
The archdiocese did not immediately return a Journal Star request for comment.
Born in El Paso in 1895, Sheen went on to a celebrated career in New York as host of the national-television program “Life Is Worth Living.” Five days before his death, in 1979, Sheen signed a will seeking burial in the archdiocese’s graveyard, Calvary Cemetery. But the archdiocese instead sought and won permission from Sheen’s closest living relative, niece Joan Sheen Cunningham, to inter him in a place of honor: St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The matter rested quietly until 2002, when the Peoria Diocese began the lengthy process of campaigning the Vatican for Sheen’s sainthood. Since 2012, Sheen has been one step — beatification — away from sainthood.
Before beatification, church law calls for the body to be exhumed for authentification. From the Peoria Diocese’s vantage, Roman Catholic tradition calls for beatification in the diocese of the origin of a sainthood effort. In 2014, the New York Archdiocese refused the Peoria Diocese’s request to disinter Sheen. So, in 2016, the diocese filed suit in New York seeking to move the remains to Peoria, citing new support from niece Cunningham.
That year, a New York judge ruled the remains immediately could be moved to Peoria. Since then, however, appeals have gone back and forth, with the New York Archdiocese (via the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral) arguing Sheen wanted to be buried in New York and that the chances of sainthood are purely speculative. In March, judges said that court testimony indicated Sheen would approve of any process that would aid canonization, including a relocation of remains to Peoria.
After that decision, in taking its case to the highest New York court, the archdiocese claimed that all prior court rulings had violated the First Amendment regarding free exercise of religion. In essence, the argument asserted, the courts had no standing to infringe on a church issue. The Peoria Diocese, however, argued that no religious rights were compromised; rather, the courts had been ruling on civil matters covered by civil law. The court rejected the archdiocese’s assertion, stating, “No substantial constitutional question is directly involved” — and thus there was no reason to reexamine the previous appeal.
In the latest appeal, however, the archdiocese argues that the high court does have standing to review the case, especially in the appellate ruling's failure to recognize the state's legal precedent holding that "the deceased" — here, Sheen — is the "prime and paramount" determiner of a final resting place.
The Peoria Diocese is still hoping to bury Sheen’s remains this year at a crypt at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 607 NE Madison Ave., the diocesan seat. Sheen was ordained at St. Mary’s on Sept. 20, 1919, and the diocese has expressed a wish that beatification could occur on or near the 100th anniversary of Sheen’s ordination.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.