Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth said Aug. 19 that a community of Carmelites in his diocese, and their prioress in particular, may have incurred excommunication after posting a letter online Aug. 18 saying their community no longer recognizes his authority, claiming that he has interfered with and humiliated them since initiating an investigation into their prioress in late April.
In his statement to the faithful, Bishop Olson noted that many people, including himself, have relied on the prayers of the Carmelites of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, and that the nuns’ rejection of his authority as bishop and pontifical commissary “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.
In their 1,120-word statement from the “Reverend Mother Prioress and Chapter,” posted Aug. 18 to their website’s homepage, 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. “Should that day never arrive, we hope and pray that in due course his successor will be a God-given instrument of that reparation and healing which, in justice, is now due.”
In late April, Bishop Olson initiated an investigation under church law of the community’s prioress, Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach of Jesus Crucified, 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.
The same day, 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 of potentially illegal cannabis use at the monastery.
The hearing came a month after the Vatican granted Bishop Olson governance authority over the sisters May 31. 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, and that her testimony was given while she was under the influence of prescribed sedatives.
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. Rather, it is a statement that, in these particular and peculiar circumstances, in conscience before Almighty God, we cannot permit this Diocesan Bishop to continue his abusive behavior towards us any longer.”
The sisters also said that going forward, they plan to celebrate the liturgy “according to the older forms of the Roman rite according to the traditional Discalced Carmelite usages.”
“We must be clear that this decision is not a reaction to the abuse that has been visited upon us, even though we expect that it will occasion even more abuse from the same source,” they said. “Rather, it is a positive recognition that has developed in our community over time that: ‘What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.'”
The quote in the nuns’ statement was taken from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical “Summorum Pontificum,” which permitted wider use of the pre-Vatican II liturgical forms. In 2021, Pope Francis restricted the use of the same liturgy through the motu proprio “Traditionis custodes.” The liturgy typically cannot be celebrated without the approval of the local bishop, who must first get permission to do so from the Holy See.
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.”
In his Aug. 19 response, Bishop Olson 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.”