Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, has dismissed a religious superior from the Carmelite order after finding her guilty of violating the Sixth Commandment and her vow of chastity, which she denies.
The diocese’s June 1 decree announcing the nun’s dismissal said Bishop Olson was acting as “Pontifical Commissary of the Monastery in Arlington,” authority granted him May 31 by the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, a department of the Holy See. The dicastery’s decree was published May 31 on the Diocese of Fort Worth website. It said Bishop Olson assumed the commissary role upon the decree’s communication.
The diocese’s decree stated that following a monthlong investigation, the bishop found Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach of Jesus Crucified, a longtime member of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, “guilty of having violated the sixth commandment of the Decalogue and her vow of chastity with a priest from outside the Diocese of Fort Worth.” She has 30 days to appeal the decision to the dicastery, according to the diocese’s decree.
Matthew Bobo, a civil attorney representing Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes and her community, called the dismissal “absolutely unjust and unconscionable in the light of moral, canonical and natural law.”
“Mother Superior will be appealing this immoral and unjust decision that is not subject to canonical action. In addition, the civil lawsuit will continue full speed ahead,” he told OSV News in a June 1 statement, which also requested prayers for the sister.
A May 16 statement issued from the Diocese of Fort Worth said that Bishop Olson received a report in April regarding alleged misconduct of Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes with a priest and initiated an investigation April 24, to which she responded by initiating civil litigation. It also said that the priest’s superiors have been notified. Bobo told OSV News that the reverend mother denies having admitted to violating her vow of chastity, which falls under the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”
Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes sued the bishop and the Diocese of Fort Worth May 3 after Bishop Olson launched an investigation into allegations against her. Along with subprioress Sister Francis Therese Sharp and their cloistered religious community at the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas, she filed the lawsuit in Tarrant County district court accusing Bishop Olson of overstepping his ecclesiastical authority by initiating the investigation and seizing the sisters’ electronic communication devices.
In a May 10 affidavit, Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes stated that the monastery was an “institution of pontifical right” that depends “immediately and exclusively on the Pope regarding matters of internal governance and discipline.”
“We are and have never been under the control of the Bishop of the local Diocese: we answer directly to the Pope,” she said.
However, the May 31 decree from the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life states that Bishop Olson has “full governing powers” over the community, as well as “the faculty to appoint, if necessary, the nuns to assume the roles of overseer of the community members, legal representative, treasurer, etc.” The decree states that the dicastery made its declaration “after careful consideration of the particular situation” regarding the nuns in Arlington, whose monastery is in the Fort Worth diocese.
The dicastery also “sanates all the administrative and legal acts already performed by the same bishops,” the decree posted on the website says. “Sanation” is a canonical term meaning that such acts have been made valid retroactively.
The decree, however, names “The Monastery of Saint Joseph of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns at Arlington,” not the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity.
In a statement provided to OSV News May 31, Bobo said the decree “is restricted to merely the governing function of the Catholic Church and has no authority whatsoever over the law in the State of Texas, nor regarding the civil lawsuit filed by the sisters of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity.”
Going further, Bobo’s statement called into question the validity of the decree, noting that there were “very disturbing discrepancies about the letter the Fort Worth Diocese has posted.”
In particular, he stated, “the case number and the year in the top left-hand corner are neither correct nor associated with this case”; “the monastery referenced in the letter, The Monastery of ‘Saint Joseph’ of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns at Arlington, is not the sisters’ monastery”; and “the sister’s canon lawyer has not received this decree, which is required by canon law.”
These three “grave errors,” Bobo said, “raise the issue of the validity of this decree.”
When asked about the discrepancy between the monastery’s names, Pat Svacina, diocesan spokesman for Fort Worth, told OSV News May 31 that the diocese did not know why the dicastery’s decree used a different name, but he added that the monastery was “originally named St. Joseph.”
He said that the diocese received the dicastery’s decree via email. He did not respond to questions about Bobo contesting the decree’s validity.
Asked whether Most Holy Trinity had ever been known as St. Joseph, Bobo’s spokesperson told OSV News June 1 that “from the best of the nuns’ recollection, the monastery was never called anything St. Joseph that was in the decree.”
In a statement accompanying the dicastery’s decree, the diocese said that with this decree, the Holy See “recognized and acknowledged that Bishop Olson has been, and continues to be, entrusted with full governing responsibility for the monastery.” The statement said the May 31 decree was in response to the challenge to Bishop Olson’s authority to conduct an investigation.
Sister Sharon Euart, a canon lawyer and executive director of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes in Silver Spring, Maryland, said that the appointment of a commissary for a religious community occurs when the community is no longer able to provide for its canonical governance, or when there is a situation in the community that requires an intervention from a higher authority, such as the Holy See.
As commissary, the bishop is effectively the overseer of the community and can appoint sisters to different roles, and can come and go from the monastery as he wishes, said Sister Euart, a Religious Sister of Mercy who holds a doctorate in canon law.
“In appointing (Bishop Olson), a question one might raise is, what information did the dicastery have, and who gave it to them? Were the sisters involved?” she told OSV News June 1.
Bobo’s spokesperson said June 1 that the nuns have had “no independent communications on this or related issues” with the dicastery.
The religious community has obtained representation for the canonical process, Bobo said.
While Bishop Olson had suspended daily Mass and regular confession at the monastery after April 26, the diocese announced June 1 that both would be reinstated, but that it would “remain closed to the participation of the lay faithful for the time being.”
“The only Mass intention will be for the restoration of peace and good order of the Monastery,” the statement said. “Please pray for the sisters of the Monastery and for Bishop Olson.”