According to multiple news reports, testimony was heard yesterday in the case of Bishop Michael Olson and the Arlington nuns in civil court. As we reported earlier this month, the Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington — led by their prioress Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, O.C.D. — filed a lawsuit in May against Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth, claiming defamation and invasion of privacy, and seeking a restraining order preventing diocesan officials from possessing their electronic devices or accessing their electronic data.

The purpose of yesterday’s hearing was to determine whether Tarrant County has jurisdiction over the lawsuit. The diocese is arguing that the dispute is an internal religious matter and therefore cannot be judged by a civil court according to the first amendment of the US Constitution. Matthew Bobo, the lawyer for the nuns, is arguing that the case is a civil matter because it deals with privacy and property rights. KERA News quoted Bobo as saying that the bishop “forced the Rev. Mother to turn over her computer, iPad and cellular phone to him personally.” The article explained that Bobo argued it was an invasion of the sisters’ privacy and that the bishop “stole their personal and financial property.”

The hearing revealed that the relationship between Gerlach and the priest was never in-person, but through electronic correspondence. According to the Dallas Morning News, an audio recording of Gerlach’s April 24 admission of guilt to Bishop Olson was played during the hearing:

Attorneys for the diocese played a roughly 40-minute recording of a conversation between Olson and Gerlach from April.

As church bells rang in the background, Gerlach admitted to breaking her vow of chastity on two occasions. At another point in the conversation, however, she said the affair was only conducted by phone.

“I was not in my right mind,” Gerlach said at one point. “Even a nun can fall.”

Olson also said a nun at the monastery told him the broken vow involved “sexting” between the two. Under questioning by Olson, Gerlach identified the man involved as a priest in Montana.

Toward the end of the meeting, Olson ordered Gerlach to turn over her cell phone and other technology, according to the recording. Olson testified Tuesday that he has not reviewed her messages or other content from her devices.

Additional details emerged from the hearing, including the name of the priest with whom Gerlach is accused of violating the sixth commandment. During the hearing, he was identified as “Fr. Bernard Marie,” who had been a novice in the Transalpine Redemptorist religious order in Montana. According to a statement on the order’s website, he was a diocesan priest of the diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, and was staying with them with the permission of his bishop. They stated that as a novice he was not a member of the order and was not engaged in public ministry. The statement asserted, “He resigned as a novice and returned to his diocese on May 1st 2023.”

This clears up any confusion regarding Bishop Olson’s claims that he contacted three individuals regarding the priest’s behavior: his superior with the Transalpine Redemptorists, the bishop of the (Montana) diocese where he resided, and the bishop of his home diocese.

It is not unusual for a diocesan priest to be granted permission by his bishop to discern a vocation with a religious order, where he will typically live as a novice with the community for a year or two before a decision is made. It appears that the priest’s novitiate with the Transalpine Redemptorists ended and he left the community soon after Olson’s interview with Gerlach.

The Pillar reached out to the Diocese of Raleigh and received a response stating that Fr. Bernard Marie

is a priest of the Diocese of Raleigh who was granted leave from the diocese to serve as chaplain to a religious community in 2020 and who later joined the Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery in Montana in 2022,” the diocese said.

“He recently returned to North Carolina after resigning from the Redemptorist community where he served under the chosen name of Fr. Bernard Marie.

The diocese went on to state that the priest “is not currently exercising public ministry,” and that his “priestly faculties were restricted by Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama as a precautionary measure until more clarity regarding his status can be ascertained.”

According to the Raleigh diocese’s record of appointments, the monastery to which the priest was assigned in 2020 was a Carmelite Monastery in Traverse City, Michigan.

The Fort Worth Report provided additional details of the six-hour hearing:

In the recording that was played in court, Gerlach also can be heard saying that she had a history of experiencing seizures and that she was not in her right mind.

“Bishop, at the time I was having seizures and in a difficult position, and I think my brain got very messed up,” Gerlach said in the recording when addressing Olson.

The Rev. Jonathan Wallis from the Catholic Diocese testified to the court that Gerlach disclosed to him on Dec. 22, 2022, that she had broken her chastity vow with a priest. Wallis told the court that he didn’t ask Gerlach to specify what she meant by that.

After hearing nearly six hours of testimony on Tuesday, 67th District Court Judge Don Cosby said he would take the matter under advisement and rule next week. At issue is whether the county has jurisdiction over a lawsuit filed by two Discalced Carmelite nuns in Arlington against Bishop Olson and the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.

“This is a difficult, emotional matter, and I hope that everyone respects that,” the judge said at the conclusion of the hearing.

We will continue to follow this story as it unfolds.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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