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Having Nun of It

There’s a strange saga unfolding in Texas. It involves allegations and accusations of illicit sexual relationships, drug use, theft, abuse, spying, planted evidence, and plots to steal a multimillion-dollar property. The people involved are Catholic priests, bishops, and some pretty fired-up nuns.

What has become an open, bitter feud between the bishop of Fort Worth and 10 cloistered nuns in Arlington, Texas, has scandalized and thrilled American Catholics. The cops, the courts, and the Vatican are involved. Onlookers are taking sides. It’s still unclear who’s going to come out on top. And it all started with a startling confession from a devout nun. The series of events began in December 2020, shortly after Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, the 43-year-old prioress of the Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, had a seizure. Gerlach, who had joined the order as a teenager, normally lives a life of quiet prayer and seclusion. But at some point during that month, while she was recovering from the seizure and was heavily medicated, she told a priest and her caregiver (another nun) that she had committed some kind of sexual sin (with another priest). The story probably could have died there. Unluckily for Gerlach, though, that priest appears to have told his boss, the diocese’s bishop, Michael Olson. And when Olson got wind of the confession sometime in April 2023, he would kick off a strangely intense drama that spiraled to levels no one could have predicted.

Here’s how things went, according to statements by the nuns: This year, on April 24, Olson arrived suddenly at the monastery with others, including another priest and a male forensic technology expert. There, Olson demanded that Gerlach let him and his companions into the cloister and that she hand over her laptop, cellphone, and iPad. Then he interrogated her.

What the bishop discovered in that questioning is still unclear. One anonymous insider told the Pillar, a Catholic publication, that during the initial admission, back in 2020, Gerlach had been “in and out of lucidity” because of medication she was on, making the key admission at the center of this whole drama entirely unreliable. Perhaps the drugs so confused the nun that she hallucinated a sexual encounter, or exaggerated some lesser guilt (lustful thoughts could still count!). Or they lowered her defenses so that her secret tumbled out Regardless, at some point during her April 2023 interview with Olson, Gerlach admitted to a consensual sexual encounter with a priest, clarifying that it had been over text or video—but certainly via phone and not in person. (The priest who was allegedly at the other end of the phone or video communication was later identified as working for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina. He hasn’t said anything about the allegations, but he has been suspended from public-facing work “as a precautionary measure until more clarity regarding his status can be ascertained.”)

But this sexting confession itself was questioned too. The nuns’ version of events places the April 2023 confession on the 25th, as Gerlach was recovering from a recent surgery and was still groggy from anesthesia. The bishop’s version of events has her confessing the previous day, with a clear head. At some point in this two-day period, she did admit to something sexual—an audio clip would later prove so—but the timeline is murky.

Crucially, for our narrative and for the drama that would come. Olson didn’t limit his investigation to just his conversation with Gerlach. He started pulling the rest of the nuns in for separate interviews. Now, it’s important to know some things about Carmelite nuns. These women are the kinds of nuns you might picture when you think nun: They wear full, traditional habits; live entirely at the monastery; gather seven times a day to chant prayers; and spend the rest of their day either in silent prayer or doing manual labor. No one from the outside is allowed inside the monastery except in very special circumstances, and the nuns don’t leave except to get medical care. As Gerlach’s lawyer would note (lawyers got involved pretty quickly), Gerlach had likely been around only five or so men in the past quarter century.

So, with all this new activity and hostility, the nuns got fed up. On the third day of the investigation, furious that these men had stormed their peaceful little oasis, the nuns refused to be interviewed until Olson followed proper protocol, with lawyers on hand. Olson didn’t like that. “The Bishop threw a temper tantrum, and in an agitated and raised voice yelled that the Monastery was shut down, no Mass would be celebrated, he then slammed the door and left the Monastery, traumatizing the Sisters,” Gerlach would later attest, according to a legal affidavit. Olson, for his part, declared by the end of his three-day investigation into the Carmelites that Gerlach could no longer lead the order.

A quick pause to note some facts about Olson: In 2018 an old friend who said she’d once felt that Olson was a son to her testified in an unrelated defamation suit covered by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Olson was “obsessed with his power” and became so jealous of well-liked priests that he would kick them out of the diocese. The friend also said Olson admitted he’d shut down a Catholic center because there were “just a bunch of women in there”—nuns, whom he called “aging lesbians.” Additionally, some 1,600 people signed a November 2019 petition to have the Vatican investigate Olson, claiming he was “vindictive.” According to the petition, he referred to parishioners as “merely sheep” and “nasty people.” And then, in 2022, Olson forced out the president of the local Catholic Charities because that president had organized a women’s empowerment summit—something Olson thought was “aligned with the principles of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” which, in his view, “are most truly hostile to the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, that kind of personality may explain how an “investigation” into a nun boiled over into open conflict.

Back to the story: Olson, angry that the nuns were not cooperating, sent the women a letter warning they could be dismissed from their order. He demanded that Gerlach go on administrative leave, banned Gerlach’s caretaker from having any direct communication with her, and banned the nuns from holding daily Mass for the public—a big deal for, you know, nuns.

This was too much for the sisters. On May 3, they hit Olson with a $1 million lawsuit that claimed Olson had violated their privacy by taking their equipment and then monitoring their communications (or, as they put it, for “spying” on them). The lawsuit also claimed that Olson was controlling, and that he told Gerlach “where she can eat, where she can sit,” banned her from “her private bedroom … despite her poor health and need for constant medical care,” and cut her off from communicating with her caretaker. Plus, the nuns couldn’t pay their bills without their confiscated electronics, they said. Olson’s actions were, according to the lawsuit, “pure evil.”

On May 16, Olson posted a statement on the homepage of the diocese’s website announcing that Gerlach had violated her vow of chastity. Suddenly, the matter wasn’t private. The nuns added claims of defamation and theft to their lawsuit. As the nuns’ lawyer, Matthew Bobo, saw things, this wasn’t just a matter of heavy-handed discipline. Bobo told the Daily Mail that Olson wanted the nuns’ electronic devices for calculated reasons: The devices contained the order’s donor list, which Olson could copy and use. And in more of a long-run ploy, Bobo speculated, Olson was trying to steal the nuns’ property from under them by taking control of their accounting. He wouldn’t be the only person to make this claim.

This infuriated Olson, who sent another letter to the nuns, telling them he would not reinstate the daily Mass and confession because they were pushing “a false narrative and ‘inciting hatred.’ ”

Bobo went on the counteroffensive, further publicizing the nuns’ claims. He stuck to his points: Gerlach was innocent and Olson was a schemer who had no right to step in, especially because the nuns answered directly to the Vatican—not to the local diocese. Then Bobo went a step further: He got the cops involved.

Sometime in late May or early June of this year, Bobo contacted the Arlington police to ask them to investigate whether Olson had illegally seized the nuns’ electronics. This was possibly poor timing because, on May 31, the Vatican put out a (strangely error-ridden) decree giving Olson governing authority over the nuns.

That news came as a huge blow to the nuns. But by this point, they had allies. A lay Catholic group dedicated to supporting them held a prayer service in a public park that was attended by 100 people who showed up in solidarity. Olson, in June, sent the group that had organized the prayer service a notice telling the members they were “complicit” in “rebellious disobedience” and that the group should send its supporters an email rescinding calls for donations for legal fees for the nuns. “I ask that you copy me on the email by which you rescind this invitation,” he wrote. Unimpressed, the nuns’ support group sent out another email a few days later reminding people where they could donate.

Meanwhile, the official church investigation under Olson wrapped. Unsurprisingly, given the tenor of things, Olson declared Gerlach guilty and formally dismissed her from the order. She had 30 days to appeal to the Vatican, which she did.

At this point, Olson may have been winning the internal power battle—but not that of popular opinion. On June 7, the news of the criminal investigation by the Arlington police into Olson broke. Seemingly in retaliation, the diocese sent the Fort Worth Star-Telegram what it clearly thought was a trump card: photos allegedly taken in the monastery by a “confidential informant” that showed marijuana edibles, a bong, and other drug paraphernalia. The drugs, according to the “confidential informant,” were in the craft room. Gerlach, with the help of a layperson, had driven to Colorado multiple times to get the drugs, the informant said. Now Olson got the cops involved on his side of the squabble. Arlington police released a statement saying that they were looking into the matter.

This move backfired disastrously for Olson. Or perhaps it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Bobo, the nuns’ lawyer, as well as others, accused Olson of staging the photo and sending it to the press and the cops in a revenge plot.

In an effort to set the record straight, Olson put out an awkward, slightly sweaty eight-minute statement on YouTube on June 11 denying various rumors (including spying on the nuns, trying to steal their land, and planting drugs in the craft room) and laying out his version of events. According to his narrative, Gerlach had had some kind of sexual encounter and done illegal drugs, and had even crossed state borders to acquire said drugs. And instead of facing the repercussions, she had called upon her sisters and used her image as an ailing, pious woman to garner public sympathy, before attacking Olson in the courts. But more bad press was headed Olson’s way. The next day, the Fort Worth Business Press ran an article quoting a philanthropist whose mother had donated land to the nuns. The philanthropist, Sheila Johnson, argued forcefully that Olson was going after the nuns’ 72-acre property, which, according to the Business Press, is valued at $3.8 million but could be worth much more if sold to developers. “This is nothing but a ploy to get rid of Mother Teresa and close the monastery,” Johnson said. (“Mother Teresa” is Gerlach.) Johnson also told the paper she “would get out there in front of the gates with a shotgun to protect the monastery.” She added: “Of course, it wouldn’t be loaded.”

In late June, the nuns had their own setback when, in a hearing in court, the diocese’s legal team played a recording that included Gerlach’s confession to twice committing some kind of sexual act “over the phone” or “on video chat,” puncturing the argument some had made that she had not actually admitted to anything sexual.

During that hearing, the bishop also testified that three employees of the monastery had come to him with reports of marijuana use and that “the bookkeeper had found receipts for items from an Arlington smoke shop.” He also said the informants had “detected the smell of marijuana.” Olson said he immediately reported the allegations to the police By the end of June, the police and the courts finally decided that this was a church matter and bowed out, leaving all the final decisions up to the Vatican. Which is how things remain.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Last month, hostilities truly exploded with a final shot across the bow, from the nuns.

On Aug. 18, after several quiet weeks, the Carmelite order of Arlington, Texas, put out its most dramatic statement yet, banning Olson from the property and refuting his authority:

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, and forbid him or any of his officials or representatives 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 further accused Olson of “intimidation, aggression, private and public humiliation and spiritual manipulation” in service of his “ambitions.” They had been abused, they wrote, at the hands of “a man who, in the pursuit of his unspecified personal ends, does not fear to shout at nuns or to humiliate them,” a man who, they wrote, engaged in “power-plays.” They expressed concern for their own “spiritual and psychological safety” and called for Olson to repent and apologize.

Then, a strange twist: In the statement, the nuns promised to begin celebrating Mass “according to the older forms of the Roman rite.” They noted, “This decision is not a reaction to the abuse that has been visited upon us, even though we expect that it will occasion even more abuse from the same source.” The Glorious and Mysterious Burger Joint That Could Be Coming to Your TownAlabama Is Quickly Discovering the Dangers of Defying the Supreme CourtI’m a 42-Year-Old Woman, and I Have a Secret I Can Barely Bring Myself to TypeThis may seem like a random moment to bring up a dry liturgical matter, but there’s more than a slight political edge to that decision. Olson may be a bully who hates DEI, but he was appointed by the more liberal Pope Francis, and some automatically associate Olson with the pope’s more controversial (read: liberal) positions. No move of Francis’ has been more controversial within the church than his crackdown on the Latin Mass, a traditional form of worship that has come to be associated with the political right wing. By taking this stance—essentially, declaring they would return to the Latin Mass—the nuns planted themselves at odds with Olson and the Vatican.

To make the politics even more explicit, later that same day, Archbishop Carlo Viganò put out a statement supporting the nuns. Viganò is a right-wing conspiracy theorist who once served as the Vatican’s liaison to the U.S. church; he has become so eager in his advancement of global anti-Francis conspiracy theories that he can be reasonably described as the church’s equivalent of Q. In his statement, Viganò described Olson’s actions as “part of a subversive plan” to “usurp disciplinary authority in order to force priests and religious to accept the conciliar indoctrination and apostasy of the Bergoglian church.” Translation: Olson and those like him are using their power on behalf of the power-hungry pope and his allies (the “Bergoglians”) to spread the blasphemous doctrine of the new church and suppress those good souls—traditionalist priests and nuns—who follow the old, holy ways. The nuns, he wrote, were “an example of heroic resistance against corrupt power.” On Aug. 19, Olson put out a statement on the diocese’s website declaring that Gerlach and her fellow nuns may have been automatically excommunicated—a very serious occurrence usually reserved for sins such as abortion and heresy. Gerlach’s public refutation of Olson’s authority, he wrote, “has hurt me as a friend and as the bishop because of the deep wound this has cut in our unity.” He went on:

Thus, it is with deep sorrow that I must 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. … The Arlington Carmel 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. I stand ready to assist Mother Teresa Agnes on her path of reconciliation and healing.

Nice last line there. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not cow the nuns. On Aug. 26, they put out one final statement reiterating that they didn’t recognize Olson’s authority, no matter what the Vatican decreed.

“Every action he has taken with regard to us has proven to be devious and deceptive, marked by falsehood and an intent to persecute us,” they wrote, adding that Olson’s actions and falsehoods had been “gravely defamatory of the Mother Prioress.”

“For these reasons [we] will face with serenity and firmness any unjust canonical sanctions that the present [bishop] may inflict,” they declared. It is Olson, they wrote, who “is first in disobedience to the authority of God.” https://slate.com/human-interest/2023/09/nuns-texas-ft-worth-bishop-sex-drugs-power-plays.html?sid=5388d172dd52b8581b00078f&email=5240fdb9c1c77991ba4f203fbb652b92aa79176e9d02690026397bf96af6a7b7&email2=d75c9cfd1431c98f7f1a94cd6621aef1&email3=3d0e2e0cfb Ad Unmute

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