Arlington nuns reject Vatican decree: ‘We are not things to be traded or given away’

Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]

April 21, 2024

By Sarah Bahari

Arlington nuns at the center of a vicious dispute with the Fort Worth bishop have rejected a Vatican decree to place them under new authority, saying it amounts to a hostile takeover.

In a statement published Saturday, the nuns said the Vatican issued the decree without their knowledge or consent and that it could threaten individual nuns, the integrity of the monastery and its assets.

“We are not ‘things’ to be traded or given away in back-room deals, but women vowed to the exclusive love and service of Almighty God,” the nuns wrote.

The statement is the latest development in a bitter and extraordinarily public battle between the nuns and Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson that has played out in dueling statements and in civil court. It began last year when the bishop accused the head nun of violating her vow of chastity with a priest.

On Friday, the Fort Worth diocese published a decree from the Vatican that turned over daily operations of the monastery to an association of Carmelite nuns, who would work with the bishop. But the nuns said they will continue to bar Olson, and now the president of the Carmelite nuns association, from the monastery’s premises.

They also said they want Olson to “repent for his abuse” and issue private and public apologies to the nuns.

In response, the diocese issued its own statement, calling the nuns’ response “sad and troubling because it manifests a skewed and selective misunderstanding of the nature of the Catholic Church and of the charism of the monastic life.” The diocese said it is a “slap at the nuns who are their sisters in the Carmelite order.”

In April 2023, Olson launched an investigation into whether the Rev. Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach broke her vow of chastity with a priest.

In turn, the reverend mother and monastery then filed a civil lawsuit against the bishop and diocese, accusing Olson of invading the sisters’ privacy and overstepping his authority. The nuns say Olson and other diocese leaders stormed into the monastery, interrogated the nuns for hours, seized their computers and a phone and blocked priests from conducting Mass for them.

A nearly six-hour court proceeding included explosive testimony from diocese officials, references to “sexting” and drug use, and audio of a 40-minute conversation between Olson and the former head nun.

As church bells rang in the background, Gerlach admitted to breaking her vow of chastity on two occasions, but at another point in the conversation, she said she only spoke to the priest by phone.

“I was not in my right mind,” she said at one point. “Even a nun can fall.”

Diocese officials also released photographs that appeared to show cannabis and marijuana products inside the monastery, images Olson said he obtained from a maintenance worker there. Matthew Bobo, the monastery’s attorney, denied the allegations of drug use, calling them “ridiculous” and “without merit.”

Gerlach had been hospitalized in November 2022 for seizures and was taking pain medication as a result, Bobo said at the time. Gerlach, who is in poor health, uses a wheelchair and feeding tube.

In June, the Vatican weighed in and granted authority over the nuns to Olson, who attempted to dismiss Gerlach a day later. The nuns, however, refused to recognize Olson’s authority, and in August 2023 Olson warned they could face excommunication if they continued to do so.

While Olson was given authority, the nuns said they appealed several decisions he made and are still waiting for the Vatican to respond. In February of this year, the nuns said they received a letter from the Vatican promising responses to those appeals. They called the latest letter from the Vatican “perplexing,” since they have not received the previous responses.

“If Rome wishes to ‘save face’ and to sweep the issue of the abuse of the Bishop under the carpet and move on regardless, this is unacceptable,” the nuns wrote.

Before last year, the nuns had little interaction with the Fort Worth diocese. They live and work on 72 wooded acres in Arlington, spending their days praying, cooking, cleaning and caring for the grounds. Save for medical care, they rarely, if ever, leave the premises.

The nuns said they pray for the return of that quiet.

“We wish nothing more than to live our vocation in peace and tranquility with and under the legitimate pastors of the Church and to enjoy their paternal care and protection,” they wrote, “and we shall continue to pray that the dawn of the day when normal relations with the local Bishop can be restored, and the mutual respect that must involve, will come soon.”