Priest Pulls Lawsuit Against Ft Worth’s Bishop Olson, But Allegations Remain Dizzying

Last week, Father Kirkham dropped a lawsuit in which he had argued that the bishop had, in interviews with the Star-Telegram, implied that Father Kirkham’s removal was because he posed a danger to minors and the vulnerable.

Bishop Michael Olson.
Bishop Michael Olson. (photo: Diocese of Forth Worth.)

FORT WORTH, Texas — A Fort Worth diocesan priest who resigned his post and later attempted to rescind his resignation has dropped a lawsuit against Bishop Michael Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth— a lawsuit which alleged that the bishop had defamed him by implying he is a threat to children.

In June 2018, Bishop Olson asked Father Richard Kirkham, former pastor of St. Martin de Porres parish in Prosper, Texas, to resign his pastorate, because the priest did not report to authorities what appeared to the bishop to be a case of a priest abusing a vulnerable adult.   

Last week, Father Kirkham dropped the lawsuit he had filed in June 2019. In that lawsuit, Kirkham and his attorney had argued that the bishop had, in interviews with the Star-Telegram, implied that Father Kirkham’s removal was because he posed a danger to minors and the vulnerable.

According to Father Kirkham's attorney, John Walsh, the lawsuit was dropped because Bishop Olson eventually clarified that Father Kirkham’s resignation did not result from any failure to report the sexual abuse of child, and there are not any allegations that Father Kirkham has sexually abused a child.

In 2017, Father Kirkham apparently became aware that a Dallas priest, whose name has not been publicly released, was having an affair with a married Church employee.

According to court documents, Father Kirkham and the priest were friends, and would often speak lewdly over alcoholic drinks.

In May 2018, Father Kirkham wrote a letter to the priest. Father Kirkham claimed in the letter that while the two priests had been having drinks at a restaurant, the priest had related to Father Kirkham graphic details about his alleged sexual encounters with the woman.

The letter depicted in graphic sexual detail what the priest had allegedly told Father Kirkham about the alleged affair.

Also in the letter, Father Kirkham threatened to tell the priest’s bishop if the affair continued.

“You have admitted to me more than once that you have a drinking problem, you can’t stop, you black out,” Father Kirkham wrote to the priest in the letter.

“You are a substance abuser. You have an addiction to pornography, masturbation and sex. Your behavior is reckless and risky. You need to seek help.”

Though Father Kirkham never formally reported the alleged affair, the letter came to the attention of the Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas, because the Dallas priest shared it with him.

But the Dallas Diocese says the alleged affair might have never actually occurred.

“The allegation of an inappropriate relationship between two adults was looked into and denied by both parties,” Annette Gonzales Taylor, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Dallas, said in a statement to CNA this week.

“The priest in question was on a leave of absence while the allegation was looked into and assigned to a parish afterward.”

The Dallas diocese has not officially disclosed the accused priest’s name.

A Fort Worth spokesman told CNA that the Dallas diocese has not officially communicated the results of their investigation to Fort Worth.

Bishop Olson said in a Dec. 15, 2019 pastoral letter that he learned about Father Kirkham’s letter to the Dallas priest from Bishop Burns, who sent him a redacted copy. The priest’s first name, “Paul,” and the parish, “St. Francis,” remain visible.

Bishop Olson says he spoke to the Dallas priest with Bishop Burns’ permission. He told the Star-Telegram in July 2019 that he knows the Dallas priest, having served as his seminary rector, but says he does not have “a peer relationship with him.”

Bishop Olson said in his December letter that he asked Father Kirkham to resign because he had failed to report what he suspected to be the abuse of a vulnerable adult.

“Father Kirkham claimed to have learned about the alleged misconduct that he obscenely detailed in the letter over half a year before writing the letter to the other priest, but he never reported it.” Bishop Olson said.

Pat Svacina, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Fort Worth, told CNA that the term “vulnerable adult” is not “denoted by definition” in the diocese’ policies, but that "as bishop, [Olson] made the judgement that this was a vulnerable adult situation that should have been reported immediately."

According to the Star-Telegram, Father Kirkham admitted in a Jan. 7 deposition that he recognized the relationship between the priest and a church employee as abuse against a vulnerable person, but also that he never planned to make an official report.

Svacina also said that Bishop Burns had, after “an investigation,” concluded that the Dallas priest’s alleged affair had not occured.

Despite this, Svacina said that Bishop Burns had not contacted the Fort Worth diocese directly with the results of the investigation into the Dallas priest accused in the letter.

"Bishop Burns never informed Bishop Olson what the investigation [was],” Svacina told CNA.

“We learned it through news reports, when the Dallas Diocese told news media there that they investigated and found no grounds for [the affair]. We don't know the details...what we know is through the media."

Bishop Olson said he asked Father Kirkham in June 2018 to resign, and Father Kirkham did, but he later retained an attorney and sought to rescind his resignation, which is permitted under canon law. Bishop Olson refused to reverse Father Kirkham’s resignation, and Father Kirkham appealed the decision to the Vatican.

The Congregation for Clergy upheld his resignation in July, and Father Kirkham is currently awaiting the results of his final appeal.

Father Kirkham was at first unable to retrieve his belongings from the rectory where he was living because Bishop Olson ordered the locks changed while Father Kirkham was out of state, the Dallas Morning News reported. A judge in June 2019 allowed Father Kirkham to reenter the rectory to retrieve his belongings.

Father Kirkham did not respond to CNA’s attempts to contact him for comment.

A number of Texas Catholics, in the form of an online group called FRK Advocates, have formed a website raising questions about Bishop Olson’s judgement in disciplining Father Kirkham, and blaming Bishop Olson for the resignations of two other diocesan priests and the closure of a mission church.

Bishop Olson has said there were no disciplinary issues with either of the priests mentioned by the group, and that he was surprised at their resignation. He also defended his decision to close San Mateo Mission, noting that the Congregation for Clergy has twice upheld his decision to do so.

FRK Advocates sent a petition to the Vatican during Nov. 2019, signed by about 1,500 parishioners from 20 parishes in the Fort Worth diocese, asking Pope Francis to remove Bishop Olson. The petition detailed alleged verbal abuse to several diocesan priests in the Fort Worth Diocese and alleged verbal abuse and demeaning conduct towards parishioners.

In a Jan. 28 pastoral letter, Bishop Olson did not mention Father Kirkham’s failure to report the alleged abuse as a reason Bishop Olson asked for his resignation. Bishop Olson said in that letter that he had asked Father Kirkham to resign because “I had come to believe that Father Kirkham needed to take a step back from ministry.”

“I had previously issued him a formal rebuke for dishonesty, and he had also acknowledged to me that there were issues that he needed to address,” Bishop Olson continued.

“This was especially apparent in light of the deeply disturbing letter he sent to a priest of the Dallas Diocese which contained many lewd communications they had shared over drinks.”