Archbishop Fulton Sheen. CNS files

Editorial: A necessary delay

By 
  • December 12, 2019

The call went up to have Archbishop Fulton Sheen declared a saint almost from the day he died 40 years ago. So current disappointment at a Vatican directive to touch the brakes on the popular American’s sainthood cause is no surprise, but the decision is appropriate.

Sheen was to be beatified, the final step before canonization, on Dec. 21 in his hometown of Peoria, Ill. But on Dec. 5, the Vatican took the extraordinary step of postponing the ceremony after the American bishops’ conference relayed possible concerns about some unclear aspects of Sheen’s past.  The Vatican gave no explanation, which only fuelled anxiety.

It was left to the bishop of Peoria, Daniel Jenky, to declare no one has accused Sheen of sexual abuse. That was followed by suggestions that Sheen may have failed to act against an abuser priest when Sheen was Rochester’s bishop in the late 1960s. 

So the beatification stutter-step appears to be based on some 50-year-old hearsay which has set off alarm bells, due no doubt to a general unease that hangs these days like a dark cloud over Church leaders. 

There has been no specific evidence pointing to any misdeed, nor any allegation from a victim or witness. No, just whispers about something that may or may not have happened a half century ago which, in the current climate, is sufficient reason to transform certainty about Sheen’s saintliness into what if?

Contributing to the concern is a report expected soon from the State of New York’s attorney general. It follows the damning 2018 Pennsylvania report and will similarly examine the historical record of bishop responses to sex-abuse allegations in that state. The Rochester bishop has suggested Sheen’s name could appear in the report, although in what context is unknown.

Although the beatification delay may turn out to be a great injustice to Sheen’s reputation, the Vatican had little choice but to heed calls to take another close look at the archbishop’s past. One of the most popular Church figures of the 20th century, an Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, the father of television evangelism, Sheen’s life has already been “thoroughly and meticulously” scrutinized, said Jenky. 

But even if the likelihood is small that past examinations missed something, the many scandals of recent years obligate the Church to tread cautiously.

There have been too many cases of Church officials ignoring warnings or covering up or making excuses over the years for them, amid even a hint of impropriety, now to do anything but re-examine this one aspect of Sheen’s life. 

The pause has angered thousands of Sheen devotees — both in the United States and Canada, where he had a large following — but postponing the beatification and taking even dubious worries seriously is the cost today of transparency and accountability.

No one is happy about it, but postponing the Sheen beatification is the right call.

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