Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth told a monastery of cloistered Carmelite nuns Friday that he will continue to ban the celebration of daily Mass at the convent in response to a lawsuit filed against him by the religious sisters. The bishop will also restrict the nuns’ access to the sacrament of confession, he told the nuns.
Olson told the nuns in a May 26 letter that daily access to Mass at their monastery would be restored to the sisters only if, and when, they drop the lawsuit against him.
The conflict between Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth and the Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity began last month, when Olson told a community of cloistered nuns that he was investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against their superior, and that she could be dismissed from the Carmelite order.
The bishop has since prohibited daily Mass at the monastery, confiscated computers and a phone, and announced publicly that Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach, O.C.D. had allegedly conducted a sexual affair with a priest.
The bishop has further threatened all of the nuns of the Carmel with expulsion from their order in retaliation for what he has called “obstruction” of his investigation into their superior.
In the letter, addressed to Sr. Therese Sharp of the Carmelite monastery, Olson said he is “respectfully informing” the sisters that since there is no canonical right or obligation for the sisters to attend daily Mass except “when it can be conveniently done,” or to have their confessions heard beyond the canonical minimum requirement of once a year, it is his determination that “at the present moment, daily Mass and Confessions cannot be conveniently provided for the Monastery.”
“This is because you and Mother Teresa Agnes (Gerlach) of Jesus Crucified, O.C.D., have lodged a civil lawsuit, together with a request for a protection order, against me and the Diocese of Fort Worth,” Olson explained in his letter.
The nuns say that because the monastery is canonically autonomous, and subject mostly to the jurisdiction of the Holy See, the bishop’s interventions have no legal basis. But daily Mass has not been offered at the monastery in weeks, they have previously confirmed, leaving their monastery in a crisis.
The bishop also said in his letter that the nuns’ legal petition contains “a false narrative relative to the pending investigation, which has led to local, national, and international media coverage and has incited hatred and animosity against me,” which has “hindered the freedom of my ecclesiastical power to conduct that investigation.”
The nuns have appealed the bishop’s actions against their monastery to the Vatican, arguing that Bishop Olson has no canonical jurisdiction to initiate a dismissal process in the monastery, and that the diocese has not specified the exact allegations leveled against the nun, or the legal grounds on which he is proceeding with an investigation.
The Texas Carmelites have also sued the bishop for $1 million in damages, and asked a judge to issue a restraining order against him. Their attorney told The Pillar last week that he believes Olson seized the nuns’ computer and cell phone to get his hands on the monastery’s donor list — a claim the diocese denies.
In his May 26 letter, Olson said that the nuns will be allowed access to Mass only on Sundays, in recognition of the basic requirement of all Catholics to attend Mass on that day, “until the members of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, Arlington, Texas, cease this behavior which is contrary to and unbecoming of their religious state and demonstrate love for and obedience to Holy Church and to her holy Pastors, and until completion of the pending civil lawsuit or its withdrawal by your [sic] and Mother Teresa Agnes.”
Although Olson’s letter made reference to “your admitted grave misconduct,” the nuns of the convent dispute both the alleged misconduct of their superior, and the circumstances of her supposed admission.
According to previous public statements from the Fort Worth diocese, the bishop alleges that “Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach, O.C.D., committed sins against the Sixth Commandment and violated her vow of chastity with a priest from outside the Diocese of Fort Worth.”
But, according to several sources close to the case, the allegation stems from a statement made by Mother Teresa Agnes in early December 2022, when the nun was heavily medicated because of a November seizure and a series of health issues which have continued in 2023 and required several medical procedures.
While she was heavily medicated in the days following a medical procedure, Mother Teresa Agnes reportedly told both the nun who serves as her caregiver and the diocesan vicar general that she had committed some sin against the sixth commandment. But sources close to the monastery say that the nun’s “disclosure” was vague and inconsistent, and the result of anesthesia and other medication.
“You have to understand” — one source told The Pillar — “she was in-and-out of lucidity, because this was really serious medication she had taken. And in that state, she [said] she had committed some sin against the sixth commandment.”
“There has been someone always by her side, for months,” they said. “The notion that she committed some secret sexual sin with a priest — even on the phone — doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It is much more likely that this whole thing was a hallucination.”
The nuns’ civil attorney has also insisted that Mother Teresa Agnes has never had such a sexual affair, and confirmed that the nun was heavily medicated during December 2022.
In addition to disputing the “admission” which triggered Bishop Olson’s actions against the monastery, the nuns’ have also questioned his canonical authority to act. And it is not clear exactly what alleged canonical crime Olson is actually investigating, or whether he has the canonical authority to investigate it.
While the Church teaches that it is a grave sin to engage in sexual acts outside of marriage, not all such acts are canonical crimes, or grounds for dismissal from religious life.
In documents provided to the monastery, Olson wrote that his investigation was undertaken under the aegis of canon 695 of the Code of Canon Law, which specifies that members of a religious order can be dismissed if they commit certain canonical crimes. Among those crimes are public or coercive sexual acts undertaken by clerics. Mother Teresa Agnes, though a religious, is not a cleric — the term refers canonically to priests, deacons, or bishops.
The monastery has also noted that Pope Francis made in 2022 changes to canon law, which removed the diocesan bishop from the process of determining whether a nun in an autonomous monastery can be dismissed.
For that reason, the nuns argue, Olson had no competence to initiate the legal process he apparently began, regardless of the allegation’s veracity.
Beyond confirming its allegations against Mother Teresa Agnes, and asserting the canonical right and obligation of Bishop Olson to act in the case, the diocese has not offered public comment on the canonical questions raised by the bishop’s actions.