With NY lawsuit window closed, is door open for Sheen's beatification?

News: Ven. Fulton Sheen

A two-year window closed on Saturday, Aug. 14, which allowed New Yorkers to file lawsuits over sexual abuse well after the statute of limitations had been reached. 

The window’s closure signals an end to hundreds of filings in the state over historic claims of abuse. But it could also clear the way for the long-anticipated beatification of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. 

Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, the Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, New York. Sheen had a radio and television program called Life Is Worth Living which aired from 1951 to 1957. Credit: ABC Radio/public domain.

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Sheen’s beatification was scheduled to take place in December 2019, but was abruptly postponed a few weeks before its scheduled date. The delay came after Rochester’s Bishop Salvatore Matano requested that the Vatican postpone the beatification.

The bishop had apparently expressed concern that Sheen would be criticized in a forthcoming state attorney general’s report, or named in a lawsuit, especially over accusations that Sheen had insufficiently handled some allegations of abuse during his tenure as Rochester's bishop. 

In a Dec. 5, 2019 statement, the Rochester diocese said that while it “appreciates the many accomplishments that Archbishop Sheen achieved in his lifetime,” it had “expressed concern about advancing the cause for the beatification of Archbishop Sheen at this time without a further review of his role in priests’ assignments.”

Sheen’s supporters, in both the Peoria diocese and across the country, insisted that his record had been examined numerous times, and the bishop was not found to have covered-up or mishandled allegations of abuse.

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Cardinal Angleo Becciu, who was at that time the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, seemed in December 2019 to confirm to USCCB communications staff in Rome that the decision to postpone Sheen’s beatification was related to the state’s Child Victims Act. 

Becciu told the U.S. bishops’ in-house media group that the beatification Mass had been canceled "out of respect for the U.S. civil authorities, who must express their views on cases of sexual abuse that indirectly affect the period" of Sheen’s time as diocesan bishop.

Some Church-watchers understood Becciu’s comments to mean that Sheen’s beatification would not proceed until Church authorities could be confident that Sheen’s work as a bishop in New York would not appear in litigation. 

Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against New York’s Catholic dioceses and institutions during the lookback window, including the Diocese of Rochester, which filed for bankruptcy protections last year. 

But no legal action initiated thus far has included any reference to mishandling of abuse allegations by Sheen. 

And while New York’s attorney general filed a sweeping lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo last year, no similar action has been taken against Sheen’s former Diocese of Rochester. 

The closure of the legal window raises the possibility that Sheen’s beatification Mass, originally meant to take place in 2019, could be rescheduled soon.

Coadjutor Bishop of Peoria Louis Tylka told reporters Wednesday that the canonization cause of the late archbishop is “on pause” but that he believed it could be taken up again.

“If there is some reason why his cause should not go forward, I think we should have a clear understanding of why that is,” the bishop told the Journal Star on Wednesday.

"Since nobody has given that, I have to believe that there's got to be some reason why there was a pause, but it's only a pause.”

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Sheen was an American bishop whose radio and television work made him a national figure during the middle decades of the twentieth century, and who has been widely credited with popularizing the practice of the faith and bringing the message of the Church to millions through the pioneering use of new media.

He was ordained a priest of the Peoria diocese in 1919, and later made an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York in 1951. He was promoted to lead the Diocese of Rochester in 1966, and retired from diocesan leadership three years later at the age of 74. Instead of taking the title of bishop emeritus of Rochester, Sheen was named in retirement to the titular see of Newport, granting him the rank of archbishop.

Sheen died in 1979, and his cause for canonization was opened in 2002, with a miracle attributed to his intercession recognized in 2009. 

It is not clear whether the Congregation for Bishops has yet received a request to advance Sheen’s cause for canonization. 

For his part, Bishop Tylka told the Peoria Journal Star this week that, while he continues to wait for Rome to “unpause” the beatification plans, he and the diocese continue to advance Sheen’s life and example.

"What I can do is continue to promote his cause for canonization. But I also can promote his life and his legacy, which is not dependent upon whether or not he becomes a saint," he said.