22 August 2023, The Tablet

Texas bishop warns nuns after ‘schismatic’ statement

by Peter Pinedo, CNA

The nuns had declared themselves independent of Bishop Michael Olson’s authority and appeared to want to cut all ties with the bishop.

Texas bishop warns nuns after ‘schismatic’ statement

Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach has defied her dismissal from religious life after an investigation by Bishop Olson.
Tthe Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas / CNA

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, has said a Carmelite prioress and several other nuns of a monastery in his diocese may have excommunicated themselves by challenging his authority.

The community published a statement on 18 August banning him from setting foot on monastery grounds, the latest development in its long-running dispute with the bishop.

In statement published by the Diocese of Fort Worth on 19 August, Olson said that because the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity’s prioress Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach had “issued a public statement on the website of the Arlington Carmel by which she publicly rejected my authority as diocesan bishop and pontifical commissary”, he felt compelled to “inform the faithful of the Diocese of Fort Worth that Mother Teresa Agnes, thereby, may have incurred upon herself latae sententiae, (i.e., by her own schismatic actions), excommunication.”

Besides Gerlach, Olson said that “depending on their complicity in Mother Teresa Agnes’ publicly, scandalous, and schismatic actions”, other nuns at the monastery “could possibly have incurred the same latae sententiae excommunication”.

In the monastery’s statement, the nuns had declared themselves independent of Olson’s authority and appeared to want to cut all ties with the bishop.

“Because the salvation of our souls is our first duty before Almighty God, in order to protect the integrity of our monastic life and vocation from the grave dangers that the continued abuse to which we are being subjected threaten, we hereby state that, in conscience, we no longer recognise the authority of, and can have no further relations with, the current bishop of Fort Worth or his officials,” the statement said.

The nuns further “forbid” the bishop and diocesan officials “to enter our monastery property or to have any contact or relations with the monastery or any of its nuns or novices”.

“No one who abuses us, as has the current bishop of Fort Worth, has any right to our cooperation or obedience,” the nuns’ statement said.

This long-running dispute between the Fort Worth bishop and nuns of the Arlington monastery originated in an alleged sexual affair between the prioress and a North Carolina priest, Father Philip Johnson.

Olson first launched a canonical investigation into the affair in April. After being appointed pontifical commissary and being given full authority in the matter by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Olson proclaimed Gerlach guilty of having violated the Sixth Commandment and her vow of chastity and dismissed her from religious life.

The monastery has denied Gerlach committed any wrongdoing and filed a civil suit against Olson for theft, defamation, and abuse of power. The suit was thrown out without comment by Tarrant County District Court Judge Don Cosby on 30 June.

After their case was dismissed, the monastery’s attorney Matthew Bobo told CNA that they would be appealing.

The monastery maintains that Gerlach has not committed any wrongdoing warranting dismissal.

“In respect of the calumnies that have been published,” the nuns said in last week’s statement, the community wanted to “express its complete confidence in the personal and moral integrity of its Mother Prioress and in her leadership.”

The nuns added that though they “expect much rhetoric to the contrary” they “are breaking communion with no one”.

“We are simply stating that the abuse to which we have been subjected is so gravely unjust and intolerably destructive of the vocation to which we are vowed before Almighty God, that in conscience that abuse cannot be cooperated with,” the statement said.

“This is no rejection of any article of Catholic faith or morals. Rather, it is a statement that, in these particular and peculiar circumstances, in conscience before Almighty God, we cannot permit this diocesan bishop to continue his abusive behaviour towards us any longer.”#

Though Olson’s statement on 19 August said the Arlington monastery “remains closed to public access until such time as the Arlington Carmel publicly disavows itself of these scandalous and schismatic actions of Mother Teresa Agnes”, the nuns have declared their monastery chapel is open to visitors.

“Our monastery chapel is and shall remain open to all who, in good faith, wish to pray there or to participate in the liturgical rites we celebrate, regardless of any protestations that those who have abused us may wish to make in this respect,” their statement said.

Pat Svacina, a representative for the Fort Worth diocese, shared a statement with CNA on Monday that said that the diocese had no prior notification of the “dangerously rebellious decision by the dismissed prioress and the other nuns to reject formally the canonical authority of their superior, the pontifical commissary as appointed by the Holy See”.

“Bishop Olson asks the faithful of the Diocese of Fort Worth and all people of goodwill to pray for the Carmelites that they will stop their open disobedience,” the diocesan statement said, adding that the bishop and diocese “stand with Pope Francis and will remain faithful to the canonical process that is currently underway”.

This is not the only controversy involving Olson. Currently, there is a petition with more than 900 signatories by a group known as “Laity in Unity” asking Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the US, to remove Olson from his episcopal office. The petition alleges Olson “operated against canon law on numerous occasions and has employed abusive language and vindictive actions against priests, nuns, and the lay faithful in our diocese”.

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