Fort Worth Diocese: Vatican says bishop has authority over Carmelite monastery amid investigation

Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas. | Credit: CBS News Texas/YouTube

Amid an ongoing legal dispute between the Diocese of Fort Worth and a Carmelite monastery, the diocese announced that the Vatican formally recognized Bishop Michael Olson as having authority over the nuns.

A diocesan statement said that the Vatican appointed the bishop as the pontifical commissary, which makes him “the pope’s representative in this matter.” The statement said the May 31 decree was issued through the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

The dispute began in late April when the diocese launched an investigation into whether the Reverend Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach had an affair with a priest. The reverend mother and the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas, filed a lawsuit against the bishop and the diocese, which accused the bishop of confiscating the reverend mother’s computer, cellphone, and laptop and subjecting nuns to lengthy questioning.

According to the diocesan statement, the Holy See’s decree recognizes the bishop’s authority in the investigation and over the monastery.

“The Dicastery recognized and acknowledged that Bishop Olson has been, and continues to be, entrusted with full governing responsibility for the Monastery,” the statement reads. “This decree is in response to the challenge to Bishop Olson’s authority to conduct an investigation into the admitted-to violations of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue and the vow of chastity by the Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes (Gerlach).”

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

The decree comes four days after Olson sent a letter to the Carmelite monastery, which accuses the nuns of inciting “hatred and animosity” toward him and the diocese. He also refused to reinstate daily Mass and regular confession at the monastery.

Amid the investigation, the bishop banned the monastery from celebrating daily Mass and blocked access to regular confessions. He has also prohibited lay participation in the Mass. The nuns now only have access to Mass on Sundays and are only guaranteed the right to access confession once per year.

The monastery requested that its access to daily Mass, lay participation in the Mass, and regular confession be reinstated, but Olson sent them a letter in which he denied the request and accused them of hindering his investigation.

Olson said neither daily Mass nor confessions can be “conveniently provided for the members of the monastery” and Mass participation cannot be “extended to the lay faithful” because the monastery “lodged a civil lawsuit, together with a request for a protection order, against me and the Diocese of Fort Worth, containing a false narrative to the pending investigation.”

“[This] has led to local, national, and international media coverage and has incited hatred and animosity against me because of my initiation of the investigation and has hindered the freedom of my ecclesiastical power to conduct that investigation,” Olson continued. “Further obstruction of the investigation has occurred since you and certain members of the Monastery have refused to cooperate with the investigation.”

Olson told the monastery that these restrictions will stay in place until the nuns “cease this behavior which is contrary to and unbecoming of their religious state and demonstrate love for and obedience to [the] Holy Church and to her holy Pastors … and until completion of the pending civil lawsuit or its withdrawal.”

The monastery accuses the bishop and the diocese of violating both civil and canon law through his conduct related to the investigation. The lawsuit seeks $1 million in civil damages and asks the court to block the bishop’s and the diocese’s access to any records obtained by confiscating the reverend mother’s property. The diocese argued that the dispute is an ecclesiastical matter and should not be heard in a civil court.

Matthew Bobo, a civil lawyer representing the monastery and Mother Gerlach, said the bishop’s restrictions are a display of vengeance.

“This latest salvo from Bishop Olson is an unbelievably extreme display of arrogance, vengeance and hard-heartedness directed toward Sister Francis Therese and the other cloistered sisters whose religious order, daily since the 1950s, have joyfully and tirelessly prayed the Divine Office (universal prayer of the Catholic Church) for the Church and the world,” Bobo said in a statement.

Although the diocese contends that the reverend mother admitted to violating the Sixth Commandment, which prohibits adultery, with a priest, Bobo has said that she was under the influence of pain medication related to a surgery and “has not admitted to any grave misconduct that would warrant his extreme and emotionally damaging measures.”

“I cannot imagine the heartbreak and psychological suffering these prayerful women — set apart from the world to pray for it — are experiencing at the hands of their God-given shepherd,” Bobo said.

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After the monastery filed the lawsuit, Olson also denied Gerlach’s ability to choose her own canon lawyer to represent her in the ecclesiastical investigation. Instead, he appointed a canon lawyer to represent her. Although the canon lawyer has already filed paperwork on her behalf, the reverend mother rejects the legitimacy of his claim that he represents her in these matters.

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