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Dispute between Fort Worth bishop, monastery could soon play out in civil and criminal courts

Canon lawyers who are well versed in church law cases says there is no textbook for what is allegedly happening between a local group of nuns and a local bishop.

ARLINGTON, Texas — What is unfolding between the Discalced Carmelite Monastery and Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth is unprecedented. 

Canon lawyers who are well versed in church law cases tell WFAA there is no textbook for what is allegedly happening between a local group of nuns and highest ecclesiastical authority of the diocese.

It is an ongoing and bitter feud that could soon play out in Tarrant County criminal and civil courts, and in the Diocese of Fort Worth, including the Vatican.

At the center of it is Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach. She has been with the monastery for more than 20 years and has been the Mother Superior for the monastery for the last several years. The diocese alleges Gerlach broke her vow of chastity with a Catholic priest from another diocese.

"They don't have any proof that it happened because it didn't happen," said the nun's civil attorney Matthew Bobo. 

Gerlach is in very poor health, Bobo said, and her condition has worsened after this alleged scandal. 

"Why [doesn't the Diocese} come tell us what she did, what proof that you have, or who this priest is?" asked Bobo.

Bobo tells WFAA that Gerlach denies all of the allegations. They've filed a civil claim alleging defamation and theft and are seeking $1 million in damages.

Bobo tells WFAA Bishop Olson arrived at the monastery in April to investigate the alleged breaking of the vow. The diocese, in a statement released to WFAA, characterizes the Gerlach's offense as "admitted-to violations of the sixth commandment." 

The sixth commandment in the Catholic decalogue refers to adultery.

Just last week the Diocese of Fort Worth shared a copy with WFAA of an alleged decree from the Vatican they claim gave Bishop Olson governing power over the monastery. 

The nuns are challenging the Bishop's authority to mediate the issue. Bobo tells WFAA that the decree that allegedly came from the Vatican is riddled with errors and questions its legitimacy. 

WFAA has made attempts to reach the Vatican to check the veracity of the decree but has yet to receive any response as of Thursday night.

"He is the highest ecclesiastical authority in the area and it's physically in his diocese domain," said Laura LeFave, who is a canon lawyer but not connected to this case.

LeFave said Gerlach will have a bishop-appointed canon lawyer along with her civil attorney. She says it's likely the bishop will convene a group of priests, nuns, Carmelites and laypeople to hear the case.

"He's already decided she's guilty. Now she's got to prove she's innocent apparently," said LeFave.

The Arlington Police Department is now also investigating the possibility of multiple offenses. Bobo says Olson took the nun's mobile devices and computers during the April visit and that he kept their devices from them for three weeks.

"Just because you're the Catholic Bishop doesn't mean you're above the law. You don't just get to take what you want and retain it. I absolutely think something criminal happened," Bobo said.

The diocese is also looking into possible marijuana use at the monastery. Pictures shared with WFAA through a confidential informant show what appears to be drug paraphernalia. 

In a release to WFAA, the diocese writes it "initiated and is in communication with the Arlington Police Department regarding serious concerns it has regarding the use of marijuana and edibles at the monastery, along with other issues that the Diocese will address at another time and in a proper forum."

Arlington Police confirms to us they are aware and looking into the marijuana allegation along with other offenses. Neither the diocese nor Olson have accepted our interview requests. But in a statement, the diocese further accused the attorney for the nuns of taking an internal matter and making it public in attempts to 'embarrass and undermine' the bishop.

Olson had canceled Mass for the last three weeks at the monastery, until Wednesday, when he allowed a portion of a traditional mass. Bobo calls this spiritual deprivation and intimidation.

"Mass and confession to these women is like food and water to you and I," said Bobo.

The diocese, in a June 1 statement, said enough time has passed now and with the investigation completed, mass would resume beginning Wednesday, June 7. 

"Mass will remain closed to the participation of the lay faithful for the time being. The only Mass intention will be for the restoration of peace and good order of the Monastery," reads the statement. 

The Carmelite Monastery has between forty and fifty layperson in regular attendance.

Civil hearings, appeals and investigations are all in the immediate future at this monastery. A place of prayer and peace has lately become a place of chaos.

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