Vatican City, Dec 4, 2019 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- The beatification of Archbishop Fulton Sheen was delayed at the request of Bishop Salvatore Matano of Rochester, according to several sources close to the beatification process.
The bishop is reported to have requested the delay due to concerns that Sheen could be cited in the final report covering an ongoing state attorney general’s investigation into New York’s bishops and dioceses.
In September, New York’s attorney general began an investigation into whether any of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses had covered up acts or allegations of clerical sexual abuse. Sheen was Bishop of Rochester from 1966 to 1969.
The bishop, who was a prolific author and television personality, was set to be beatified on Dec. 21, the last step before a person can be declared a saint.
A “postponement” of the beatification was announced by the Peoria diocese, where Sheen is buried and would have been beatified, on Dec. 3.
The diocese said that “a few members of the Bishops’ Conference” had “requested a delay,” adding that “the Diocese of Peoria remains confident that Archbishop Sheen’s virtuous conduct will only be further demonstrated.”
According to a source close to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, Matano contacted the apostolic nuncio after the beatification date was set, to express concerns that Sheen could be named in a report by the attorney general, or accused of insufficiently handling allegations of abuse during his tenure as Rochester’s bishop.
There was apparently specific concern that such an allegation against Sheen could be timed to coincide with the beatification on Dec. 21, sources told CNA.
“A beatification is a celebration,” an official close to the Secretariat of State told CNA about the decision to postpone. “The purpose is to help the faith of the people, not to be an occasion for scandal and problems, nothing is lost by waiting and maybe some things are avoided.”
“There has been a great deal of impatience in some parts about [Sheen’s beatification], but in the normal course of these things this all is happening very fast – look at [St. Cardinal John Henry] Newman and how long the wait was.”
Several senior U.S. archbishops were consulted on the matter before the final decision to delay was made by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. The U.S. bishops consulted reportedly reached consensus that it would be “imprudent” to proceed with the beatification plans until after the attorney general’s report has been released and the matter resolved.
The Rochester diocese has released and updated a list of clergy accused of sexual abuse going back several decades, including those subsequently removed from ministry, sentenced to a life of prayer and penance or laicized. The majority of the accusations were brought forward decades after Sheen finished his tenure as bishop in the diocese, even including those which allegedly took place while Sheen was bishop.
Fr. Gerard Guli, a Rochester priest, was reportedly laicized during Sheen’s tenure as bishop of the diocese. The priest was ordained in 1956, and from 1963 to 1967 served in parishes in West Virginia. According to a document issued by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, in 1963 the Diocese of Rochester received an allegation that in 1960 Guli committed abuse or misconduct against adults, not minors.
Sheen became Rochester’s bishop in October 1966. In October 1967, according to multiple reports, Guli was laicized.
Guli later returned to ministry in the Diocese of Rochester, and in 1989 was arrested for an incident of abuse involving an elderly woman. The priest was serving at Rochester’s Holy Rosary Parish at the time.
According to several sources, after Guli was laicized in 1967, he did not return to ministry in the Diocese of Rochester until after Sheen’s term as bishop had ended.
The Diocese of Rochester declined to respond to questions from CNA about Guli, and whether his case in particular might be connected to the beatification postponement.
The Diocese of Peoria’s Dec. 3 statement said that “the life of Fulton Sheen has been thoroughly and meticulously investigated. At every stage, it has been demonstrated definitively that he was an exemplary model of Christian conduct and a model of leadership in the Church. At no time has his life of virtue ever been called into question.”
An official close to the beatification process told CNA that “the officials of the cause in Illinois looked very carefully at every part of his ministry as a bishop in New York. They did not find that he handled cases badly.”
Still, the official said, “now we will just have to wait and to see.”
In August, New York state law opened a window in the statute of limitations for vicitms of child sexual abuse to file civil or criminal complaints concerning historic offences. The one-year window was created through the Child Victims Act, which also altered New York’s statute of limitations for filing criminal claims and civil claims for survivors of child sexual abuse.
Over 400 lawsuits were filed on the first day of the window, include an allegation against a sitting bishop and a RICO suit against the Diocese of Buffalo and the Northeast Province of the Jesuits. Claims were also filed against laicized former archbishop and cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
In September, the Rochester diocese filed for bankruptcy protection, amid a flood of abuse lawsuits.
"This is a very difficult and painful decision, but after assessing all reasonable possibilities to satisfy the claims, reorganization is considered the best and fairest course of action for the victims and for the well-being of the diocese, its parishes, agencies and institutions," Bishop Matano wrote in a Sept. 12 letter.
"We believe this is the only way we can provide just compensation for all who suffered the egregious sin of sexual abuse while ensuring the continued commitment of the diocese to the mission of Christ."
The Diocese of Rochester declined Dec. 4 to answer questions from CNA, but did provide a statement.
“The decision to postpone the beatification of Archbishop Sheen was solely the decision of the Holy See. Respecting the competency of the Holy See in this matter, the Diocese will decline further comment.”