Did Fulton Sheen witness and cover up the sexual assault of a child?

BY DAMIEN AND SIMCHA FISHER

Did Fulton Sheen witness and cover up the sexual assault of a child?

Less than a week after Sheen’s beatification was announced,  Rebecca Bratten Weiss’ Patheos blog echoed recent chatter on Twitter, sharing text that alleges Sheen saw a priest sexually abusing a child. The text claims Sheen walked in as the abuse happened, but he merely told the priest to put his pants back on, called the victim a “slut,” and proceeded to help cover up the crime. The text alleges that the Cause for his canonization knew about the allegations and did not respond to them. 

“I knew there was something fishy about Fulton Sheen,” tweeted Mary Pezzulo, another Patheos blogger, after the documents were shared. 

We are well aware the Church has an abysmal record of abuse and cover-up. We also believe that allegations of abuse should always be taken seriously and investigated if possible. But we do not believe these allegations are credible. Here’s why.

The only reference we can find to these allegations comes from that text, which was posted on BishopAccountability.org sometime in 2007. BishopAccountability.org is an invaluable clearinghouse for documents regarding sexual abuse and cover-up in the Church, and we are grateful for its work; but it does not claim to vet or verify any documents it shares. According to the site:

“It is our goal to assemble on the Internet a collection of every publicly available document and report on the crisis …
Our standards of inclusion are broad … BishopAccountability.org makes no claim regarding the accuracy of any document we post, and we have tried to include the full range of viewpoints, so as to provide a fully documented landscape of the crisis.”

This is not a criticism of BishopAccountability.org, but merely a clarification of what they do.

The allegation against Sheen is part of a lengthy text that purports to be a lawsuit complaint prepared by New York attorney John Aretakis sometime in 2007 on behalf of former priest Robert Hoatson. Who are Hoatson and Aretakis, and what is their history?

Hoatson and Aretakis first filed a $5 million federal RICO lawsuit in December of 2005 against The New York Archdiocese, Cardinal Edward Egan, the Archdiocese of Newark, Archbishop John J. Myers, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, the Congregation of Christian Brothers, and a number of individuals. The federal complaint was amended a few weeks later. 

Neither the original December 2005 complaint nor the amended January 2006 complaint mentions Sheen at all.

In February of 2007, the RICO lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning they may not file those claims again. The court also sanctioned Aretakis and ordered him to pay $8,000 ($2,000 to each of the major defendants). 

The presiding judge, Judge Paul Crotty, had harsh words for Aretakis’ behavior and credibility when he dismissed the case, saying in his ruling: 

“Taking Mr. Aretakis’s behavior in this case as a whole, it is clear that his conduct is sanctionable because it is sloppy and unprofessional; the pleadings are so far removed from adequate that they cannot be said to have been filed in good faith or after a reasonable inquiry; the bulk of the allegations dealing with sexual abuse are wholly irrelevant to the RICO claim, and; the Title VII claim is admittedly without basis in law.”

Crotty noted in his ruling that Aretakis and Hoatson made a splash the day they filed the lawsuit, holding a high profile press conference. He also noted that Aretakis has a history of filing RICO lawsuits that get dismissed.

Crotty’s ruling did not dismiss all the legal claims Hoatson brought, allowing him to refile the lawsuit in state court. In 2007, Aretakis filed a New York State lawsuit on Hoatson’s behalf against many of the same defendants.

While we can independently verify that Aretakis did file a state lawsuit on Hoatson’s behalf, we have been unable to find a verified copy of the complaint. We do not know if the complaint text on BishopAccountability.org, where the sole public accusation against Sheen exists, is the actual complaint filed in court. It was provided to the site by writer Matt C. Abbott, who has written copiously about the abuse scandal in the Church. Abbott himself said: “It should be noted that I do not necessarily agree with every assertion/conclusion made in the complaint.” Abbott referenced the document in a column he wrote for Renew America, but the column is no longer available online

Let’s assume for the moment that the complaint that appears on BishopAccountability.org was actually filed in court. Here is the section that mentions Sheen, which is part of a long litany of allegations against several different priests:

“The plaintiff is counseling a victim of a New York Archdiocesan priest whose sexual abuse continued for over ten years. One day, while the victim was being abused in the offices of the Propagation of the Faith in New York City, Bishop Fulton Sheen walked in on the abuse, called the victim a slut, told the priest to put his pants on, and did nothing to report the incident or comfort the victim. Bishop Sheen covered-up the crime. The priest abuser remains a pastor and had a prominent role in national television coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II. When the plaintiff wrote to the promoter of the cause of canonization of Bishop Sheen to inform him of Bishop Sheen’s actions, his letter was ignored and went unanswered. Bishop Sheen’s sainthood is steamrolling ahead despite his cover-up of child sexual abuse, while the plaintiff continues to be harassed, retaliated against, and fired.”

There are no names, except for Sheen’s. This is not a first hand account, but claims to speak on behalf of Hoatson supposedly counseling an unnamed victim. It is hearsay, not evidence. It is precisely how one would operate if the goal were to create buzz for a potentially lucrative legal case by making accusations against a famous dead man. Judge Crotty, in his federal RICO dismissal ruling, specifically chides Aretakis for using this strategy:

“Finally, further evidence of Mr. Aretakis’s motives is the drumbeat of publicity which Mr. Aretakis has sought. The day he and his client filed this complaint, he held a press conference to announce his lawsuit. This appears to be his common practice. The immediate link between the filing of the complaint and the press conference support the inference that Mr. Aretakis’s intention was to injure. That intent is confirmed by Mr. Aretakis’s statements in which he describes himself as an activist for clergy sexual abuse victims and is quoted as intending to ‘continue to humiliate and embarrass the Church’ by bringing incidents of sexual abuse to light, even if he cannot bring them in court. This intent to humiliate and embarrass is further manifested in the amended complaint which is littered with wholly irrelevant, inflammatory, and embarrassing facts concerning defendants and non-defendants alike that have no bearing on the actions brought, such as ‘it was widely known that he [one of the defendants] was an alcoholic.”

The state lawsuit was dismissed in October of 2009, and the New York court ordered Hoatson to pay the defendants’ court costs. 

In October of 2009, a sexual abuse survivor sued Hoatson, claiming he used his position as founder of his non-profit, Road to Recovery, to extort sexual abuse settlement money from him, according to public records. The case was dismissed without prejudice, partially because the victim was seeking $10,000, while the minimum for federal lawsuits of this nature is $75,000.

Road to Recovery, an organization set up to help survivors of sexual abuse, collected  $117,907 in contributions in the last reported year, paid out more than $100,000 in management expenses, and paid another $13,000 for program expenses.  Yesterday, I erroneously stated that its tax exempt status has been revoked. It has not. I regret the error. According to the NJ Consumer Affairs, Road to Recovery is listed as “compliant” as a charity in the state.

According to public records, Aretakis’ law license suspended for one year in 2008 after he was found guilty of professional misconduct by the New York Committee on Professional Standards. Among the charges was that Aretakis made false accusations against judges, engaged in frivolous conduct, and entered into court actions meant to harass people. 

We cannot confirm independently that the accusation against Sheen is actually part of a real lawsuit. The information contained in the text which includes the allegations against Sheen appear to come solely from Hoatson’s account of what he says various sex abuse survivors told him. Hoatson was using these stories in his $5 million lawsuit.

In summary: There is no actual evidence that a crime occurred or that there is a victim, and there is no evidence that Hoatson or anyone else contacted the cause for Fulton Sheen and was ignored, as is asserted. The allegations of abuse and cover-up, and the allegations that the Cause didn’t respond, come entirely from a text that has yet to be verified, by a source and his attorney who both have significant credibility problems. 

We reached out on Friday to the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation and to Monsignor Soseman, who was delegated by Bishop Jenky to oversee the Cause, to ask if they had heard of these allegations and whether they were investigated. But the team tasked with investigating and recording information regarding a candidate for beatification are sworn to secrecy, in order to encourage people to divulge sensitive information; so we suspect the office of the Cause would not be able to tell us if an investigation had taken place, or even whether Hoatson contacted them, as he claims. If he did approach them with the same information he claims to have shared in court — that Fulton saw an unnamed priest abusing an unnamed child in an undisclosed year — it’s unclear how any investigation could proceed.

Regardless, we have not yet heard back. Since the text making allegations have been circulating, we thought it was important to follow up quickly with more information; but we will update this story if and when more information becomes available. 

We continue our call for complete transparency from the Church. Justice is not served by covering up the truth, but neither is it served by eagerly believing the worst.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION July 14, 2019 3 PM eastern:

I erroneously stated that Road to Recovery’s tax exempt status has been revoked. It has not. I regret the error.

Monsignor Soseman responded from Rome:

I do know that no such letter [as the one Hoatson says he sent] ever arrived at the office in Peoria,  nor have I ever heard of any such allegation, in any of the extensive testimonies we took.  I finished my work with the cause in 2008. Since then it has been at the Vatican. I do know that both offices of the propagation had open floorplans with very few doors. 

 

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We will continue to update this story as necessary. 

Image: Fulton Sheen by Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain] via Wikepedia (image cropped) 

From The Boy Who Lived to Beatification: Fulton Sheen’s First Miracle

“Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen,” prayed Bonnie Engstrom. She had just given birth, and her baby boy was dead, his umbilical cord tied tightly around his neck.

He did not breathe; his heart did not beat. His leg was necrotic from a misfired epinephrine shot intended to revive him. Sixty-one minutes after delivery, his heart still did not beat, and the monitor showed nothing but “pulseless electric activity.” He could not be revived, and the ER doctors turned away to call the time of death. 

Still his parents prayed to Fulton Sheen. Then the baby’s heart began to beat.  

His mother and father believe it was the intercession of Fulton Sheen that brought him back to life – not only back to life, but back to health. The child, James Fulton Engstrom, shows no physical or mental defects from the hour he spent among the dead nine years ago.

James Fulton Engstrom (photo courtesy of Bonnie Engstrom; used with permission)

On Friday, Pope Francis decreed that it was indeed through Fulton Sheen’s intercession that James Engstrom was healed after his parents prayed to Sheen for help.

Sheen, the telegenic archbishop known for his groundbreaking evangelization via TV and radio, will now be beatified — the final step before he is declared a saint. 

Fulton Sheen in 1956. Photo by ABC Radio [Public domain]
The cause for Sheen’s beatification was put on hold after the archdiocese of Peoria and the archdiocese of New York both claimed his body. A five-year legal tussle ensued, and it wasn’t until June of 2019 that New York renounced its wish to keep Sheen’s body at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Weeks later, his remains were moved to St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, and the cause for his beatification immediately moved forward. On July 6, the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints promulgated the decree approving Sheen’s miracle

Beatification is formal recognition that a person is in heaven, and it means that we may now pray to him for intercession. Those who are beatified may be referred to as “Blessed [Name];” and they may be venerated publicly “in places closely associated with his or her life and ministry.”

With his beatification, Sheen is now one step closer to sainthood. Before he is canonized, the Vatican must approve a second miracle attributed to his intercession. The second miracle must take place after the beatification ceremony. 

How does the Church actually decide who should and shouldn’t be beatified or canonized?

“Some people think that there’s a ‘wink and nudge’ attitude in the Vatican,” said Omar Gutiérrez, who is the notary for a tribunal working through the beginning stages of another cause for beatification, this one for Fr. Edward J. Flanagan, Founder of Boys Town.

“But the remarkable thoroughness of the process took me aback,” Gutiérrez said.

I interviewed Gutiérrez back in 2014, along with Msgr. Richard Soseman, who oversaw the cause for Sheen’s canonization, and Bonnie Engstrom, whose book describing her family’s experience will be released in the fall The interview originally ran, in a somewhat different form, in Catholic Digest

I’ve included a glossary of terms at the end. 

wherever the evidence leadS

Bonnie Engstrom and her husband have always believed it was through the intercession of Fulton Sheen that their son’s life was restored; and a thorough investigation into the details of their story has borne out their theory. A rigorously trained team of investigators pored over every aspect of James Fulton’s seemingly miraculous recovery before adding his case to the cause for the beatification of Fulton Sheen. One tribunal charged with collecting information about a holy person examines alleged miracles, and another one focuses on the life and works of the person himself.

When a candidate’s name is suggested for veneration (the step before beatification), a petitioner asks a bishop to get permission from the Vatican to open a cause. If there is no objection, the petitioner names a postulator to oversee all the logistics of the cause.

Gutiérrez said that the process is like a legal investigation.

“We go wherever the evidence leads us,” he said. “We’re instructed not to cover over anything, but to be forthright. We took a vow of secrecy, because we want people who might have unpleasant information to feel free to come forth.”

In the cause for the beatification of Abp. Sheen, Msgr. Richard Soseman was delegated by Archbishop Jenky of Peoria to oversee all facets of the cause for canonization, and to compile evidence about Sheen’s life for review by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS) at the Vatican. Msgr. Soseman, who is an official of the Congregation for the Clergy, said, “We were in contact with around one hundred people who knew Archbishop Sheen personally, and took testimony in the way prescribed by the Church from the greater part of them.”

Sheen at the Toe of St Peter’s statue in St Peter’s Basilica. Photo by Heather Cowper www.heatheronhertravels.com/ (Creative Commons)

Once the diocesan phase is done and the postulator has submitted his argument in favor of the candidate, and once a team of historians, theologians, and prelates for the CCS unanimously agree that the candidate led a life of exceptional virtue, he is referred to as “Venerable.” Then (in the case of non-martyrs) the CCS will consider evidence about any allegedly miraculous events brought about through the intercession of the Venerable in question.

the case was strong

This is where James Fulton Engstrom came in.  James’ mother, Bonnie, said, “My mom told me that I needed to contact the Sheen Foundation, so they would at least have a record of his story. I sincerely thought they would just write it down in a book somewhere in a back room, and that would be that.”

In many cases, that is precisely what happens. Msgr. Soseman said that, when he worked for the archdiocese, he got requests for inquiries into causes as frequently as once a month.

“There are some Causes which ‘fall apart,’ he said, “and perhaps they should at the time that they do. There are some which start a bit slowly, and others which stall at various stages in the process.  I believe there are about 800 causes at the CCS waiting for a miracle or other progress.”

But in the case of James Engstrom, one person talked to another until the postulator in Rome determined the case was strong.  The cause has moved forward with unusual speed – but with no lack of thoroughness. Engstrom was interviewed countless times, and spent years answering detailed questions about her son’s health, and about her and her husband Travis’ devotion to Fulton Sheen. 

The tribunal discovered that Bonnie’s entire pregnancy had been dedicated to Sheen.  She said, “Several witnesses were called who could testify to the fact that Travis and I had a growing devotion to Fulton Sheen; and questions were asked about when and how we and others prayed.”

No natural explanation

The allegedly miraculous event itself is scrutinized in great detail. The tribunal interviewed experts and witnesses to testify about the medical aspects of James’ ordeal.

Engstrom said that the panel of physicians searched hard through witness testimony and medical records, looking for some natural, medical explanation for what happened to her son. Engstrom said she appreciated how hard the panel worked to flush out the truth.

“In some ways it was a lot of fun,” she said. “But every time I tell James’ story, especially the more detail I share, it is difficult. My little boy went through a lot.  It was difficult to watch, and it is difficult to remember.”

Msgr. Soseman said, “The Church is quite rigorous in this process, to make sure that no error or over-enthusiasm creeps in, which might cloud the issue.”

In March of 2014, the panel of physicians appointed by the CCS unanimously agreed that there was no natural explanation for James’ revival and healing. In June, the panel of theologians agreed that the alleged miracle occurred through the intercession of Sheen.

Miter worn by Fulton Sheen. Photo by Nic Wilson (flickr.com/photos/66335735@N07/) Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode)

“We had no idea what to expect!” said Engstrom. “We were totally blown away by the beauty of [the process] — the language used, the sealing wax. We were really impressed with how earnestly the Church wants only the truth. That was really beautiful to watch, too.”

a mountain of Paperwork

Along with the ceremony and beauty, there is a mountain of clerical work involved in a cause for beatification and canonization. 

Gutiérrez said that one aspect of the process that raises eyebrows is the cost. “One complaint I often hear,” he said, “is about the money involved. But the money goes toward paying for postulator’s salary, and for printing. The amount of printing involved is immense.”

When  Msgr. Soseman worked with the Congregation for the Clergy in 2008, he said his office prepared multiple copies of the 6,500 documents gathered in the local phase of the cause alone.

After those thousands of pages for the cause are read and considered, and the theologians and physicians recommend that the cause continue, the cardinals and bishops who are members of the CCS must vote on whether to present the case to the Pope.

everything rests with the Pope

If they vote to continue, they will recommend that the Pope make a Decree of Heroic Virtue – which he may do even before a miracle is declared. Ultimately, everything rests with Pope Francis: he may do nothing, or he may declare that the miracle is valid, and the candidate will be called “Blessed.” For the candidate to be declared a saint, a second miracle is required.

A date has not yet been set for Sheen’s beatification. The ceremony will take place in Sheen’s hometown of Peoria, IL, near where the Engstrom family lives; but the canonization would be held in Rome.

Cathedral of St. Mary in Peoria. Photo by Farragutful [Public domain]

Engstrom said in 2014, “If James’ healing is declared a miracle, I think there’s a good chance James would get to present Sheen’s relics to Pope Francis. As a mom, that is both incredibly exciting and terrifying!” 

At the time, no one knew how much longer will it would before the Pope make a pronouncement about Fulton Sheen.

“In the end,” said Engstrom, “This isn’t about James or our family. It’s not even about Fulton Sheen. In the end, this is about Jesus Christ. All of this — the canonization process, the miracles, saints — it’s all a means to an end, and that end is for every person to know and love Almighty God, to live lives that bring Him glory and honor, and to find salvation through Jesus Christ.”

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Glossary of terms 

Once secret and mysterious, the beatification and canonization processes  are now more familiar to laymen – but some of the terms can be confusing. Here are some of the words and phrases you may hear:

Servant of God: title given to someone for whom a cause for beatification and canonization has begun

Venerable: someone whose martyrdom or heroic virtue has been formally recognized by the Pope

Beatification: recognition that a person is in Heaven. We may pray for intercession in the name of someone who has been beatified, and refer to him as “Blessed So-and-So”

Canonization: recognition that a person is in Heaven and may be universally venerated. Canonization does not make someone into a saint; it infallibly declares that his life is worthy of veneration and imitation

Congregation for the Causes of Saints: the body that oversees the entire process and turns all materials over to the Pope

Petitioner: appoints a postulator and pays for costs associated with the cause

Postulator: Initiates a cause for beatification or canonization and guides it through the process, documenting all relevant information about the candidate, identifying witnesses, and generally organizing and coordinating everything, and formally presenting documents to the CCS

Tribunal: Officials appointed by the bishop to consider evidence for and against canonization

Positio:  The comprehensive document that the postulator presents to the CCS, describing the person’s heroic virtue and the alleged miracle attributed to his intercession

Nihil obstat: (“nothing stands in the way”) A formal declaration by the CCS that there is no impediment to proceeding with the cause   

Theological Commission: Body of theologians appointed by the bishop to examine the writings of the candidate, to be sure there are no theological problems

Historical Commission: Body of scholars appointed by the bishop to examine the acts, visits, and timeline of the candidate

Both commissions report to the tribunal set up by the bishop who has taken up the cause.

Relator: the “reporter” who assembles documents pertaining to the candidate’s life, history, era, and circumstances. Performs many of the tasks associated with the now defunct “Devil’s Advocate” 

Special thanks to Omar Gutiérrez of the Archdiocese of Omaha for his patient and invaluable help in explaining and clarifying the process.

What about Lucia?

Why isn’t Lucia being canonised along with her cousins?

The cute answer is: Our Lady is to blame.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Fatima children with Rosaries via Wikimedia Commons

The samurai martyr and the sex abuse scandal

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-1-41-12-pm

Where do we go when we as a church are caught persecuting ourselves? How do we respond when the aggressor lives within our walls, and when the criticisms of our church are accurate and true? When the enemy of the faith is a hostile outsider, our course seems clear: we fight back, to defend ourselves and our church. But this is a different matter.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly of Australia.

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Image: detail from woodblock by Hokusai(?)

So Benedict was the pinko who green lighted Oscar Romero cause

oscar-romero

According to the AP (bold type is my addition):

The monsignor who spearheaded the saint-making process for El Salvador’s slain Archbishop Oscar Romero said Wednesday it was Pope Benedict XVI— and not Pope Francis — who removed the final hurdle in the tortured, 35-year process.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia told reporters Benedict “gave the green light.” Speaking a day after Francis declared that Romero died as a martyr for the faith, Paglia said Romero’s beatification would likely be within a few months in San Salvador.

Paglia says Benedict told him on Dec. 20, 2012, the case had passed from the Vatican’s doctrine office, where it had been held up for years over concerns about Romero’s orthodoxy, to the saint-making office. From there it proceeded quickly, taking a mere two years for theologians, and then a committee of cardinals and bishops, to agree unanimously that Romero died as a martyr out of hatred for the faith.

I don’t know about you, but the narrative I always heard and accepted was that Oscar Romero did good work, but was a little hinky in his leanings, and so the more conservative element in the Church didn’t want to touch his cause for beatification; but Francis is enough of a free-wheeler to cut through that red tape and get this thing moving. I’m not saying that’s what you thought; I’m saying that’s what I thought, without thinking about it much.

Instead, it looks like this is installment #3,908,555 in the story titled “The Vatican works very, very slowly, and most of us know almost nothing about what goes on there” (and installment #598,773 in the story titled, “So, you thought you knew Benedict?”). I’m really looking forward to learning more about Abp. Romero, who was assassinated while saying Mass, apparently for appealing directly to soldiers to stop murdering the citizens of El Salvador.

 

Whew, 2015 is off to quite a start!