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Back left: Sister Joseph Marie. Front left: Mother Anne Teresa. Front right: Mother Teresa Agnes. Back right: Sister Francis Therese.Courtesy photo/North Texas Catholic

FORT WORTH, Texas (LifeSiteNews) — A community of Carmelite nuns in Texas are suing the local Catholic bishop of Fort Worth, stating that he and his “agents” abused their power and have conducted a series of acts in violation of the nuns’ civil and canonical rights.

In a suit filed against Fort Worth’s Bishop Michael Olson on May 3, two nuns from the Discalced Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity are seeking temporary and permanent injunction against the bishop and his “agents” for numerous actions. 

Prioress Mother Superior Teresa Agnes and Sister Francis Therese write that Olson and his “agents are abusing their power, inflicting moral violence and psychological distress.” This is performed, the suit argues, by “undertaking an illegal, unholy, unwarranted, explicit, and systematic assault upon the sanctity and autonomy of the Plaintiff’s and the Sisters.”

They argue that the bishop’s actions are not just illegal under civil law but under the Catholic Church’s Canon Law also, as detailed below. 

The legal proceedings were lodged after the bishop commenced a surprise investigation into the convent and nuns, beginning April 24. With the suit having been lodged by the Carmelites, the diocese then moved to publicly announce some weeks later that Mother Agnes had been accused of committing “sins against the Sixth Commandment” with a priest. 

The Carmelites’ suit argues strongly that Olson has no jurisdiction over the community in the aspects they highlight, with Mother Agnes’ superior being Pope Francis rather than the local bishop. 

The diocese has also filed with the courts to have the nuns’ suit dismissed, arguing that the court does not have the authority to intervene in a Church matter – despite the nuns’ arguing that Olson’s actions were widely civilly illegal. 

Bp. Olson. Credit: Twitter

Background to suit

The Carmelite community of Most Holy Trinity has been based in Texas’ Tarrant County since 1958. Mother Agnes has been a member of the community for over 25 years, and has been at its helm for just over two. Their religious life includes “a daily morning Mass attended by on average 50 souls and a Sunday Mass that averages over 60 faithful.”

On April 24, 2023, the suit states that Olson announced to the community of nuns that he would make an unscheduled visit to the monastery, giving them only 30 minutes warning. He was accompanied by Monsignor E. James Hart (the diocesan chancellor), and Sandra Schrader-Farry (the director of safe environment).

According to the suit, all three “demanded” to meet Mother Agnes and Sr. Therese – Sr. Therese is Mother Agnes’ “full-time primary caregiver,” since the Mother has to use a catheter, feeding tube, and an intravenous drip for 10 hours a day.

LifeSite is reliably informed that the bishop did not give any forewarning to the nuns about what he wished to question them on. 

During the questioning, Mother Agnes was reportedly under the influence of strong medication prior to undergoing a procedure the next day, and as such was pressured into giving answers which she reportedly does not remember.

The suit states Olson “demanded” Schrader-Farry and “an unnamed male forensic technology person be given entry into the monastery.” Such an act is directly against the rules of the Carmelite Order, which reserves the Papal Enclosure of the monastery for female members. 

This was while Olson was also “summarily demanding that the Reverend Mother turn over her computer, iPad, and cellular phone, to him personally,” adds the suit. 

Further details provided in the suit recount that over the following days, Olson repeatedly demanded access to the monastery, reportedly telling Mother Agnes which areas of the monastery she could and could not use, where “she could eat, sit, talk to, whether she can use technology and whether and when she could leave the monastery.” 

Mother Agnes was thus forbidden from using technology. The suit states that on April 25 – following a “surgical procedure requiring general anesthesia – Mother Agnes was subjected to further questioning from the bishop, despite being aware of her procedure. The same day, she then received a letter warning her of dismissal from the Order if she attempted to make another phone call without prior authority from an “Administrator.” However, the suit adds “that at that time no Administrator had been effectuated through a singular decree as required.”

The community is comprised of Mother Agnes, with seven other sisters and two novices. The bishop reportedly demanded to question all of the other sisters, four of whom he was able to question before the community resorted to seeking legal counsel. No details are provided in the suit about what Olson reportedly questioned the nuns on. 

When the nuns’ lawyers informed Olson that any further questioning could only taking place if the nuns were informed “about the purpose, object, and scope of any intended questioning,” Olson reportedly “threw a juvenile and unseemly temper tantrum, in an agitated and raised voice claimed that the Monastery was shut down and no Mass would be offered for the Sisters or the parishioners, slammed the door and left the Monastery.”

With the Masses thus cancelled, there was at the time no public statement from the diocese about why such actions were being taken.

Bishop spying on nuns?

With all the electronic devices having been confiscated, one of the sisters bought a new phone on April 27. However, on April 28 the community received a letter from Olson – according to the suit – stating that the diocese was aware of the purchase and of the texts being sent from the phone.

The suit outlines Olson’s letter as revealing “blatant violations of the law.” 

Olson then reportedly forbade Sr. Therese from any direct or indirect communication with Mother Agnes, despite being the Mother’s primary carer. 

“Finally, in an act of pure evil the Bishop advises that he would prevent priests to come and celebrate Mass at the Monastery for their parish,” added the suit. “This is nothing but [vindictive] petty punishment. There is nothing Christ-like about it.”

The suit noted that due to Mother Agnes’ technology having been confiscated by the Diocese, the community was unable to “pay bills or operate financially because all of that information was located on the Reverend Mother’s technology.”

It accuses the bishop of “insane amount of abuse” which “has created tremendous emotional trauma and psychological distress” on the nuns, and of having a direct effect on Mother’s physical health.

These actions are beyond the pale of decency, have no basis in law, are unconscionable and unheard actions for a bishop.

Why such measures?

Any members of the public or those members of the diocese who formed a regular part of the community worshipping at the convent had not been given any official reason from the diocese for such actions at that time. 

On May 10, the nuns issued another suit for an immediate, temporary restraining order on Olson and the diocese, warning that unless immediate action was taken the nuns would “suffer irreparable injury.”

Then on May 16, the diocese finally revealed the purpose behind its actions. A statement issued online read that:

Bishop Michael Olson received a report in April 2023 that the Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach, O.C.D., committed sins against the Sixth Commandment and violated her vow of chastity with a priest from outside the Diocese of Fort Worth. The priest’s superiors have been notified.

It further stated that “an ecclesiastical investigation into the report of the grave misconduct was initiated,” and claimed that “Mass is being offered for the sisters on Sundays.”

Olson then revealed existence of Mother Agnes’ lawsuit as her response:

The Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes has responded by initiating civil litigation against Bishop Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth. Please pray for the sisters at the Monastery.

The Diocese of Fort Worth supported the bishop’s statement to LifeSite, saying that “diocese received the allegations and thus initiated an investigation.”

The diocese did not respond to LifeSite’s request for any details about the alleged instances of sexual sins, nor how they were supposed to have taken place between a cloistered nun and a priest from a different diocese. As yet, no further details regarding the un-named priest have emerged.

LifeSite also asked a number of questions about the proceedings, including about Olson allowing a man to enter the all-female monastic enclosure, and the aspect – extensively raised in the nuns’ suit – that Olson had no jurisdiction to act as he did.

However, the diocese did not answer those questions, simply pointing this journalist towards a May 18 suit filed by the diocese in an attempt to convince the court that the matter is not one for civil jurisdiction, but rather only for the Catholic Church’s canonical process. 

Indeed, despite the bishop’s claim that Mass has been provided for the nuns since the start of the April 24 investigation, LifeSite is reliably informed otherwise. After the nuns sought legal counsel, Bishop Olson issued a memo to all the priests in the diocese, forbidding them from saying Mass for the nuns.

Only in the past two Sunday has he sent a priest to offer very brief Masses. LifeSite is informed that both were shorter than 22 minutes and the nuns have also been denied confession since April 24.

Bishop’s actions against Canon Law?

As argued extensively by the Carmelites’ suit, Olson’s moves against the community appear to be in violation of the Church’s Canon Law. While the local bishop does have some say in certain elements pertaining to a religious community – as outlined in the Vatican’s controversial 2018 document Cor Orans – the suit argues that “none of these cases exist in the present matter. Defendants [Olson and the diocese] can show no authority to prove they meet any of these criteria.”

As regards Olson’s alleged threats to remove nuns from the community, Mother Agnes gave a sworn testimony in which she argued that such an action would be in violation of Canon Law also. In his February 2022 modification to Canon 688 §2, Pope Francis stipulated that only a “major superior” can decide on the dismissal of a professed member of a community – and such a person would not be Olson.

The nuns’ suit writes clearly that Olson and the diocese’s tactics “must be stopped.” What remains now is to see what the future will hold for the beleaguered convent.