A monastery of Carmelite nuns says a Texas bishop has threatened them all with dismissal from their order, as he conducts an investigation into an alleged offense by the convent’s superior.
While the diocese says the nun admitted to sexual misconduct, the Carmelites have filed for a restraining order against the bishop, and claim their superior was interrogated while in a state of opioid-induced delirium after surgery.
Meanwhile, the nuns’ lawyer says that money, not sex, is at the root of the conflict between Olson and the nuns.
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.
But for their part, the nuns have appealed 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.
The Texas Carmelites have also sued Bishop Olson for 1 million dollars in damages, and asked a judge to issue a restraining order against him. Their attorney told The Pillar Wednesday 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.
The Carmelite nuns of Arlington, Texas — along with their two novices — were surprised April 24 by a visit from their bishop, who brought with him into their cloister two diocesan officials and a forensic technician, in violation of the order’s rule of life.
The nuns say that Olson demanded the nuns turn over a laptop, iPad, and cell phone belonging to Mother Teresa Agnes, the monastery’s abbess, and at the same time forbade the superior and another sister from exercising leadership of the monastery — an act the nuns say violates their canonical rights.
Olson subsequently forbade the superior from most telephone calls and from speaking to some sisters, and he warned the nuns formally that if they “obstructed” his canonical investigation they could face dismissal from their religious order.
The bishop also told the nuns that daily Mass would no longer be offered at the monastery.
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 ground to stand on. But daily Mass has not been offered at the monastery in weeks, they confirmed, leaving their monastery in a crisis.
According to attorney Matthew Bobo, Bishop Olson “comes in April 24th, with only 30 minutes notice, forcibly takes their technology, accuses Mother of violating the Sixth Commandment and then leaves — and then over the next two days just bombarded them with these different mandates.”
A May 16 statement from the diocese offered a competing perspective.
According to the diocesan statement, Olson visited the monastery April 24 because he had had “received a report in April 2023 that the Reverend 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 … An ecclesiastical investigation into the report of the grave misconduct was initiated at the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas, on April 24, 2023.”
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.
While the nuns’ attorney insists that Mother Teresa Agnes did not engage in any sexual misconduct, the monastery has also raised procedural objections to Olson’s action.
In their legal filing, the nuns challenged Olson’s standing to pursue the canonical process of dismissing Mother Teresa Agnes from her monastery.
The monastery filings 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.
The sisters’ attorney also told The Pillar that Olson rejected several qualified canon lawyers the nuns presented to serve as their advocate, ultimately appointing one himself. Canonist Michael Podhajsky confirmed to The Pillar Tuesday that he had been appointed by Olson to serve ex officio as the nun’s canon lawyer.
While a bishop does have the right to reject a canon lawyer to serve as an advocate in a penal or contentious process, he usually only does so with serious reasons — the nuns say they were not given any reasons why their choices were not approved.
And a canon lawyer with years of Vatican experience — who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of their work — confirmed to The Pillar that they had been initially accepted in the Fort Worth diocese to represent the sisters, and then rejected under spurious pretexts, the canon lawyer said, and despite appeals that the bishop reconsider.
The Fort Worth diocese has declined to respond to questions about the canonical process. A spokesman also declined to elaborate on the allegation that Mother Teresa Agnes had committed sexual sins with a priest, or to explain when the diocese learned of that allegation.
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. She has a feeding tube, is daily connected to an IV drip, and has a central venous catheter, called a PICC line.
While Mother Teresa Agnes was heavily medicated in the days following a medical procedure, she 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, in violation of her vow of chastity.
Sources say that the nun’s “disclosure” was inconsistent and unclear, and the result of anesthesia and other medication. It was also not specific, sources say.
“You have to understand” — one source close to the nuns, who is not authorized to speak on the record, told The Pillar — “she was in-and-out of lucidity, because this was really serious medication she had taken. And in that state, she told one nun, and the vicar general, that she had committed some sin against the sixth commandment.”
“She was crying and upset, but she didn’t give any details about any of this, and we didn’t really know what she was talking about. And sometimes she said that it was a violation against chastity which she committed on the phone. So it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“Mother has very serious medical problems and a full-time caregiver,” the source told The Pillar.
“There has been someone always by her side, for months. 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.”
Bobo, the nuns’ attorney, also insisted that Mother Teresa Agnes has never had such a sexual affair, and confirmed that the nun was heavily medicated during December 2022.
The lawyer allowed for the possibility that Mother Teresa Agnes might have said something ambiguous or unclear under the influence of prescription fentanyl and other heavy medications.
“I mean, I’ve had three or four surgeries in my life, and I couldn’t tell you what happened four or five days after that surgery,” Bobo said.
“So, I mean, did she say something under the influence of that medication? That could certainly be a possibility, but we’ve been asking the [diocese] to tell us the substance of this alleged allegation, and they just won’t.
“I’ve said, ‘if there’s something there, give me the date, give a text, give me the allegation itself — the name of the priest — and I can try to work with you to get to this.’ But they just threw it out there, and they won’t say anything else now.”
“But still, they posted on their website this statement that’s intimating that she’s had a sexual affair with the priest— and they’re even saying that she admitted to it. But I can tell you categorically that never happened, and she never admitted to that happening,” Bobo told The Pillar.
“And I can tell you, just as we sit here now, I still don't know what they are alleging happened.”
“Show us what she did,” Bobo added. “Show us what she’s admitted to. But they refuse to do that. They just lobbed a bombshell out there, and made her look like she was having sex with a priest, and that’s abominable.”
Bobo and other sources close to the monastery have told The Pillar that Mother Teresa Agnes was also fresh from a medical procedure on April 24, the day Olson visited the monastery.
While the diocese has said that Mother Teresa Agnes admitted to sexual misconduct, a source close to the monastery said that when she was questioned April 24, the nun was medically unfit to respond to any questions, and was unlikely to have given cogent answers to anything.
“The mother superior had just come back from the hospital, after a surgery, and she didn’t know there was a procedure of any kind,” a source told The Pillar.
“She was confused. She had just had anesthesia, she didn’t understand anything that was going on. And they started to ask questions like, ‘We know what you did,’ and ‘you know what I’m talking about’ and ‘you did a very serious thing’ — but never speaking about a specific crime, or explaining what they actually thought had happened.”
“So how can that be taken seriously as an interrogation?”
Since the controversy began, the nuns have made several hierarchical recourses — legal appeals — to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
“Canon lawyers [not Podhajsky] have filed documents with the Vatican that address three issues. One, that they should be permitted to choose their own canon lawyer. Two, that this ‘investigation has been undertaken’ completely ad hoc and not under the canonical procedure that it’s supposed to be. And three, some sort of substantive defense — but that one is kind of hard, because we don’t know what in the world the allegation is,” Bobo said.
“And I mean, that’s one of the fascinating things about this, right? I mean, if she had sexual relations with a priest — where is the priest in all of this?”
The Fort Worth diocese has declined to comment on that question, but has stated that “the priest’s superiors have been notified.”
Canon law requires diocesan bishops to undertake investigations of all canonical crimes which allegedly take place in their territory, regardless of the domicile of the actors. Nevertheless, a source close to the diocese told The Pillar that Olson did not pursue an investigation into the cleric’s misconduct because “that’s out of our jurisdiction. He’s not from here.”
Among the appeals being filed at the Vatican, according to the canon lawyer assisting the nuns at the Vatican, is an objection to Olson’s preceptive warning that any nun could be dismissed from the institute for “interfering” in his investigation. The canon lawyer charged that the warning was flawed from both a procedural and substantive standpoint; neither well-executed nor just.
While Vatican appeals remain ongoing, the Diocese of Fort Worth has moved to see the nuns’ civil lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the issues are religious in nature, and not appropriate for a civil court to adjudicate.
Sources have said that Olson will issue a decree on the case within weeks, even before the Vatican decides on the appeals filed.
While some sources say Olson could dismiss the entire case, others have speculated that despite the nuns’ objections at the Vatican, the bishop could move forward on a decree attempting to dismiss Mother Teresa Agnes from the monastery. That decree would be immediately appealed to Rome, Bobo told The Pillar.
And while the canonical case is pending, Bobo said the nuns will continue with their civil litigation — especially to obtain records the diocese acquired from their electronic devices.
“The goal of the suit is really simple from our perspective. Give us back all copies of our private information and our financial information, give us back that so you don't have access to it and don't keep copies of it, so you can't go poach our donor list,” Bobo told The Pillar.
Bobo told The Pillar that he believes Olson seized the monastery’s computer and other electronic devices in order to gain access to their donor database and other financial records.
“Since Olson became bishop of the diocese, he has been trying everything he can to obtain their donor list,” the lawyer said.
“They have a very strong network of supporters financially who support them, and not necessarily the Diocese of Fort Worth.”
“He has gone to great lengths to try to obtain that list, and because he took their devices, and was able to obtain a copy of their contents, he now has that information — he has the donor databases, he has all the monastery’s financial information. And that’s a primary purpose of the civil suit is to get that back, because it’s their private property.“
The lawyer also alleged that Olson would like to see the monastery closed, so that the diocese can acquire its property, and alleged that Olson opposes the nun’s traditionalist liturgical and devotional practices — though he did not provide evidence of those allegations.
A spokesman for the diocese told The Pillar that Bobo’s accusations to that effect are “false and unfounded.”
But Bobo said the nuns are undeterred. And he said they’ll continue to object to their bishop’s investigation, using both civil and canon law.
The nuns, he said, “just want to go back to April 23rd. These cloistered Carmelite nuns want to go back to doing the same thing they’ve been doing in Fort Worth since 1953. They just want to go back to their way of life — they are a very dedicated and beloved monastery among the Catholic community here. They have a lot of support.”