Vatican rules Carmelite nun can stay in order, overturning Texas bishop’s dismissal

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Texas Carmelites
Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach, a longtime member of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, and Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, are pictured in an undated combination photo. The Vatican has nullified the decree by Olson expelling the Carmelite nun from her monastery over allegations that she violated her vow of chastity. (OSV News photos/courtesy Matthew Bobo/Bob Roller)

(OSV News) — An embattled nun in Texas at the center of a yearlong controversy can remain in the Carmelite order, according to a Vatican decree publicized May 21. The decree nullifies a decision issued last year by Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth to dismiss the nun from the Carmelites.

Issued by the Holy See’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which oversees matters related to religious orders, the April 30 decree granted the nun, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, the appeal she sought after Bishop Olson’s June 1, 2023, decree dismissing her from the Order of Discalced Carmelites.

The bishop issued that decision after investigating and finding her “guilty of having violated the sixth commandment of the Decalogue and her vow of chastity with a priest from outside the Diocese of Fort Worth.” The nun has denied the allegation.

Vatican decree overturns nun’s dismissal

The Vatican’s decree noted “invalidating errors” in both the procedure and substance of the bishop’s decree. While the bishop’s decree pointed to canon law statutes enforcing the Sixth Commandment against sexual immorality, as well as against “stubborn disobedience” for members of religious life, the Vatican did not find evidence that the nun abused her authority as prioress in committing the alleged acts of sexual immorality, and she had not been afforded the full 15 days allotted to respond to warnings prior to the dismissal decree.

According to the Vatican decree, Mother Teresa Agnes filed her appeal July 3, 2023.

The decree was signed by Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz, the dicastery’s prefect, as well as Sister Simona Brambilla, a Consolata Missionary and the dicastery’s secretary.

The nuns’ Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington is within the boundaries of the Diocese of Fort Worth.

The exact nature of Mother Teresa Agnes’ alleged misconduct has not been publicized, beyond its link to a video phone conversation with a priest later revealed to be Father Philip Johnson of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, who was then living at the Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery in Montana.

Bishop Olson’s initial investigation of the allegation in April 2023 prompted the sisters to file a lawsuit, launching a public feud between the nuns and the bishop that has involved both civil and church courts, as well as law enforcement, and included allegations that the nuns were engaged in illegal cannabis use.

Recently, in April 2024, the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life entrusted the Arlington Carmelites’ governance to Mother Marie of the Incarnation, president of the Carmelite Association of Christ the King (USA), and the association’s council. The monastery’s governance had previously been granted to Bishop Olson, although the nuns publicly rejected that authority in August in a statement posted to their website.

Although the Arlington nuns are members of the Carmelite Association of Christ the King, a small organization of U.S. Carmelite monasteries, they publicly rejected the appointment. On April 22, they filed a restraining order against the association, Bishop Olson and the Fort Worth Diocese. A court hearing on the defendants’ plea had been scheduled for May 23, but the nuns dismissed their lawsuit May 22.

“We have long believed that the Arlington nuns case was frivolous, did not belong in a civil court, and would ultimately be dismissed by the court, just as the court dismissed their prior lawsuit,” Michael Anderson, an attorney representing the bishop and diocese, told OSV News May 23.

The Carmelite nuns stated on their website May 23 that the president of the Carmelite Association of Christ the King had attempted to enter the Arlington monastery on May 22 and 23. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Mother Marie of the Incarnation was trying to deliver letters from the Vatican to the nuns.

The cloistered nuns also said on their website that after the dicastery’s decree nullifying the decision to dismiss their superior, the bishop should issue a public and private apology. Rejecting the other decrees upholding other actions taken by Bishop Olson, they said “his investigations were flawed” and that medical evidence “proving these allegations to be completely unfounded and fabricated has been ignored by the Holy See.”

Bishop Olson’s response

On May 22, Bishop Olson released a statement noting that while his decree on Mother Teresa Agnes’ dismissal from the Carmelite order had been overturned, the dicastery informed him May 21 that other decisions had been upheld, including “opening the investigation at the Arlington Carmel upon receiving information that Mother Teresa Agnes had violated the sixth commandment of the Decalogue and her vow of chastity, placing Mother Teresa Agnes on a leave of absence following her admissions of grievous misconduct, and admonishing the members of the Monastery that obstruction of the investigation could result in the imposition of penalties.”

“All decisions were made for the good of Mother Teresa Agnes and the Arlington Carmel and its sisters, in accordance with my obligation under canon law and the Rule and Constitutions of the Arlington Carmelites as the local bishop,” the bishop said.

Bishop Olson said that Father Johnson, Mother Teresa Agnes’ alleged accomplice, did not cooperate in the diocese’s investigation. While he reported the priest’s involvement to the Diocese of Raleigh a year ago, he said, he has not yet received results from the investigation “for the sake of transparency and accountability for all involved.”

Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.