FORT WORTH (TX)
The Pillar [Washington DC]
June 30, 2023
By The Pillar
A judge in Texas has ruled that a district court does not have jurisdiction to hear a lawsuit brought by a monastery of Carmelite nuns against Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth.
The decision, handed down on Friday, June 30, ruled that the nuns’ suit is “dismissed for want of subject-matter jurisdiction.” Responding to the decision, Bishop Olson said in a statement that he is “grateful.”
“The decision vindicates our steadfast belief that this is a private Church matter that does not belong in the courts,” Bishop Olson. “This matter will continue to proceed through an established canonical process.”
The bishop also asked “the faithful for their continued prayers for the Diocese, Mother Teresa Agnes, and all of the nuns at the monastery.”
The civil attorney acting for the sisters, Matthew Bobo, said he would appeal the decision dismissing the case on which the sisters accused the bishop of defaming them, invading their privacy, and stealing information from their electronic devices, which were seized during a canonical investigation earlier this year.
“We are shocked, extremely disappointed and respectfully disagree with Judge Crosby’s decision.” said Bobo, attorney for the Carmelite nuns of the Most Holy Trinity Monastery in Arlington, Texas.
The lawsuit concerns a canonical investigation undertaken by Olson in which some electronic equipment was initially taken from the monastery by the diocese and later returned.
Bishop Olson’s involvement in the Carmel came in response to the mother superior admitting to some kind of sin against the Sixth Commandment with a priest. The bishop subsequently decreed her removal as superior and dismissed her from the religious order — both canonical decisions are being appealed to the Holy See, sources close to the nuns have told The Pillar.
The ruling Friday was issued by Judge Dan Cosby of Tarrant County’s 67th District Court, and follows a hearing Tuesday in which the Fort Worth diocese’s legal team played a tape of more than 30 minutes, in which Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach could be heard being questioned by Bishop Olson, conceding that while she had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a priest, and insisting that it was “all over the phone.”
The audio tape played by the Fort Worth diocese June 27 was a record of an April conversation between Olson and Mother Teresa Agnes, whom Olson dismissed from religious life June 1, after he was appointed May 31 the “pontifical commissary” of the Arlington monastery by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
In the recording, which was obtained by The Pillar June 28, Olson asked Gerlach whether she had committed a “violation of the Sixth Commandment … with a priest” and she assented to that.
But, the nun told Olson, “most of this was over the phone,” and later insisted that her contact with the priest was entirely over the phone.
As the bishop explained that he had initiated a canonical investigation, Gerlach told him: “Bishop, I need to tell you something. I don’t know how to explain this, but this did not happen in person. At all. It was all over the phone. So, he did not come down here,” Gerlach said.
“The truth is that he was not down here.”
Olson told her that she had “changed the story,” adding, “we have a hard time with the truth.”
Gerlach blamed her health problems, which had reportedly seen her heavily medicated in late 2022 and early 2023, and in the hospital for several medical procedures.
“I promise you, Bishop. At the time, I was having seizures, and I was really in a very difficult position. And I think my brain just got really messed up,” Gerlach insisted.
“And Bishop, I really got very confused,” the nun said on the tape. “I was not in my right mind.”
“Well, I understand it,” the bishop said, “even more so then, why you shouldn’t be prioress.” The bishop then read a decree initiating his canonical preliminary investigation of the nun.
Gerlach added that she and the priest got “very close,” and then indicated that, “just twice, on the phone,” they had committed some unspecified sexual sin “over the phone” or “on video chat.”
“I was not in my right mind when this happened … I would never do anything like this. I’m a nun, and … then you fall,” she told Olson.
The nun’s lawyer has previously said that his client’s supposed admission of sexual misconduct came while Gerlach was under the influence of fentanyl and other heavy medications.
The testimony seemed to paint a picture in which the diocese initially thought that Gerlach was involved in an ongoing, physical, consensual sexual relationship with a Montana priest, and that her later account to the bishop appeared to refute that.
But the testimony does not clarify what, precisely, Olson believed was the delict, or canonical crime, that Gerlach had committed.
While the Church teaches that sexual immorality is a grave sin, it does not establish that consensual sex between adults, even priests and religious, is usually a canonical crime — and while the diocese acknowledged that the unspecified sexual misconduct was consensual, Olson also approached it in the manner of a canonical crime.
Since the initial investigation by the diocese into the monastery, both representatives for the nuns and the diocesan chancery have issued regular statements and updates to the press.
In a release earlier this month, the diocese issued photographs which it said showed a considerable amount of marijuana products and paraphernalia within the monastery, and issue which was also raised during the hearing earlier this week.
“The matter of the drugs did come up,” Pat Svacina of the Fort Worth diocese told The Pillar.
“The bishop testified that three employees of the Carmel came to him with concerns about [Gerlach] because the bookkeeper had found receipts for items from an Arlington smoke shop, because they detected the smell of marijuana and saw the usual amount of prescription drugs.”
“The bishop testified that the diocese immediately reported the information and provided the photos to the Arlington Police Department. The diocese does not know the status of the Arlington investigation,” he added.
The priest allegedly involved with Gerlach was identified by the religious name of Fr. Bernard Marie in the tape played to the court this week, who the mother superior said was a member of the “Transalpine Redemptorist” monastery in Montana.
That community was founded in 1988, in association with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which is in “irregular communion” with the Church. But in 2008, the group — then 18 members including three priests — was reconciled in full communion with the Church, through the work of the Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei Commission.
But in a June 28 statement, the institute said that the priest identified by Gerlach was not a member of the community.
“The priest named in the evidence of Bishop Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, was at our house in Montana for a few months with the permission of his diocesan bishop, Bishop Zarama of Raleigh, North Carolina,” the statement said.
The Raleigh diocese then identified the priest by name, unprompted, in a statement to The Pillar on June 28 and said he “is not currently exercising public ministry.”
In addition to its civil lawsuit, the Carmelite monastery has reportedly filed several hierarchical recourses at the Vatican, which have challenged Olson’s interventions in the community, including an agreement enacted by the canonical advocate for the monastery appointed by Olson, which allowed the diocese to retain a copy of monastery electronic records.
To date, the dicastery for consecrated life has endowed Olson with authority over the monastery, and issued a decree overruling some challenges to the procedural validity of his decisions. Other appeals reportedly remain pending.