Texas Carmelites insist on Church unity after they rejected bishop's authority

Sister Teresa Agnes Gerlach, of Jesus Crucified, former prioress of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas, and Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth are pictured in an undated combination photo. The monastery appears to have released a statement Aug. 18, under the signature of "the Reverend Mother Prioress and Chapter" declaring the community will no longer recognize the authority of the Bishop of Fort Worth, and will, at the same time, embrace "older forms of the Roman rite according to the traditional Discalced Carmelite usages" in their liturgical worship. (OSV News photo/courtesy Matthew Bobo/Bob Roller)

(OSV News) -- Cloistered Carmelites in Arlington, Texas, insisted on their continued communion with the Catholic Church Aug. 23 in a statement from their civil attorney, following an Aug. 19 statement from Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth saying the nuns may have incurred excommunication.

The bishop's Aug. 19 statement responded to a letter from the nuns, posted the day before on their website, that said they rejected his authority as the Vatican-named commissary for their community. The statement claims that he has interfered with and humiliated them since late April, when he initiated an investigation into their prioress, Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach of Jesus Crucified.

The office of Fort Worth attorney Matthew Bobo, who represents the Carmelites of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, said in the Aug. 23 statement that the nuns "are not separating from the Catholic Church" and accused Bishop Olson of "infringing on private property rights."

"The Arlington Carmelite Nuns recognize the bishop as the local ordinary and respect his role therein, a role they have recognized for every single Diocesan Bishop since 1958, including Bishop Olson for the past 14 years," the statement from Bobo's office said. "These powers are definitively laid out in canon law and are very limited powers with regards to the Monastery. The Arlington Carmelite Nuns do not and will not recognize this bishop's unwarranted and unauthorized abuse and wielding of the complete power he suddenly is trying to exercise over the Monastery."

The attorney's statement said the bishop had reneged on promises of resuming Mass and confession at the monastery for the nuns and the lay faithful. It also said that while the nuns' had opened their gates to allow laity to pray at their chapel, the bishop ordered the gates closed and stated that his permission is necessary for someone to enter the monastery.

The attorney said that because the monastery is incorporated as a Texas nonprofit corporation with a board composed of the nuns, Bishop Olson's action is unlawful. "No one has the right to tell a private property owner who can and cannot come onto their private property," the statement said.

The statement also expressed astonishment about the bishop's Aug. 19 statement suggesting that the nuns' insubordination may have led them to incur excommunication from the church.

"The nuns place their hopes and prayers on a just and fair review of the canonical case by the Vatican to ensure that acts taken by Bishop Olson will be reversed and they will be completely exonerated, allowing them to return to their prayerful contemplative life without further unlawful interference by Bishop Olson," the statement continued. "The nuns also welcome the faithful to pray in our Chapel and to take part in the Sacred Liturgy as Our Lord, in His goodness, will provide."

In late April, Bishop Olson initiated an investigation under church law of the community's prioress, Mother Teresa Agnes, into allegations of her breaking chastity vows via "video chat" with a priest. The priest was later revealed to be Father Philip Johnson from the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, who, at the time of the alleged inappropriate communications, was living at a Transalpine Redemptorist monastery in Forsyth, Montana.

In early May, Mother Teresa Agnes and the sisters filed a lawsuit against Bishop Olson and the diocese alleging that they had been harassed and that the bishop had illegally seized their electronic communications devices in an effort to obtain their mailing lists. In mid-May, the bishop responded to the lawsuit with a statement that publicized that he was investigating Mother Teresa Agnes for violating chastity. Over the course of the following weeks, the civil suit progressed alongside the canonical process, with Mother Teresa Agnes filing an additional civil defamation claim. On June 30, a Texas district court judge dismissed the nuns' lawsuit.

Because the nuns' canonical process could not proceed without a resolution of the civil litigation, the nuns decided not to appeal the ruling -- a position Bobo's office reiterated in the Aug. 23 statement. "It was not because they considered the judge’s ruling to be fair," that statement said.

Also June 30, Arlington police concluded an investigation into both parties and declined to file criminal charges. Earlier in June, the police had received a criminal complaint filed by "a local law firm" over Bishop Olson's actions, and had also received information from the diocese about potentially illegal cannabis use at the monastery.

The hearing came a month after the Vatican named Bishop Olson the monastery's "pontifical commissary" May 31, granting Bishop Olson governance authority over the sisters. The following day, the bishop issued a decree finding Mother Teresa Agnes guilty of violating her chastity vows and dismissing her from the Carmelite order.

During the ordeal, Mother Teresa Agnes, 43, revealed that she is in poor health. The civil court hearing included an audio recording from Bishop Olson's April visit to the monastery to initiate the investigation, in which she acknowledges she had engaged in unspecified, inappropriate sexual conduct with a priest by "video chat" via a phone on two occasions. She said the misconduct did not occur in person. Later she said she gave her testimony while under the influence of prescribed sedatives.

In the 1,120-word, Aug. 18 statement from the "Reverend Mother Prioress and Chapter," the nuns said, "In recent months, our Monastery in general and our Mother Prioress in particular have been subjected to unprecedented interference, intimidation, aggression, private and public humiliation and spiritual manipulation as the direct result of the attitudes and ambitions of the current Bishop of Fort Worth in respect of our Reverend Mother Prioress, ourselves and of our property."

The nuns said that due to the bishop's alleged treatment of them, they "no longer recognize the authority of, and can have no further relations with, the current Bishop of Fort Worth or his officials, and forbid him or any of his officials or representatives 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."

"For our own spiritual and psychological safety, and in justice, we must remain independent of this Bishop until such time as he repents of the abuse to which he has subjected us, apologizes in person to our community for it and accepts to make due public reparation," the statement continued.

In the Aug. 18 statement, the Carmelites said that they "remain utterly faithful to the doctrine of the Catholic Church and to affirm that the Pope and the Bishop of Fort Worth, whomever they are today or whomever they may be in the future, shall always be prayed for in this monastery, most especially in the Canon of the Mass."

Acknowledging that they can "expect much rhetoric to the contrary, maybe even sanctions," the sisters emphasized 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," they said. "This is no rejection of any article of Catholic faith or morals."

The sisters' message included a link to an 804-word statement of support from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former apostolic nuncio to the United States, who has increasingly been associated with ultra-traditionalist factions within the Catholic Church and is regarded by some as a provocateur. In the statement he compares the treatment of the Carmelites to other recently censured contemplative women's religious communities, which he attributes to the "ideological fury" of leaders in the Roman curia "protected by'' Pope Francis.

In an Aug. 18 response to the nuns' statement, the diocese said, "Bishop Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth stand with Pope Francis and will remain faithful to the canonical process that is currently underway."

Bishop Olson's Aug. 19 response noted that many people, including himself, have relied on the nuns' prayers, and that the nuns' rejection of his authority has "has hurt me as a friend and as the bishop because of the deep wound this has cut in our unity as the Diocese of Fort Worth."

"Thus, it is with deep sorrow that I must 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. The other nuns, depending on their complicity in Mother Teresa Agnes' publicly, scandalous and schismatic actions could possibly have incurred the same latae sententiae excommunication," Bishop Olson said in his statement.

He said that the "Carmel 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."

"I stand ready to assist Mother Teresa Agnes on her path of reconciliation and healing," he said. "Please join me in praying for the nuns, and the restoration of order and stability to our beloved Arlington Carmel. May Saint Teresa of Jesus intercede on their and our behalf."

When asked for a response to the the Aug. 23 letter from the nuns' attorney, a spokesman for the Fort Worth Diocese directed OSV News to the diocese's May 31 statement publicizing the authority over the monastery granted Bishop Olson by the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

"As Pontifical Commissary, Bishop Olson is the Pope's representative in this matter. In doing so, the Dicastery recognized and acknowledged that Bishop Olson has been, and continues to be, entrusted with full governing responsibility for the Monastery," the May 31 statement said.



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