A Carmelite religious sister added a defamation claim to her lawsuit against Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, June 2, the day after he used newly granted authority from the Holy See to decree her dismissal from the Carmelite order.
Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach and fellow Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas, claim that Bishop Olson’s public statements about the mother superior “are patently false and defamatory.” The diocese has made several public statements alleging that Mother Teresa Agnes is guilty of sexual misconduct with a priest from outside the Diocese of Fort Worth.
The statements are related to an investigation the bishop launched into the nun and her religious community in late April, during which he and three others entered their cloistered monastery and confiscated electronic communications devices from the sisters. The nuns initially filed a lawsuit May 3 demanding the devices’ return and charging the bishop with overreach of his authority, as they said they answer directly to the pope. The devices have since been returned to the nuns, but the nuns’ civil attorney, Matthew Bobo, said the bishop retained information obtained from them.
On May 16, the diocese released its first public statement commenting on the lawsuit and revealing that Bishop Olson was investigating allegations that Mother Teresa Agnes “committed sins against the Sixth Commandment and violated her vow of chastity.” The statement was posted on the diocesan website.
In a May 31 statement, also posted to the diocese’s website, the diocese said the bishop was investigating the nun’s “admitted-to violations” of the Sixth Commandment and chastity vow. That statement accompanied a decree from the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, a department of the Vatican, appointing Bishop Olson the monastery’s “pontifical commissary,” granting him governing powers over the nuns. The following day, Bishop Olson announced he had completed the investigation, found Mother Teresa Agnes guilty of the charges, and dismissed her from the Order of Discalced Carmelites.
Through her civil attorney, Mother Teresa Agnes, 43, has denied the allegations and said she has not admitted to them. She is appealing her dismissal to the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
A June 2 open letter from Bobo to Bishop Olson asked him to name the specific allegation made against Mother Teresa Agnes and provide proof.
The letter refers to Canon 695 in the church’s Code of Canon Law, which the bishop cited when announcing the nun’s dismissal. It states that a superior can dismiss a member of a religious order for certain crimes, but the superior can also resolve the situation in another way. The letter asks, “Was the crime so heinous that the Reverend Mother could not be amended or restored?”
The letter also asks the bishop how the allegation was initially reported and why he retains information from the nuns’ devices.
In addition, the letter refers to a dispute between the bishop and the nuns over their representation for the canonical process. It notes that Bishop Olson rejected four “Church canonical representatives” Mother Teresa Agnes sought to retain for her defense, and instead the bishop appointed Michael Podhajsky, a canon lawyer based in Colorado.
The nuns continue to consult with their own canonical counsel.
Podhajsky told OSV News June 5 that he was only appointed by Bishop Olson to represent Mother Theresa Agnes, and not the other sisters nor the monastery, “as her ex officio canonical advocate” during the bishop’s “canonical process.”
“As that process has now concluded, I no longer represent Reverend Mother as her ex officio advocate,” he said in a statement.
Podhajsky said that his duty was to represent Mother Theresa Agnes’s best interests and defend her rights. “As such, and in accord with the norms of canon law, I was given access to the acts of the investigation, which included the allegation made against Reverend Mother and which has been public knowledge for some time,” he said.
Podhajsky declined to comment further to OSV News on whether “public knowledge” about the allegation goes beyond the diocese’s statements, or what he meant by “for some time.”
He said he performed his duties “professionally and objectively” and did not collaborate with anyone from the Fort Worth Diocese in a way that would have affected his work or prejudiced the process’ outcome. “To the best of my abilities, I provided a thorough and robust defense of Reverend Mother,” he said. “The ultimate decision rendered by Bishop Olson, according to the canonical authority he had in leading the process, should in no way reflect upon the quality of the work I performed in the best interests of Reverend Mother and in defense of her rights, including her presumption of innocence.”
“The fact that certain individuals have not been given access to confidential materials that were part of a purely ecclesiastical process does not mean the process was substantially flawed,” he continued. “Nor does it indicate I was not given access to the materials necessary for me to perform my duties.” Podhajsky said he continues to pray for Mother Teresa Agnes and the community “that justice and peace may be restored to all.”
The open letter on behalf of Mother Teresa Agnes states her canon lawyers are “confident that this entire process is null and void.” Regardless of that process, it adds, “Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes remains steadfast in her trust in the state of Texas justice system.”
The Fort Worth Diocese’s communications director declined to comment on the open letter beyond the diocese’s published statements.