Bishop Michael F. Olson, 52, is the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas. During his middle school years, he believed God was calling him to the priesthood. He began studies for the Archdiocese of Chicago, but after his family relocated to Fort Worth he became a seminarian for the Diocese of Fort Worth in 1988. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1994. He served as a parochial vicar, earned advanced degrees at Catholic University of America and in Rome, was diocesan Vicar General and pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Church in Fort Worth. He served as rector of Holy Trinity Seminary and was given the title “monsignor” by Pope Benedict in 2010. In 2014, at a ceremony at the Forth Worth Convention Center, he was ordained a bishop and installed as Bishop of Fort Worth.
This past week, on July 28, Bishop Olson issued a letter to the faithful of his diocese regarding sexual abuse committed by the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It stated, in part:
… the alleged crimes of the former Cardinal have caused such further damage to the integrity of the hierarchy and mission of the Church that his prompt reduction canonically to the laity should be strongly deliberated … Justice also requires that all of those in Church leadership who knew of the former Cardinal’s alleged crimes and sexual misconduct and did nothing be held accountable for their refusal to act and thereby enabling others to be hurt.
The Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth and I have zero tolerance for sexual abuse against minors, as well as against vulnerable adults by its clergy, staff, and volunteers, including me as bishop … During my nearly five years of serving as your bishop, I have always taken prompt action in removing priests, deacons, staff and volunteers when credible allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct have been established …
Bishop Olson recently spoke to CWR about his letter, McCarrick, responding to scandal, Texas Right to Life—and Twitter.
CWR: Can you give an overview of the Diocese of Fort Worth?
Bishop Olson: We’re located in north Texas. We encompass 20 counties and 24,000 square miles, which makes us nearly the size of the Republic of Ireland. We have one million self-identified Catholics, whom you’ll find in suburbs, in rural areas and ranches, and college campuses. Forty percent of our Catholics have Hispanic surnames.
Fort Worth is one of the fastest growing areas in the U.S. Along with Dallas, we have the 4th largest television market; we have young leadership and we’re tech savvy. We have a need for more parishes to accommodate our growth. During my time as bishop, we’ve started two parishes in Fort Worth. In 2015, we established the Parish of St. Benedict, which is staffed by priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and has Mass according to the Extraordinary Form. That same year we also established St. Martin de Porres Parish in Prosper, which is a growing area.
We have 45 active diocesan priests, and 112 religious priests. We have 30 seminarians, who are trending younger, and are men of courage and integrity. We hold them to high standards. I ordained two men to the priesthood for our diocese this year. None are scheduled to be ordained next year, but we have two on track for the year after, and seven the year after that. So, with vocations, things are trending up.
We’re always working to transform our schools in the light of the New Evangelization. And, we have a strong outreach to the poor through our Catholic Charities programs, for which we try to take as little government money as possible.
CWR: You went directly from being a priest to diocesan bishop. Was that sudden transition difficult?
Bishop Olson: I was called to be a bishop in November 2013, in my 20th year of ordained ministry. Of those 20 years, I had spent only five inside the diocese. So, I like to say it took an act of the Holy Father himself to get me an assignment in my own diocese!
At the time of my installation, I told our priests that Pope Francis has entrusted the care of the diocese to me, and I’m grateful for that. So please help me to be the kind of bishop you’d like to have. It was my intention not to let the office change me, except as a means of growing in holiness.
CWR: Why did you choose to issue your July 28th letter on the former Cardinal McCarrick?
Bishop Olson: I wanted to reassure our people that our diocese is committed to having a safe environment, and that I treat allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and with zero tolerance. In the nearly five years I’ve been bishop, if I was confronted with abuse allegations by someone in the diocese, I’ve always gone out to investigate, speak to victims and explain to them what is going on.
The pastoral issue we’re dealing with in the McCarrick case is one of scandal. Our people have already suffered trauma because of past clerical sexual abuse, and now they’ve been re-traumatized and scandalized. Anytime something like this occurs involving allegations of sexual abuse and a high official in the Church, it suggests that the life of the Gospel is impossible to live. That’s why in this process, because of the gravity of the offense, the issue of laicization [of the former Cardinal McCarrick] should not be ruled out.
CWR: Did you know the former Cardinal personally?
Bishop Olson: I met him, and I served on a committee with him, but I did not know him.
CWR: On June 20, the Archdiocese of New York said that allegations against the former Cardinal McCarrick were “credible and substantiated.” Before this date, were you aware of any reports of sexual abuse by the Cardinal?
Bishop Olson: I knew nothing about his transgressions. When the news broke, it was the first time I had heard that he’d been accused of misconduct with a minor and the other related charges.
CWR: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the USCCB, issued a statement on August 1st about the allegations against the former Cardinal McCarrick. Would you like to offer any comments about that statement?
Bishop Olson: I support it. He’s our president, and I stand in solidarity with the Conference of Catholic Bishops. But I would say that policies are not enough. We need sound policies that lead to better practices. We can’t merely say we’re sorry and angry. It is not about us, but the victims. [Those guilty of offenses need to have] a conversion that is not just interior, but a firm purpose of amendment that includes changes of behavior.
CWR: How do you think a man with such a background as the former Cardinal McCarrick could have risen to a position of such prominence in the Church?
I’ve been involved with handling so many cases of clerical sexual abuse that I can say it doesn’t surprise me, but it is something that needs to be addressed. We need to investigate how this happened. And, if people knew about McCarrick’s behavior and did not act, they have to be held accountable.
CWR: How would you like to see people respond to this scandal?
Bishop Olson: We need to respond with prayer and work. We have to pray, change our own behaviors and speak up if we see [evidence of sexual abuse]. We have to be clear with boundaries and expectations, and follow up with action. Our anger must lead to corrective action.
When it comes to scandal, we have to be preventive and proactive, addressing each case as it appears. We don’t merely want to say “I’m sorry” afterwards.
CWR: Texas Right to Life describes itself as the oldest, largest pro-life organization in Texas, and an affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee. You indicated your support for a request by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops asking parishes not to participate in their activities or allow them to use parish sites for events. Why do you have a problem with a group that seeks to put an end to abortion?
Bishop Olson: We did this because Texas Right to Life has misrepresented our positions. They told people that the bishops are not Catholic, and not in harmony with authentic Catholic teaching. It caused scandal and division in our community. It was a controversial decision, but I believe the right one.
CWR: You are active on Twitter. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island was also active on Twitter, but gave it up recently saying it was spiritually harmful to him and an occasion of sin. Have you experienced similar negative effects?
Bishop Olson: Twitter is a pastoral tool for communication, done in 140 characters or less. You make a brief statement, and then point people to other sources.
I use it as a pastoral tool, not as a means to offer up my opinion. I may make a pious affirmation, or tell people where I am in the diocese and what I’m doing. Its use requires prudence, but when I’m on Twitter I’m teaching. It’s a valuable tool, one that I use to call people to a Catholic unity. There certainly are Twitter wars, but that’s life in our world today.