Thursday morning, a reader sent me the latest update from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about an ongoing public conflict between a bishop and a group of cloistered nuns in Texas. For those who haven’t been following the story, the dispute between Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson and the Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington — led by their prioress Mother Teresa Agnes of Jesus Crucified Gerlach, O.C.D. — has continued to escalate.

Friday’s revelation included two photographs provided by the diocese that were allegedly “taken by a confidential informant in the monastery. They show cluttered tables covered with scores of pill bottles, baggies, vape cartridges and what appears to be a bong. A crucifix is seen on one table littered with bottles.” This new information provides the first significant challenge to a narrative that has, until now, been overwhelmingly one-sided.

This story became widespread following a May 16 statement from the diocese saying that Bishop Olson received a report in April alleging that Gerlach had engaged in sexual behavior with a priest from outside the diocese, violating her vow of chastity. The statement also indicated that the superiors of the priest (whose name has not been made public) were notified. The diocese responded to the allegations against Gerlach by initiating an ecclesiastical investigation into the matter.

Following the investigation, Gerlach countered with a lawsuit against the bishop on May 3, describing his actions as “pure evil.” In a May 10 affidavit, Gerlach insisted that as an institution of pontifical right, the monastery operates under the direct authority of the Pope, and that the community is not under the control of the local bishop. In response to the lawsuit, Bishop Olson began imposing various measures against the sisters, including taking away their access to daily Mass.

According to the lawsuit, the bishop and other diocesan officials arrived at the monastery on April 24, having given only 30 minutes notice. Olson interrogated one of the nuns, Sister Francis Therese, for two hours. During the interrogation, Bishop Olson was angry and “summarily demanding that the Reverend Mother turn over her computer, iPad, and cellular phone, to him.” The interrogation continued on the following day. In her affidavit, Gerlach wrote that the bishop insisted upon interrogating her, even though she had undergone surgery earlier that day and “was in significant pain, under the influence of medications and feeling very weak.”**

Then, on May 31, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (DICLSAL) issued a decree making Bishop Olson the “pontifical commissary” of the monastery. The decree said that Bishop Olson “will assume his office upon communication,” and it granted the bishop “full governing powers” over the monastery and “the faculty to appoint, if necessary, the nuns to assume the roles of overseer of the community members, legal representative, treasurer, etc.”

Additionally, the decree stated that DICLSAL “sanates all the administrative and legal acts already performed by the same bishop,” meaning that any actions done by Olson that may have violated canon law have been retroactively approved (you might say his record has been “sanitized”). The next day, June 1, Bishop Olson dismissed Gerlach from the Carmelite order for violating the sixth commandment and notifying her that she had 30 days to appeal the decision. On June 2, Gerlach filed a lawsuit for over $1 million in damages against the bishop and diocese.

Throughout this saga, there have been many shots fired between Gerlach’s and Olson’s camps. Gerlach’s supporters, particularly her attorney Matthew Bobo, have aggressively championed Gerlach’s innocence and argued that the bishop’s sanctions against the nuns — such as removing their access to daily Mass and confessions — were acts of senseless cruelty. A photograph of Gerlach, seated in a wheelchair with an IV pole next to her, has circulated around the internet. It has been reported widely that she requires full-time care and needs a catheter, a feeding tube, and an intravenous drip for 10 hours a day.

Beyond those details, we have been told little about Gerlach’s health situation. No information has been provided about the nature of her condition or whether it is permanent or life-threatening. The statements by her lawyer seem to imply that she was wheelchair-bound at the time of her alleged affair with the priest, but she is only in her early forties and photographs indicate that she was able to walk when she was elected prioress in 2021.

The story flooded the local news and Catholic media. Prayer vigils were organized on behalf of the sisters. Letter-writing campaigns and online petitions were launched. And it seemed that Bishop Olson had nothing to say for himself.

The statements from Olson were much different from those from the sisters. Olson didn’t provide any refutations of the sisters’ claims or accusations. The communications from the chancery mostly consisted of official decrees and regulations imposed on the nuns. He provided little in the way of context, argumentation, or evidence. This is why, prior to May 31, the picture seemed clear: Bishop Olson was cruelly and unfairly punishing a group of nuns based on the groggy forced confession of a sick, wheelchair-bound, and cloistered prioress about an affair with an anonymous priest. Obviously the whole thing was preposterous! Or so we thought.

The Church’s Cone of Silence

The May 31 declaration by DICLSAL, which gave Bishop Olson full authority over the monastery, shocked many who were following this story. It was an indication that Vatican officials agreed with Olson’s position, but still without further explanation.

I certainly found it confusing. But I also understand that this really isn’t unusual. This situation was following a pattern I have seen many times in my career, both as a Church employee and a Church watcher. As I discussed in last week’s episode of The Debrief with Dominic de Souza, the only way this story makes any sense is if Bishop Olson and DICLSAL have evidence that they have not shared publicly, and they must be strongly convinced that Gerlach and her lawyer Bobo aren’t telling the entire truth.

The release of the photographs of drugs and drug paraphernalia inside the monastery was the first concrete indication that there is much more to the story. More information is apparently forthcoming, but it appears that Bishop Olson wants to release it when he believes it is the right time.

Waiting to release the information doesn’t seem to be helping the bishop win the battle of public relations. I posted the article with the new photos on Twitter, and I was shocked that a strong majority of people who commented still support the nuns over Bishop Olson, some of whom even believe the photos are authentic and that the nuns were drug users — perhaps imagining possible medicinal uses.

The credibility of the Catholic bishops these days is extremely poor. The nuns’ side of the story has been so dominant in the media for the past month that Bishop Olson might wind up looking worse even if he emerges from this scandal totally vindicated.

There is a tendency in the institutional Church to remain silent or aloof in the midst of a scandal or crisis, even when rumors and media narratives have spun out of control and become public relations nightmares. It seems that sometimes the scandals that cause the greatest damage to the Church are the ones that it is the least likely to address in public. There are legal reasons for this, such as the pontifical secret or canon law. There are also cultural reasons like clericalism or the idea that if you don’t give “oxygen” to a rumor, it will die a quiet death. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in the age of social media. In fact, the longer a counter-narrative is allowed to persist, the more likely it is to become the dominant narrative.

Recent history has also shown that when the public has made up its mind that it wants answers, it won’t stop until it receives them. And sometimes answers prompt more questions. I remember the outcry in 2018, during the first few weeks of the Theodore McCarrick abuse scandal, over the fact that McCarrick was “still a Cardinal.” The Vatican gave no reply, and various journalists searched high and low for anyone within 100 miles of Rome who was even willing to offer a theoretical answer to the question. Then one day, the Vatican issued a statement announcing he was no longer a Cardinal.

Then the question became, “Why hasn’t McCarrick been defrocked?” This went on for months as the canonical process proceeded in private. After he was laicized, the big question for the better part of the next two years was, “When will they release the McCarrick Report?” Months at a time went by without any update from the Vatican. Several projected release dates for the report came and went. Without official communication from the institutional Church, those following these issues had to make do with sideshows like the antics of Archbishop Viganò and the latest manifesto by a reactionary Cardinal accusing Pope Francis of heresy. And these are the sorts of things that fill the communication void left by a nonresponsive Church.

I occasionally hear people ask about the impact of Vos Estis Lex Mundi, a Vatican document dealing with bishops who are accused of abuse or of covering up abuse. Unfortunately, it’s unclear that anyone outside a few people in the Vatican know the answer. Unless a bishop is removed or resigns prior to retirement age and a journalist reports that it was the result of Vos Estes, we will likely never know with certainty that a particular bishop ever was investigated under the provisions of Vos Estis. Whether it’s working or not, and whether certain bishops have been investigated under its statutes is a mystery.

Another situation shrouded in secrecy despite strong public interest was that of Frank Pavone. In November 2016, following a political stunt by then-Fr. Pavone involving placing an aborted fetus on an altar, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas, said he was going to open an investigation into Pavone. For six years, no information about the investigation was shared with the public, while journalists searched for answers regarding Pavone’s activities and status as a priest. Finally, in December 2022, more than six years later, it was announced that Pavone had been defrocked a month before and that the decision was final. The statement said “Pavone was given ample opportunity to defend himself in the canonical proceedings, and he was also given multiple opportunities to submit himself to the authority of his diocesan bishop.” Whatever these opportunities were and when they took place will likely be locked in a Vatican archive somewhere for researchers to study in future centuries.

More information about the Arlington Carmelite saga will certainly come out, but whether the Church will be forthcoming in providing answers and explanations is anybody’s guess. In The Vatican Diaries, his memoir of the 30 years he spent as a Vatican correspondent, John Thavis wrote, “Oddly, in the age of Internet and nonstop media coverage, the church’s highest officials sometimes act as if the rest of the world isn’t watching.” This tendency of the leaders of the Church to withhold important information from the public does not do anyone any favors. More transparency from decision-makers is urgently needed. Bishops and other leaders must find ways to increase their accessibility and open lines of communication. The era of secrecy is ending. Church reformers, take note.

** Correction: The original version of this story stated, based on another report, that Gerlach was interrogated prior to her medical procedure. 

Image: St Patrick’s Cathedral, Fort Worth. By Farragutful – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60451168

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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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