Judge dismisses Texas monastery’s lawsuit against Fort Worth bishop

Catholic News Agency - EWTN [Denver CO]

July 1, 2023

By Shannon Mullen

A Texas judge has dismissed a Carmelite monastery’s civil lawsuit against Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson.

Without comment, Tarrant County District Court Judge Don Cosby, sitting in Fort Worth, issued a ruling June 30 granting the Fort Worth Diocese’s motion to dismiss the monastery’s complaint, which accused Olson of theft, defamation, and abuse of power.

In response, Matthew Bobo, attorney for the Carmelite nuns of the Most Holy Trinity Monastery in Arlington, Texas, said his client would appeal the decision.

“We are shocked, extremely disappointed, and respectfully disagree with Judge Crosby’s decision,” Bobo said in a statement.

“This decision indicates that anyone who goes into a Catholic church in Texas can be required to turn over his mobile device, the church can make a copy of all of its contents, keep them for an indefinite period of time, trounce private citizens’ constitutionally-protected civil liberties, and that the Catholic Church may do all of this without any practical justification whatsoever,” he said.

“And not only that, but that a Catholic bishop may publicly defame a Catholic to the media multiple times, and Catholic priests may freely manifest Catholics’ alleged sins to the entire world without any repercussion, either from the Vatican or the civil justice system.”

In a statement, Bishop Olson said he was “grateful” for the judge’s ruling.

“The decision vindicates our steadfast belief that this is a private Church matter that does not belong in the courts,” Olson said. “This matter will continue to proceed through an established canonical process.” He also asked for “continued prayers for the diocese, Mother Teresa Agnes, and all of the nuns at the monastery.”

A diocesan spokesman told CNA Saturday that the Arlington Police Department has also ended its investigation into the diocese’s actions against the monastery.

“Following a thorough and extensive review by APD detectives, and in consultation with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, we have determined probable cause does not exist to file criminal charges against any of the individuals involved. The case is now considered closed,” the police department said in a statement the diocese shared with CNA.

The status of a separate police investigation into the diocese’s allegations concerning “the use of marijuana and edibles at the monastery” wasn’t immediately clear Saturday.

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 a priest. The priest has since been publicly identified as Father Philip Johnson of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Gerlach admitted to sexual misconduct with the priest in a recorded April 24 interview with Olson that was played in court on June 27.

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.

The Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has formally recognized that Olson has authority over the nuns, the Fort Worth Diocese has said. 

CNA reporter Peter Pinedo contributed to this story.