Texas Carmelites reject possible excommunication by local bishop (2023)

The Rev. Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach, a longtime member of the Discalced Carmelite Order, and Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, are shown in an undated composite photo. (Photos by OSV News/Courtesy of Matthew Bobo/Bob Roller)

The Cloistered Carmelites in Arlington, Texas, insisted on their continued communion with the Catholic Church in an Aug. 23 statement from their civil attorney, following an Aug. 19 statement by Fort Worth Bishop Michael F. Olson who said the nuns may have been excommunicated.

The bishop's Aug. 19 statement responded to a letter from the nuns, posted a day earlier on their website, that said they rejected his authority as a Vatican-appointed trustee for their community. The press release states that he has been harassing and humiliating them since the end of April, when he launched an investigation against their prioress, the venerable Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach of Jesus Crucified.

In the lawyer's statement, it is stated that the bishop broke his promises to continue mass and confession in the monastery for nuns and lay believers.

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

"The Carmelite Sisters of Arlington recognize the bishop as local ordinary and respect his role in doing so, a role they have recognized for every single diocesan bishop since 1958, including Bishop Olson for the past 14 years," Bob's office said in a statement. "These powers are definitely established in canon law and are very limited powers in relation to the monastery. The Carmelite nuns of Arlington do not and will not recognize the unjustified and unauthorized abuse and possession of absolute power that this bishop is suddenly trying to exercise over the convent.”

In the lawyer's statement, it is stated that the bishop broke his promises to continue mass and confession in the monastery for nuns and lay believers.

In the lawyer's statement, it is stated that the bishop broke his promises to continue mass and confession in the monastery for nuns and lay believers. It was also said that while the nuns opened their doors so that lay people could pray in their chapel, the bishop ordered the doors closed and declared that his permission was needed for anyone to enter the convent.

The attorney said Bishop Olson's action was illegal because the convent was established as a Texas nonprofit corporation with a board of nuns. "No one has the right to tell the owner of private property who can and who cannot come onto his private property," the press release states.

The statement also expressed surprise at the bishop's August 19 statement suggesting that the nuns' disobedience may have led to their excommunication.

"The nuns place their hopes and prayers in a just and fair review of the canonical case by the Vatican to ensure that the actions taken by Bishop Olson will be reversed and that they will be fully exonerated, allowing them to return to their prayerful contemplative life without further ado. unlawful interference by Bishop Olson,” the statement continued. The nuns also welcome the faithful to pray in our chapel and participate in the holy liturgy as our Lord, in his goodness, will make it possible.

In late April, Bishop Olson launched an investigation under church law against the community's parish priest, Mother Teresa Agnes, over allegations that she violated her vow of chastity through a "video chat" with a priest. The priest was later revealed to be Father Philip Johnson of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, who was living at the Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery in Forsyth, Montana at the time of the alleged inappropriate communication.

The statement also expressed surprise at the bishop's August 19 statement suggesting that the nuns' disobedience may have led to their excommunication.

The statement also expressed surprise at the bishop's August 19 statement suggesting that the nuns' disobedience may have led to their excommunication.

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

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

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

The hearing comes a month after the Vatican named Bishop Olson "papal commissioner" of the convent on May 31, giving Bishop Olson authority to govern the sisters. The next day, the bishop issued a decree declaring Mother Teresa Agnes guilty of breaking her vow of chastity and dismissing her from the Carmelite order.

During the ordeal, Mother Teresa Agnes (43) revealed that she was in poor health. The civil court hearing included an audio recording of Bishop Olson's April visit to the convent to launch the investigation, in which she admits on two occasions she engaged in unspecified, inappropriate sexual behavior with the priest via "video chat" over the phone. She said the misconduct did not happen personally. She later said she testified under the influence of prescribed sedatives.

In a 1,120-word statement, dated August 18, the nuns said: "In recent months, our convent in general, and our Mother Prioress in particular, have been subjected to unprecedented interference, intimidation, aggression, private and public humiliation and spiritual manipulation as a direct consequence attitudes and ambitions of the present bishop of Fort Worth towards our venerable mother prioress, ourselves and our property.”

The nuns said that because of the bishop's alleged treatment of them, they "no longer recognize the authority of and can have no further dealings with the present bishop of Fort Worth or his officials, and forbid him or any of his officials or representatives to enter the property of our convent or have any any contact or relationship with the monastery or any of its nuns or novices. No one who abuses us like the present Bishop of Fort Worth has a right to our cooperation or obedience.”

"For our own spiritual and psychological safety, and for the sake of justice, we must remain independent of this bishop until he repents of the abuse he has subjected us to, personally apologizes to our community for it, and agrees to make due public reparations," the statement continued. .

In an Aug. 18 statement, the Carmelites said they "remain fully faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church and affirm that the Pope and the Bishop of Fort Worth, whoever they may be today or whoever they may be in the future, will always pray in this monastery, especially in the canon of the Mass .”

Admitting that they can "expect a lot of opposing rhetoric, maybe even sanctions", the sisters emphasized that they "are not breaking communion with anyone".

"We simply claim that the abuse we have been subjected to is so seriously unjust and unbearably destructive to the calling we have vowed before Almighty God that we cannot in conscience cooperate with this abuse," they said. "This is not a rejection of any article of the Catholic faith or morals."

The sisters' message included a link to an 804-word statement of support from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, who is increasingly associated with ultra-traditionalist factions within the Catholic Church and is seen by some as a provocateur. In the statement, he compared the treatment of the Carmelites to other recently censored contemplative women's religious communities, which he attributed 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 currently underway."

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

"Therefore, it is with deep sadness that I must inform the faithful of the Diocese of Fort Worth, that Mother Teresa Agnes may have thereby incurred latae sententiae, (ie, by her own schismatic action), excommunication. Other nuns, depending on their participation in the public, scandalous and schismatic activities of Mother Teresa Agnes, may have been subject to the same latae sententiae excommunication,” Bishop Olson said in his statement.

He said that "the Carmel remains closed to public access until Arlington Carmel publicly renounces these scandalous and schismatic practices of Mother Teresa Agnes."

"I am ready to help 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 in our beloved Arlington Carmel. May Saint Teresa of Jesus intercede for them and for us."

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

“As papal commissioner, Bishop Olson is the Pope's representative in this matter. In doing so, the Dicastery recognized and acknowledged that Bishop Olson was and continues to be entrusted with full responsibility for the management of the monastery,” the May 31 statement said.

Texas Carmelites reject possible excommunication by local bishop (2)

Maria Wiering - OSV news


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