Carmelite nuns sue Fort Worth bishop over ‘grave misconduct’ in investigation of mother superior

Bishop Michael Olson Courtesy of the Diocese of Ft Worth CNA Bishop Michael Olson. | Diocese of Ft. Worth

Nuns from an Arlington, Texas, Carmelite monastery are suing the Diocese of Fort Worth and the bishop for $1 million for alleged violations of privacy and harming the physical and emotional well-being of the sisters.

The lawsuit stems from interactions related to a diocesan investigation of the Reverend Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach. The diocese has said it was investigating “grave misconduct” based on a report that she “committed sins against the Sixth Commandment and violated her vow of chastity with a priest.”

Although the diocese alleges that Gerlach admitted to violations of the Sixth Commandment, her attorney Matthew Bobo said in a statement provided to CNA that she was “under heavy medication from a procedure” and does not recall what she admitted.

“They are making it sound like she had some sexual liaison affair with another priest and that did not happen,” Bobo said.

The lawsuit claims that Bishop Michael Olson and the diocese violated civil law and Catholic canon law during their investigation. The diocese filed a response with the court, which argues that this is an ecclesiastical dispute that has no place in a civil court.

According to the lawsuit, Olson entered the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity on April 24 and demanded Gerlach turn over her computer, cellphone, and laptop, which she did. It alleges that he returned the following day and subjected Gerlach and other religious sisters to interrogations.

The lawsuit alleges that the bishop prevented Gerlach and Sister Francis Therese from taking administrative action on behalf of the monastery. It further alleges that the bishop imposed restrictions on Gerlach regarding where she can eat and prohibited her from using the phone. The lawsuit alleges that the diocese accused her of violating the phone rule and threatened to seek her dismissal if she violates it again.

“[Bishop Olson] and his agents are abusing their power, inflicting moral violence and psychological distress on the plaintiffs and the sisters by undertaking an illegal, unholy, unwarranted, explicit, and systematic assault upon the sanctity and autonomy of the plaintiffs and the sisters,” Bobo, the sisters’ attorney, said in a statement.

The sisters argue in the lawsuit that neither the bishop nor the diocese had the canonical or the civil authority to make these demands, to take their property, or to seek Gerlach’s dismissal. In addition to seeking $1 million in damages, the sisters are asking the court to order the bishop and the diocese to return all property, halt any surveillance of their technology or communications, and refrain from contacting the sisters.

“Our position is [that] the monastery is an autonomous religious entity that, per the order’s constitution and rules and the Church’s canon law, as well as the Cor Orans, only answers to the Vatican/Holy See,” Bobo said.

Olson and the diocese filed a response to the court, which requests that the lawsuit be dismissed. The filing argues that “civil courts do not have subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate ecclesiastical disputes.” The response argues that any ruling would require the court to interpret canon law and other Vatican documents, which would cause the court to entangle itself with Church governance.

“As a matter of well-established law interpreting and enforcing the First Amendment, this court should not intervene,” the filing states.

A spokesperson for the diocese declined to comment further on the lawsuit.

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