Fort Worth Diocese releases photos allegedly showing drug use at Carmelite monastery

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

June 8, 2023

By Peter Pinedo for CNA

Charges and countercharges of illegal activity have further escalated a bitter public dispute between the Diocese of Fort Worth and a monastery of Carmelite nuns in Arlington, Texas.

In the latest salvo in what has become a protracted legal and public relations battle was launched by the diocese on Wednesday when it released a pair of photographs that purportedly show cannabis and marijuana products inside the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity.

Diocesan spokesman Pat Svacina said in Wednesday’s release that the diocese “is in communication” with the Arlington Police Department regarding “serious concerns it has regarding the use of marijuana and edibles at the monastery.”

The monastery’s attorney, Matthew Bobo, denied the allegations related to drug use, calling them “absolutely ridiculous” and “without merit.”

The dispute between the monastery and the diocese began in April when Olson launched a canonical investigation into an alleged sexual affair between the monastery’s prioress, Reverend Mother Teresa Gerlach, and an unnamed priest from outside the diocese.

The diocese called the alleged misconduct “grave” but has not publicized the exact nature of the affair. On June 1 the bishop issued a decree dismissing Gerlach from religious life.

Following the diocese’s investigation, the monastery filed a civil lawsuit on May 3 seeking $1 million in damages. The nuns further challenged Olson’s authority to conduct the investigation, arguing they were subject only to the Vatican.

The monastery is alleging that Olson and diocesan officials abused their power and engaged in criminal behavior during their investigation.

Monastery says police are investigating diocese

Hours before the diocese released the photos to the press, the monastery’s attorney announced the Arlington Police Department and the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office have launched a criminal investigation of the actions taken against the Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity by the diocese and Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson.

Svacina, in his press statement, denied that anyone with the diocese engaged in criminal activity during their investigation of the monastery, calling the accusation an “attempt to embarrass Bishop Olson and undermine his authority.”

According to Svacina, Bobo’s press release announcing the police investigation is “yet another transparent attempt to spread baseless and outrageous accusations regarding Bishop Olson’s legitimate investigation.”

Meanwhile, Bobo said the criminal investigation of Olson “continues unabated.”

Tim Ciesco, a spokesman for the Arlington Police Department, confirmed with CNA that the department has launched an investigation of Olson at the monastery’s behest.

In response to allegations raised in a letter received on May 31, the Arlington Police “launched an investigation to determine whether any criminal offenses have occurred, which is standard anytime a criminal complaint is made,” Ciesco said.

Ciesco added that “detectives are in the early stages of the investigation.”

Diocese releases photos to the press

Svacina said the images purporting to show drug use in the monastery, which he said were obtained by the diocese “within the last few weeks,” were taken by “a confidential informant within the monastery.”

The metadata for an image labeled “Monasery Photo 1” indicates that it was taken at 12:59 p.m. on Feb. 17 by an iPhone 12 Pro Max. Metadate from the second photo indicates the image was created on June 8.

“The photograph speaks for itself and raises serious questions that the bishop is tirelessly working to address with law enforcement and in private in accordance with canonical norms and within his authority as bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth and as Pontifical Commissary,” Svacina said.

Svacina added that the bishop is in contact with the Arlington police about the monastery regarding “other issues that the diocese will address at another time and in a proper forum.” Bobo called the images “a juvenile, low-level public relations stunt by the diocese to attempt to misdirect the attention from the real issues that Bishop Olson faces with the ongoing criminal investigation.”

He called them “anonymously-sourced photos that could have easily been staged and doctored by anyone, and from anywhere.”

Allegations of abuse of power

Gerlach, 43, has been a nun at Holy Trinity Monastery for 25 years and is currently suffering from serious medical issues that have confined her to a wheelchair, according to her attorney.

The monastery’s civil lawsuit against the diocese accuses the bishop of forcing Gerlach to turn over her computer, iPad, and cell phone, as well as the monastery’s private correspondence, documents, medical records, and donor lists.

On May 31 the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life appointed Olson the “pontifical commissary,” making him the pope’s representative in the matter. The following day Olson issued a decree dismissing Gerlach from religious life.

Bobo, the monastery’s attorney, told CNA that Gerlach plans to appeal the bishop’s decision to dismiss her.

Court documents obtained by CNA show that the monastery is accusing Olson and the diocese of theft, defamation, and “abusing their power, inflicting moral violence and psychological distress” on the nuns.

The civil hearing is set for June 23.

Though the diocese says that Gerlach admitted to the misconduct and concluded that she is guilty, Bobo said the prioress was under the influence of pain medication related to a surgery when she is alleged to have admitted to the affair and “has not admitted to any grave misconduct.”