Editor’s note: This report was updated at 10:00pm ET, 5/31, to reflect a statement from the civil attorney for the Arlington Carmelites.
The Vatican dicastery for religious orders has appointed Fort Worth’s Bishop Michael Olson to act as pontifical commissary of the Carmelite monastery which has filed a lawsuit against the bishop over his investigation of its superior.
But a civil lawyer for the nuns has raised questions about the Vatican decree, and says the nuns will continue their lawsuit in Texas.
In a statement released May 31, the diocese said that the Holy See’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life issued a decree Wednesday appointing Olson to act as pontifical commissary for the monastery in Arlington, Texas.
“As pontifical commissary, Bishop Olson is the pope’s representative in this matter,” the diocese said.
By appointing him to the role, the “Dicastery recognized and acknowledged that Bishop Olson has been, and continues to be, entrusted with full governing responsibility for the monastery.”
The dicastery’s decree states that Olson has “full governing powers” over the monastery and its members. “This Dicastery also sanates all the administrative and legal acts already performed by the same bishop,” the decree provides, which means that all action previously taken by the bishop, whether canonically valid or not, has been retroactively approved by the Vatican.
Sources in Rome told The Pillar they were surprised that the decree was signed by Archbishop Jose Carballo, the dicastery's secretary, rather than by its prefect, Cardinal João Braz de Avi, as is customary.
Archbishop Carballo has been recently involved in the closure of several cloistered monasteries in Italy, and was among the architects of Cor orans, a controversial 2018 instruction from his office, which mandated the cloistered monasteries of nuns join monastic federations, which are empowered to exercise some oversights of their member monasteries.
And late Wednesday evening, Matthew Bobo, the sister’s civil attorney, raised several questions about the decree.
The lawyer said the protocol number in the Vatican decree, 2256/2020, is “neither correct nor associated with this case.”
The protocol number, part of the Vatican’s filing system, indicates that a case concerning the monastery was first raised in 2020. While that could be true, neither the Fort Worth diocese nor the Carmelite monastery have previously mentioned it in public statements.
Bobo also noted that the decree references the Monastery of “Saint Joseph,” while the Arlington Carmel is the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity. There are several Carmelite monasteries of St. Joseph in the U.S., but while the Vatican decree seemingly used the wrong name, it did identify that it was meant to refer to a monastery of Discalced Carmelite nuns in Arlington, Texas — there is only one such monastery in Arlington, Texas.
Nevertheless, Bobo argued that the decree’s apparent errors, combined with the fact that decree was not sent to the nuns’ canon lawyer, could call into question the decree’s validity — an argument which seems unlikely to be supported in Rome.
The dicastery’s decree marks a sudden and unexpected intervention in Bishop Olson’s escalating dispute with the Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity.
The conflict began last month, when Olson initiated an investigation into what the diocese has called “the admitted-to violations of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue and the vow of chastity by the Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes (Gerlach) of Jesus Crucified, O.C.D.,” the monastery’s prioress.
The dioceses say its investigation began after the monastery’s superior admitted to some kind of sexual misconduct with a priest from another diocese.
Since the investigation began, Bishop Olson has moved to seize phone and computer equipment from the Carmel, restricted the cloistered nuns’ access to the sacraments, and threatened them with dismissal from their order if they obstruct his investigation.
The nuns have argued that because the monastery is canonically autonomous, and subject mostly to the jurisdiction of the Holy See, the bishop’s interventions thus far have had no legal basis — something the decree from DICLSAL would seem to address.
The nuns had 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.
Because the most recent decree came from a Vatican department, any new appeal from the nuns would be heard at the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican high court which decides matters pertaining to the competence, procedures, and administrative acts of Vatican dicasteries.
The decree also marks a deviation from a recent canonical reform by Pope Francis, who last year made changes to canon law removing the diocesan bishop from the process of determining whether a nun in an autonomous monastery can be dismissed.
The nuns have also argued that the allegation of alleged misconduct by their superior stems from a statement made by Mother Teresa Agnes in early December 2022, when the nun was heavily medicated after a series of health issues which have continued in 2023 and required several medical procedures.
While heavily medicated in the days following a medical procedure, Mother Teresa Agnes reportedly told both the nun who serves as her caregiver and the Fort Worth 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.”
Questions have also been raised about the alleged crime the superior is supposed to have admitted to; 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 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 a letter to the nuns Friday, the bishop said that he would continue to restrict the nuns’ access to the sacraments by prohibiting daily Mass and confessions “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.”
Bobo, the nuns’ lawyer, said that he will continue to pursue litigation, “according to the law of the State of Texas, which Bishop Olson is subject to.”
“The unjust, illegal and immoral actions taken by Bishop Michael Olson in this matter have been explicitly outlined in the past few weeks, and the decree issued by the Catholic Church from Vatican City changes none of the facts of the case,” the lawyer added.