FORT WORTH (TX)
Catholic News Agency - EWTN [Denver CO]
June 28, 2023
By Peter Pinedo
In the latest development in the ongoing dispute between a Texas Carmelite monastery and the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, former prioress Theresa Gerlach admitted to sexual misconduct and identified the priest involved as “Father Bernard Marie” in an audio recording played in court Tuesday.
Though Gerlach identified the man involved as a member of the Transalpine Redemptorists religious order, CNA has learned that the man allegedly involved is a priest from the Diocese of Raleigh by the name of Father Philip Johnson, who spent time with the Redemptorists but returned back to his home diocese in May.
The audio clip containing Gerlach’s admission was played in the diocese’s testimony Tuesday in the Texas 67th District Court in Tarrant County.
Who is Father Bernard Marie?
Though Gerlach said Father Bernard Marie is a member of the Transalpine Redemptorists, the order claims he is a diocesan priest from Raleigh, North Carolina, and was only ever a novice with the order.
A June 27 statement on the order’s website says that “the priest named in the evidence of Bishop [Michael] Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, was at our house in Montana for a few months with the permission of his diocesan bishop, Bishop [Luis] Zarama of Raleigh.”
“As a novice, he was not a member of the Transalpine Redemptorist religious order. He was and remains a priest of the Diocese of Raleigh,” the statement said. “He was not engaged in public ministry. He resigned as a novice and returned to his diocese on May 1, 2023.”
A spokesperson for the Diocese of Raleigh confirmed with CNA that the priest’s name is Father Philip Johnson.
“Father Philip Johnson is a priest of the Diocese of Raleigh who was granted leave from the diocese to serve as chaplain to a religious community in 2020 and who later joined the Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery in Montana in 2022,” the spokesperson said.
According to the spokesperson, Johnson “recently returned to North Carolina after resigning from the Redemptorist community” and is “not currently exercising public ministry.”
“Upon returning to North Carolina,” the spokesperson said, “Father Philip Johnson’s priestly faculties were restricted by Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama as a precautionary measure until more clarity regarding his status can be ascertained.”
The spokesperson did not comment any further on Johnson’s alleged relationship with the former prioress.
What did the former prioress say in the recording?
The audio clip, which was obtained by CNA from the Fort Worth Diocese, revealed an April 24 interview between Fort Worth Bishop Olson and Gerlach.
In the interview, Gerlach admitted to violating the Sixth Commandment with a priest she identified as Father Bernard Marie, who she said was with the Transalpine Redemptorists in Montana.
“At the time I was having seizures and I was in a very difficult position, and I think my brain just got really messed up,” the reverend mother told the bishop. “It was a horrible, horrible mistake and I’m so sorry.”
The attorney representing the nuns, Matthew Bobo, has yet to issue a statement since the hearing finished.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Don Cosby called the dispute “a difficult, emotional matter” and said that he needed to conduct further reading to determine if the court had jurisdiction in the matter. Cosby said he would decide next week whether to allow the case to proceed.
How did the nuns and the bishop end up in court?
The dispute between the monastery and the diocese began in April when Olson launched a canonical investigation into an alleged sexual affair between Gerlach and an until-now unnamed priest.
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.
On June 1 the bishop issued a decree dismissing Gerlach from religious life, giving her 30 days to appeal the decision.
According to Gerlach’s attorney, she immediately appealed the bishop’s decision to remove her from religious life.
Following the diocese’s investigation, the nuns filed a civil lawsuit seeking $1 million in damages for defamation, theft of private property belonging to the monastery, and abuse of power.
In response, the diocese, being represented by attorney Michael Anderson, argued that the dispute is an ecclesiastical matter not subject to civil court.
Both the monastery and diocese have levied charges and countercharges of illegal activity.
On June 7 the diocese issued a press release with photographs purportedly showing cannabis products at the monastery. Diocesan spokesman Pat Svacina said in the release that the diocese was in communication with the Arlington Police Department regarding “serious concerns” about “the use of marijuana and edibles at the monastery.”
Bobo denied the allegations related to drug use, calling them “absolutely ridiculous” and “without merit.”
What happened in court?
After the initial court date of June 23 was delayed, both the diocese and attorneys for the monastery presented their arguments before Cosby on Tuesday.
In the audio of the bishop’s interview with the prioress, Gerlach admitted to having video chats with the priest and twice violating her vow of chastity. Neither she nor the bishop mention the exact nature of the violation.
During his testimony, Olson said the priest and nun were “sexting,” according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Gerlach only said in the interview that the affair was consensual and that “most of this was done over the phone.”
Though she seemed at first to admit that the violation took place in person, Gerlach then categorically denied that the priest ever physically visited the monastery and said that she violated her vow of chastity only twice.
“He contacted our community for prayers and he and I were writing often to each other, and we got very close, and that’s when it happened. It was not often,” Gerlach said. “Just twice on the phone.”
“This did not happen in person at all,” Gerlach said. “The truth is that it was not done here.”
“I was not in my right mind when it happened at all, I was in a really bad state,” Gerlach added.
During the interview, Olson read a statement explaining that he is launching a canonical investigation and removing Gerlach from the office of prioress.
He tells Gerlach that “the illness to the point which you are articulating now has influenced your judgment so much as to lead you into objectively grave sin twice and so that shows you can’t maintain that office.”
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, diocesan vicar general Father Jonathan Wallis testified that Gerlach also admitted her guilt to him on three separate occasions, outside of confession, Dec. 22 and 24, 2022, and Jan. 5.
Casting doubt on Gerlach’s claim the affair was exclusively over the phone, Wallis testified that on Jan. 5 the prioress told him she was “nervous about being late” and needed to see a doctor, implying she feared she may be pregnant.
In his cross-examination of Wallis, Bobo asked him why he had waited until April to report the misconduct, to which he responded that he was following canonical procedures.