A Texas nun who accused the Fort Worth bishop of invading her privacy and violating civil law says the same bishop is refusing to allow her to choose her own representation in the church’s investigation.
The Rev. Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach has sent an appeal to the Vatican to challenge Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson on the matter, a civil attorney representing her said.
The Fort Worth diocese accused Gerlach of violating her vow of chastity with a priest, contending that she admitted to doing so. But Gerlach’s attorney, Matthew Bobo, said his client was questioned under heavy medication, including painkillers, following surgery. Gerlach, who uses a wheelchair and has a feeding tube, cannot remember what she admitted.
“She did not have sex with a priest,” Bobo said.
Gerlach is a member of a small order called the Discalced Carmelite Nuns, who have been in Tarrant County since 1958. The nuns now live at a secluded monastery in Arlington, where they spend their days praying, cooking, cleaning and caring for the grounds. Save for medical care, they rarely, if ever, leave the premises.
Until recently, the nuns have had little interaction with the Fort Worth diocese. That changed last month.
In court filings, Gerlach said the bishop and other diocese leaders stormed into the monastery on at least three occasions and interrogated the nuns for hours, seized their computers and a phone, and later blocked priests from conducting Mass for them.
Because they belong to an autonomous order, the nuns contend they answer to the Vatican, not the local diocese. Canonical lawyers who handle church matters are reviewing the case.
Gerlach sought independent counsel, Bobo said, but the bishop rejected three of her choices and instead appointed a canon lawyer without her consent or approval.
That lawyer, Michael J. Podhajsky, has begun filing documents despite Gerlach’s objection, Bobo said. The two have never spoken.
Podhajsky told the Catholic News Agency that he is aware Gerlach does not agree with his appointment. He said he has tried to work with Gerlach, but it is up to her whether she wants to work with him.
“I’ve done my job to represent her to the best of my ability,” Podhajsky told the outlet. “I’ve made every effort to reach out to her.”
The nuns filed a lawsuit this month seeking $1 million in damages and asking the diocese stop surveilling their technology and refrain from contacting them.
Fort Worth’s diocese is seeking to have that lawsuit dismissed, arguing that civil court has no authority in ecclesiastical matters. A hearing on that motion is scheduled for June.
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