Nuns’ lawsuit against Fort Worth bishop raises questions about jurisdiction

Two Arlington nuns sued, claiming defamation and invasion of privacy, after the bishop dismissed Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach from the Order of Discalced Carmelites and accused her of breaking her chastity vow.

By Glorie MartinezJuly 11, 2023 4:18 pm

A dramatic story out of North Texas has been unfolding in recent weeks, involving a bishop and a group of nuns who filed a lawsuit against him, amid allegations of drug use and breaking a vow of chastity.

A Tarrant County judge threw out a civil case against the bishop at the end of June. The Arlington police also stopped investigating on criminal grounds. So, what exactly happened – and what comes next?

For an overview, the Standard spoke to Marissa Greene, a Report for America corps member who covers faith for the Fort Worth Report.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Give us a brief overview here of the major players involved.

Marissa Greene: So for a little bit of context, a Tarrant County judge dismissed the lawsuit filed by a group of Discalced Carmelite nuns from the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington against the Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson, after accusing the bishop of illegally accessing electronic devices.

The civil court hearing that we heard on June 27 was to determine whether Tarrant County had jurisdiction over the lawsuit. During the six-hour hearing, the judge heard from both attorneys, including the nuns’ attorney, Matthew Bobo. He argued that the case was a civil matter because it dealt with privacy and property rights, while the diocese attorney, Michael Anderson, argued that the underlying issue was a church matter and not a legal matter.

So, what brings us here is Olson had accused Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach from the Discalced Carmelite nuns of Arlington of breaking her chastity vow by having a relationship with a priest outside the diocese and dismissed Gerlach from the Order of Discalced Carmelites on June 1st.

Out of this came allegations and counter allegations. Specifically, what was this about? Accessing a database? 

The nuns allege that the bishop illegally seized Gerlach’s electronics on April 24 to find information related to the alleged affair. The lawsuit that was filed against Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth claimed defamation and invasions of privacy.

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Ultimately, a judge decided this was not a matter for the courts – that this was an internal matter. Where does that leave the complaints here? Where does this leave the church?

During the hearing, the judge called the case a difficult and emotional matter. His dismissal of the case means that Tarrant County does not have jurisdiction, which falls under the diocese attorney’s arguments: that this is a church matter and not a civil one. Bishop Olson released a statement saying that this decision vindicates their belief that this is a private church matter and does not belong in the courts, and that they will continue to proceed through an established canonical process.

Matthew Bobo, the nuns’ attorney, said in a statement that he was shocked. He was extremely disappointed and disagrees with the judge’s decision, and he said that he intends to file an appeal.

What about the reaction in Arlington and Fort Worth? Have you heard much from the church community? Has this affected them?

We’ve heard a variety of thoughts and feelings towards the decision. There still is a canonical investigation that’s pending in Rome. So, Gerlach has 30 days to appeal the bishop’s decision to dismiss her, which is going to go to a group within the Vatican that oversees matters relating to religious orders. It’s still early to tell what all is going to happen in the future.

Are there any broader implications that go beyond the parameters of this particular case, especially when it comes to whether courts are going to take on matters that are intermingled with those of the church?

I think we have a lot of eyes on this, whether that is from the diocese or whether that is from folks who live here in Fort Worth. Like Matthew Bobo said in his statement, he does intend to appeal to an appellate court. We’ll just have to see where that goes to see if it gets raised any higher to a higher court.

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