Fort Worth Bishop Dismisses Carmelite Mother Superior in Diocese Dispute
Six-week-long canonical investigation culminates, as civil lawsuit proceeds.
FORT WORTH, Texas — Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, issued a decree June 1, dismissing Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach from religious life following a nearly six-week-long investigation into an alleged sexual affair involving a priest.
In his decree, Bishop Olson announced he had found Mother Teresa Agnes, prioress of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, “guilty of having violated the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue and her vow of chastity with a priest from outside the Diocese of Fort Worth.”
Based on this finding, as the pontifical commissary with authority over the monastery, Bishop Olson said he is dismissing Mother Teresa Agnes from the Order of Discalced Carmelites.
According to the decree, she has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life.
In a separate statement, the diocese also announced that daily Mass and regular confession at the monastery would soon be reinstated, following the investigation’s conclusion.
The actions are the latest in an ongoing dispute between the bishop and the Texas Carmelite monastery. Matthew Bobo, the attorney representing the monastery in its civil lawsuit against the diocese, responded to the bishop’s decree, saying: “Bishop Michael Olson’s decision is unjust and unconscionable in the light of moral, canonical, and natural law.”
“Mother Superior will be appealing this immoral and unjust decision that is not subject to canonical action,” Bobo said.
“In addition, the civil lawsuit will accelerate and continue full speed ahead,” Bobo noted.
The dispute began in late April, when the diocese launched a canonical investigation into an alleged sexual affair between Mother Teresa Agnes and an unnamed priest.
The reverend mother and the monastery filed a civil lawsuit on May 3 against the bishop and the diocese, accusing them of confiscating the reverend mother’s computer, cellphone and laptop and subjecting nuns to lengthy questioning.
The monastery argued that Bishop Olson had no authority over it, as it is an “autonomous religious entity” subject only to the Vatican.
They further accuse 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.
In turn, the diocese argues that the dispute is an ecclesiastical matter and should not be heard in a civil court.
The civil hearing on the case is set for June 23.
After the monastery filed the lawsuit, Bishop Olson denied Mother Teresa Agnes the ability to choose her canon lawyer, choosing one himself to represent her in the ecclesiastical investigation. Though the canon lawyer has already filed paperwork on her behalf, the reverend mother denies that he represents her in these matters.
Bobo told CNA that “the bishop’s own canon lawyer is compromised.”
“Bishop Olson rejected four canonical representatives of Mother Superior’s choosing and then forced his own canonical lawyer (lackey) on her with whom she has never spoken,” Bobo said.
In response to the monastery’s claim of ecclesiastical autonomy, the diocese said May 31 that Bishop Olson had been appointed pontifical commissary over the monastery by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
As pontifical commissary, the diocese says the bishop is “the pope’s representative in the matter” with “full authority for the Monastery.”
Though he has now reinstated daily Mass, for a time, Bishop Olson banned the monastery from celebrating daily Mass and blocked access to regular confessions.
He did so on the grounds that the nuns’ actions violated the obedience owed to the “Holy Church and to her holy Pastors” in a manner “unbecoming of their religious state.”
The ban was lifted on June 1 in a diocesan statement that read: “Given the time that has passed and now having completed the investigation into the grave misconduct of the Reverend Mother … and having found her guilty of having violated the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue and the vow of chastity, and having dismissed her from the Order of Discalced Carmelites, Bishop Michael Olson … has decided to reinstate daily Mass at the Carmel for the nuns of the Monastery beginning on Wednesday, June 7, 2023, at 7:30 a.m.”
The diocesan statement added that, “given the pending lawsuit, Mass will remain closed to the participation of the lay faithful for the time being. The only Mass intention will be for the restoration of peace and good order of the Monastery.”
The diocese has not publicized the exact nature of the affair nor named the priest or any other diocese possibly involved.
Though the diocese says that Mother Teresa Agnes has admitted to the misconduct, Bobo said that she was under the influence of pain medication related to a surgery when she is alleged to have admitted to the affair and “has not admitted to any grave misconduct that would warrant his extreme and emotionally damaging measures.”
According to Bobo, Mother Teresa Agnes, 43, was suffering from serious medical issues and had just undergone surgery when she was said to have admitted to the misconduct.
“Bishop Olson has publicly defamed Mother Superior on matters of the moral law that are not canonically actionable,” Bobo told CNA. “His ‘investigation’ was never announced as such to Mother Superior nor the nuns. With a 30-minute window before appearing at the monastery, he advised them he was coming without providing the rationale for his visit and then showed up with the diocesan chancellor and forensic expert and then proceeded to interrogate Mother Superior just after a medical procedure while she was still recovering from the medical use of fentanyl.”
Bobo added that Mother Teresa Agnes “is in a wheelchair and her health has deteriorated.”
A spokesperson for the diocese declined to comment further on the matter.