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Carmelites sue US bishop and diocese alleging abuse of power

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth is accused of overstepping authority in the investigation of nuns' superior
Michael Olson, Bishop of Fort Worth, during a service at Saint Joseph Seminary College, Saint Benedict, Louisiana

Michael Olson, Bishop of Fort Worth, during a service at Saint Joseph Seminary College, Saint Benedict, Louisiana. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Published: May 24, 2023 04:36 AM GMT
Updated: May 24, 2023 04:46 AM GMT

The superior of a discalced Carmelite community in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area is suing the bishop and the diocese of Fort Worth after the bishop launched an investigation into allegations that the superior broke her vow of chastity with a priest from outside the diocese.

Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach and Subprioress Sister Francis Therese Sharp, along with their cloistered religious community at the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas, filed a lawsuit in Tarrant County district court May 3 accusing Bishop Michael F. Olson of overstepping his ecclesiastical authority by initiating the investigation. The nuns say they answer directly to the pope.

A May 16 statement issued from the Diocese of Fort Worth said that Bishop Olson received a report in April that Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes "committed sins against the Sixth Commandment and violated her vow of chastity with a priest from outside the Diocese of Fort Worth." It said that the priest's superiors have been notified.

According to the statement, the diocese began an ecclesiastical investigation into the allegation April 24 at the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, and Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes responded with civil litigation.

The Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity is located within the boundaries of the Diocese of Fort Worth. Articles of Incorporation referenced in the lawsuit indicate the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Fort Worth, Texas, are a nonprofit entity.

The lawsuit petition states that Bishop Olson and diocesan officials seized electronic devices from the religious community, questioned the nuns and claimed the monastery was shut down. According to news reports, the bishop also reportedly stopped priests from offering daily Mass at the monastery, which had been attended by as many as 50 to 60 regular Massgoers. The diocesan statement said Mass currently is being celebrated at the monastery on Sundays.

A motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed May 18 by the Diocese of Fort Worth contends that the matter is not civil, only ecclesiastical, and that secular courts do not have jurisdiction. It also claims that Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes "has admitted to violating her vow of chastity, with a priest," according to news reports.

Attorneys representing Bishop Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth did not respond to OSV News' request for an interview. A diocesan communications official declined to provide additional information.

Matthew Bobo, an attorney representing the nuns, told OSV News May 20 that Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes has not admitted to violating her vow of chastity. He said she does not know the exact nature of the allegation.

"It sounds like she had a sexual relationship with a priest, and that absolutely did not happen," Bobo said of the diocese's May 16 statement and May 18 motion. "I can assure you, there was no sexual relationship with a priest or anything like that."

The lawsuit claims Bishop Olson arrived on short notice to the monastery April 24 with two other diocesan officials and a forensic technology expert and confiscated Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes' computer, iPad and cell phone, and that the absence of these devices has interfered with the monastery's financial operations. The sisters also accused the bishop of spying on them, alleging he knew the number of a replacement phone they purchased.

An affidavit Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes filed with the court said that the bishop and his officials questioned her and some of the sisters. The reverend mother described herself as "in extremely poor health," and said Sister Francis Therese is her caregiver. The reverend mother said she had a surgical procedure April 25 and was questioned as soon as she returned, while in pain and "under the influence of medication."

Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes said the sisters obtained civil legal representation April 25. On April 26, the bishop and diocesan officials returned for more interviews, and the sisters asked on advice of their counsel to know the purpose, object and scope of the questioning. The bishop and officials left. Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes said that the bishop later communicated that he would not allow priests to celebrate Mass at the monastery, and that he did not want Sister Francis Therese to have contact with her, despite being her primary caregiver.

The investigation has caused emotional trauma and psychological distress for her and the sisters, the reverend mother said.

As an "institution of pontifical right," the monastery depends "immediately and exclusively on the Pope regarding matters of internal governance and discipline," Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes said. "We are and have never been under the control of the Bishop of the local Diocese: we answer directly to the Pope."

Bobo said that since the lawsuit's filing, the devices have since been returned to the sisters. However, the diocese still possesses a "mirror image" of the devices' data, and the sisters have asked for its return.

He confirmed the sisters have also obtained a canon lawyer for the ecclesiastical proceedings, but said that Bishop Olson has rejected three canon lawyers the sisters have sought to retain. Meanwhile, the bishop has retained another canon lawyer on the sisters' behalf, but the sisters do not recognize the bishop-selected canon lawyer as their advocate, Bobo said.

A canon law proceeding is intended to be kept confidential, Bobo said, but the attorney alleged the bishop violated canon law by making the nature of the investigation public. Additionally, the investigative process the bishop followed, he said, also violates the proper canonical process.

The canonical case hinges on the relationship of a diocesan bishop to a religious institute, regardless of whether the religious institute -- in this case, the Carmelites -- is an institution of “pontifical right” or “diocesan right,” said Michèle Malia McAloon, an American canon lawyer living in Germany and executive producer of Mobile, Alabama-based Archangel Radio. McAloon is not involved in the case.

While a bishop does not have authority in certain matters relating to religious communities, he does have authority when it comes to their apostolic activity, such as offering Mass, McAloon said. The relationship between a local bishop and religious orders established in his diocese is supposed to be collaborative in promoting apostolic activity within the diocese, she said.

McAloon said this case appears to be nuanced, and without more information about the initial allegation, what steps the bishop took before visiting the sisters, how the Carmelite governance code outlines discipline, and the priest allegedly involved, it is a difficult case to evaluate.

“One thing you have to be very, very cautious of, when you’re looking at civil law and when you’re looking at canon law, is (canon law) is always about finding the truth,” she said. “It’s not necessarily about defending the client and promoting the client, where in civil law, that is the case. Canon law is different. It’s very nuanced in the fact that it’s a tribunal (court), three judges. Their thing is to find the truth, not necessarily to promote one’s rights over another.”

The civil petition states the sisters are suing for more than $1 million in damages, but seeking monetary compensation is only a procedural requirement under a Texas rule of civil procedure, Bobo said.

"My clients are not suing the bishop for a million dollars. They don't want that money. They want their private information back and they want to be left alone," Bobo said.

"At the end of the day, we just want it to go back to April 23," the day before the bishop visited the sisters, he said, "and let them live their life and then let the canonical procedure work itself out and do its thing."

According to Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes' affidavit, eight sisters and two novices live at the monastery, described as a "72-acre, quiet, wooded, secluded location." Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes said she has been part of the monastery for almost 25 years, and the community's leader for two years. Their community has been in Tarrant County since 1958.

The Discalced Nuns of the Order of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, founded by Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, spend most of their day in quiet contemplative prayer, meeting daily for Mass and seven additional times to chant the Liturgy of the Hours. They rarely leave their community except to receive medical care.

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