Bishop: Texas nuns may have excommunicated themselves with defiant letter


The Reverend Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas. / Credit: Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity Discalced Carmelite Nuns

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 21, 2023 / 16:05 pm (CNA).

Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, said a Carmelite prioress and several other nuns at a Texas monastery may have excommunicated themselves by publishing a statement challenging his authority and banning him from setting foot on monastery grounds.

In an Aug. 19 statement published by the Diocese of Fort Worth, Olson said that because the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity’s prioress, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, “issued a public statement on the website of the Arlington Carmel by which she publicly rejected my authority as diocesan bishop and pontifical commissary,” he felt compelled to “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.”

Besides Gerlach, Olson said that “depending on their complicity in Mother Teresa Agnes’ publicly, scandalous, and schismatic actions,” other nuns at the monastery “could possibly have incurred the same latae sententiae excommunication.”

What did the nuns say?

The monastery’s statement referenced by Olson was published on Holy Trinity’s website homepage on Aug. 18. In it, the nuns declare themselves independent of Olson’s authority and appear to want to cut all ties with the bishop.

“Because the salvation of our souls is our first duty before Almighty God, in order to protect the integrity of our monastic life and vocation from the grave dangers that the continued abuse to which we are being subjected threaten, we hereby state that, in conscience, we no longer recognize the authority of, and can have no further relations with, the current bishop of Fort Worth or his officials,” the statement said.

The nuns further “forbid” the bishop and diocesan officials “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,” the nuns’ statement said.

How did it come to this?

This is the latest development in an increasingly bitter dispute between the Fort Worth bishop and nuns at the Most Holy Trinity Monastery in Arlington, Texas, over an alleged sexual affair between the prioress and a North Carolina priest, Father Philip Johnson.

Olson first launched a canonical investigation into the affair in April. After being appointed pontifical commissary and being given full authority in the matter by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Olson proclaimed Gerlach guilty of having violated the Sixth Commandment and her vow of chastity and dismissed her from religious life.

The monastery has denied Gerlach committed any wrongdoing and filed a civil suit against Olson for theft, defamation, and abuse of power. The suit was thrown out without comment by Tarrant County District Court Judge Don Cosby on June 30.

After their case was dismissed, the monastery’s attorney, Matthew Bobo, told CNA that they would be appealing.

As of now, the monastery continues to claim Gerlach has not committed any wrongdoing warranting her dismissal.

“In respect of the calumnies that have been published,” the nuns said in their Aug. 18 statement, the monastery wanted to “express its complete confidence in the personal and moral integrity of its Mother Prioress and in her leadership.”

What does it mean to be excommunicated?

Though both sides of the dispute have alleged abuse and bad faith, this is the first mention of excommunication.

Excommunication is the separation of an individual from communion with God and his Church and ultimately removes the possibility of the promise of heaven until one repents. It is the most grave matter possible for a Catholic.

Latae sententiae excommunication means that rather than a bishop or ecclesial authority formally declaring a person excommunicated, the individual automatically excommunicates himself or herself by his or her actions. Examples of latae sententiae excommunication include the sins of preaching heresy, breaking the seal of confession, or participating in an abortion. To be excommunicated, one must be fully aware that he or she is committing a grave error and willingly chooses to do so of his or her own free will.

For an ecclesial figure such as Olson to issue a public statement pronouncing someone has been latae sententiae excommunicated is very rare.

Monastery denies breaking communion

In the monastery’s website statement, the nuns said that though they “expect much rhetoric to the contrary” 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,” the nuns 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.”

Though Olson’s Aug. 19 statement said the Arlington monastery “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,” the nuns have declared their monastery chapel is open to visitors.

“Our monastery chapel is and shall remain open to all who, in good faith, wish to pray there or to participate in the liturgical rites we celebrate, regardless of any protestations that those who have abused us may wish to make in this respect,” their statement said.

Pat Svacina, a representative for the Fort Worth Diocese, shared a statement with CNA Monday that said that before the statement went up on the monastery’s website neither Olson nor the diocese had prior notification of the monastery’s “dangerously rebellious decision by the dismissed prioress and the other nuns to reject formally the canonical authority of their superior, the pontifical commissary as appointed by the Holy See.”

“Bishop Olson asks the faithful of the Diocese of Fort Worth and all people of goodwill to pray for the Carmelites that they will stop their open disobedience,” the diocesan statement said, adding that “Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth stand with Pope Francis and will remain faithful to the canonical process that is currently underway.”

This is not the only controversy involving Olson. Currently, there is a petition with more than 900 signees by a group known as “Laity in Unity” asking Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., to remove Olson from his episcopal office. The petition alleges Olson “operated against canon law on numerous occasions and has employed abusive language and vindictive actions against priests, nuns, and the lay faithful in our diocese.”

The monastery could not be reached for comment by the time of publication. According to the monastery website, the nuns will be in a retreat Aug. 20–27.

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  1. A tragic tale. The Mother Superior is being portrayed by Olson as a fallen woman. She was apparently in tremendous pain and improperly sought relief. How should a father react? Not like this! Where is the vaunted mercy? There is always plenty of rehabilitation for creeps who abuse nuns like Rupnik.

    Many of us have experience with Bishop Olson employing “abusive language and vindictive actions against priests, nuns, and the lay faithful.” God help you if you do not do what this guy wants. At the Capital in Austin, Bishop Olson has been more verbally abusive and vengeful than any Democrat on the other side. Forgive me if I hit back, especially at a Bishop. But Olson hits nuns, even when they are down. So he had it coming!

  2. One more thing. It is obvious but must be stated that this is the work of a sycophant of Pope Francis and a brazen land grab. We are appalled at the suck-up song of Cardinal Tagle. This is so much worse.
    We are all fallen. We all make mistakes. These are Brides of Christ! It’s disgusting to abuse them in the name of obedience. This whole affair is spiritually sick.

    • The whole affair is a terrible witness. Especially to non Catholics. It checks off all the old anti-Catholic tropes about nunneries & erring clergy. If Jack Chick was still alive he could use this for a tract inspiration. Good grief.

  3. Will someone tell us who let this matter of Mother Prioress’ alleged moral transgression out for public consumption? Who is the source?
    Such a matter should never leave the confidence of the confessional, the therapeutic engagement, or even the boundary of private counsel between two persons.
    Should it be true it never should have been made a pubic issue under any circumstance. Needless to say, if it is false it transgresses every bound of decency.
    Who let this out of the bag?

  4. Another clerical “disgrace” when we are in desperate need of sound Church leadership. It appears that this donnybrook has been stewing for some time. “over an alleged sexual affair between the prioress and a North Carolina priest, Father Philip Johnson.” Who alleges this? Was there an investigation? It appears that it is currently “he said, she said”. Bishop Olson calling for excommunication? Excerpt: “After being appointed pontifical commissary and being given full authority in the matter by the Vatican’s Dicastery, (court?) — Olson proclaimed Gerlach guilty of having violated the Sixth Commandment and her vow of chastity and dismissed her from religious life”. Sixth: (Adultry) “a person who is not his or her spouse”? I am assuming that each are spouses of Mother Church.

    Who is not weak in the moment. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Get on with vital Church business.

  5. Excellent comment, morganD! These type of repeated, stupid mistakes and incompetent actions have led over the years to a gross erosion of the teaching authority of the bishops and respect for the same. Thus, we have the current confusion and division among the faithful.

  6. Has every Catholic lost their powers of reasoning! None of this would have been public or even known to the other nuns if the prioress hadn’t talked about it and then the monastery going public. This woman has a grave responsibility both as a nun and superior. A monastery is not a private group of women but a public institution of the Church governed by laws and norms. As a Catholic you can’t just reject your bishop. Ask St. Ignatius of Antioch.
    Pray for this community. Something is very wrong that they would then align themselves with Archbishop Vigano.
    No one drove them to this. They are making choices. And for those who long for the return of the church before Vatican II this is nothing compared to how bishops acted toward religious communities.
    Instead of comments let’s take to really pray for these nuns who appear to be in grave spiritual peril.

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