A recording played in a Fort Worth, Texas, courtroom June 27 appeared to include a Carmelite superior’s April confession of sexual misconduct via a mobile phone with a priest later revealed to be from the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.
The 32-minute recording, submitted by attorneys for Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, was made during an April 24 conversation between the bishop and the Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach of Jesus Crucified, superior of a Discalced Carmelites monastery in Arlington, Texas, in which he confronts her about allegation she had broken her chastity vows with a priest and announces an investigation into the allegation.
In their conversation, Mother Teresa Agnes appears to acknowledge that 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.
The testimony given at the hearing answered some outstanding questions about a public dispute between Bishop Olson and Mother Teresa Agnes and the Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity that attracted national media attention in May. The sisters filed a civil suit in Tarrant County against the bishop and the diocese for taking monastery property during his investigation, alleging the bishop overstepped his authority.
Mother Teresa Agnes, 43, later added a defamation claim, after the diocese released statements revealing the nun was being investigated for “admitted-to violations of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue and the vow of chastity.” Matthew Bobo, an attorney representing Mother Teresa Agnes and the sisters, maintained the mother superior did not admit to violating her chastity vow.
On May 31, the Holy See granted 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.
The situation is being addressed both in civil and canonical courts. Judge Don Cosby of the Tarrant County’s 67th District Court, who oversaw the June 27 hearing, must decide if the nuns’ claim has civil merit or is solely a matter for church law. According to Fort Worth media, a ruling is expected the following week.
Bishop Olson and the diocese’s vicar general, Father Jonathan Wallis, testified at the June 27 hearing. According to local media reports, Bobo argued that property disputes are a matter of civil law, and attorneys for the diocese argued the situation was a church matter.
In the recording, Mother Teresa Agnes reluctantly names the involved priest as Father Bernard Marie, later revealed by media reports to be Father Philip Johnson of the Diocese of Raleigh.
In a statement, the diocese told OSV News the priest “was granted leave from the diocese to serve as chaplain to a religious community in 2020 and who later joined the Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery in Montana in 2022. He recently returned to North Carolina after resigning from the Redemptorist community where he served under the chosen name of Fr. Bernard Marie.”
In late April, Bishop Olson initiated the investigation into Mother Teresa Agnes after receiving an allegation that she had violated her vows of chastity with a priest. In a June 11 YouTube video directed toward the Fort Worth Diocese’s faithful, Bishop Olson said that Mother Teresa Agnes had told Father Wallis, as well as Sister Francis Therese Sharp, the monastery’s subprioress, “that she had broken her vow of chastity with a priest not from the Diocese of Fort Worth” and “the transgression was consensual.” He did not name the priest, but said that his superiors had been notified and had “restricted the priest’s faculties.”
The Fort Worth Diocese’s communications director clarified for OSV News in a June 12 email that the nun initiated the conversation with the bishop and it did not take place in the context of spiritual direction, which carries the expectation of confidentiality.
In court documents, Mother Teresa Agnes has described herself as “in extremely poor physical health,” with “a peripherally inserted central catheter (‘PICC’) line, feeding tube and require(ing) an intravenous (‘IV’) drip 10 hours a day.”
In the recorded conversation, she told Bishop Olson that she had experienced seizures around the time of the phone conversations with alleged sexual misconduct, which the nun described as a “a horrible, horrible mistake.”
“I was in a very difficult position, and I think my brain just got really messed up,” she told the bishop.
She was reluctant to name the priest, but then gave his name as “Father Bernard Marie” from the Transalpine Redemptorist community in Montana. She said the priest contacted the Carmelites for prayers; they began corresponding by email and “we got very close.”
“And that’s when it happened, and it was not very often. … I would say just twice, on the phone,” Mother Teresa Agnes said in the recording. “We would talk by email sometimes, but we had the video chat just two times, with the video chat.”
“I really got things very confused … . I was not in my right mind when this happened at all. Sister knows me, I would never do anything like this, never. But I have, you know. Even a nun can fall,” she said.
Ordained for the Diocese of Raleigh in 2017, Father Johnson received national attention in 2014 as a 30-year-old seminarian reported to have inoperable, terminal brain cancer when he wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman with terminal brain cancer who had become the face of people seeking physician-assisted suicide.
“Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take,” he wrote, hoping to dissuade her from seeking to end her life. Maynard died by physican-assisted suicide in Oregon 11 days after Father Johnson published the letter. Prior to seminary, Father Johnson was a naval officer and served two deployments to the Persian Gulf.
The priest has not publicly admitted to the alleged sexual impropriety.
“Fr. Philip Johnson is not currently exercising public ministry,” the Raleigh Diocese said in its June 28 statement to OSV News. “Upon returning to N.C., Fr. Philip Johnson’s priestly faculties were restricted by Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama as a precautionary measure until more clarity regarding his status can be ascertained.”
The recorded conversation included Bishop Olson reading Mother Teresa Agnes a decree initiating the investigation and temporarily removing her as her community’s prioress. He imposed several restrictions, including residing and taking meals in the community’s guesthouse, and prohibiting her from sitting in the prioress’s chair, speaking with novices, and using a cellphone or computer for communication without the subprioress’ permission.
The June 27 court hearing also addressed the diocese’s claims that the nuns have been using marijuana-related substances at the monastery, which the diocese reported to Arlington police.
“The bishop testified that three employees of the Caramel came to him with concerns about the former mother,” a spokesman for the diocese said in a June 28 email to OSV News, explaining the bookkeeper “had found receipts for items from an Arlington smoke shop” and employees observed both the smell of marijuana and the unusual amount of prescription drugs. “The bishop testified that the diocese immediately reported the information and provided the photos to the Arlington Police Department. The diocese does not know the status of the Arlington investigation.”
The Arlington police also launched an investigation into Bishop Olson’s actions at the monastery after the department received a criminal complaint “from a local law firm.” A spokesman for the department said the investigation is a standard response to such complaints.