Among the compensations of life in a cloistered monastery, an existence defined chiefly by its deprivations, is the chance to live in a world largely devoid of bureaucracy. There are no trips to the DMV, no school district websites to navigate, no neighborhood association meetings to sit through. And since many monastic orders, no matter where they are in the world, answer directly to the Vatican, they are largely insulated from the multilayered officialdom that rules the rest of the Catholic Church, with its hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals. So it was unusual when, one afternoon this past spring, the bishop of Fort Worth called the Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, prioress of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, and told her he was coming for a visit.
The monastery, which sits somewhat incongruously on 72 wooded acres on the west side of an otherwise bustling suburb, is a community of seven nuns and two novices belonging to the Carmelites, a centuries-old Catholic order founded during the Crusades in what today is Israel. The nuns spend most of their time completely secluded from outsiders, except for a daily mass attended by about fifty parishioners from nearby neighborhoods. Even then, the nuns are separated from the public in an enclosed pew.
At 43, Gerlach was young for a reverend mother, though she had been at the monastery all of her adult life, since entering as a teenage novice. The monastery’s numbers had dwindled over the years, as they have at many such institutions in the Catholic world. The strict life of self-denial and isolation, not to mention the manual labor required to maintain the facility, has become less attractive to the modern sensibilities of potential initiates. Still, she was proud that her sisters had chosen her to be their leader. The nuns, who spend a good portion of each day in prayer and quiet contemplation, had been left mostly to their own devices since the monastery’s construction, in 1984. That was about to change.
Less than an hour after calling Gerlach, Bishop Michael Olson, attended by a small retinue, walked into one of the monastery’s meeting rooms and sat down across from her and Sister Francis Therese, another member of the monastery’s leadership, who, like the reverend mother, was dressed in the brown habit favored by Carmelites. A lifelong battle with a severe gastrointestinal illness called gastroparesis, along with a recent bout of cancer, had left Gerlach frail; she used a wheelchair and was dependent on a feeding tube and an IV drip. Sister Therese, who is a generation older than the reverend mother, had been her full-time caretaker for years.
The bishop is a heavyset man in his late fifties with receding gray hair. His voice has the high pitch one might expect to hear from a smaller man, and his manner on this occasion was officious. Using a digital audio recorder to capture the proceedings, he announced that he had been informed that the reverend mother had violated her vow of chastity and that he was beginning an investigation.
Gerlach knew exactly what he was referring to. Over the previous summer and fall, during a particularly difficult period in her cancer treatment, she had befriended a young Carmelite priest in Montana who had contacted the monastery seeking spiritual support for his own struggle with cancer. In phone calls, texts, and video chats, the pair had bonded over their shared tribulations. At first she had drawn comfort from the relationship, but later she began to feel that they had become too close, even though the priest had never visited the monastery. She worried that some of her exchanges with him had been inappropriate, and she confided in Sister Therese that she thought she had made a terrible mistake. In December of last year, she also shared her concern with a senior priest at the diocese, Father Jonathan Wallis, who had served as her spiritual counselor in the past. According to Wallis, Gerlach told him that she thought she was falling in love with the priest. Wallis, who was now the vicar general—the bishop’s right-hand man—eventually relayed this conversation to Bishop Olson. (Because Wallis was no longer Gerlach’s adviser when she confided in him, he did not consider this a breach of confidentiality.)
Shaking and crying, Gerlach begged the bishop for his forgiveness. “I’m so sorry, Bishop,” she said again and again.
“It’s okay,” Olson replied. “I know you are.”
She had been suffering from seizures at the time of her exchanges with the priest in Montana and was heavily medicated, she explained. “I was in a really very difficult position,” she said. “And I think my brain just got really messed up.” Sister Therese spoke up to confirm this. The reverend mother’s medication, she said, had “messed up her mind.” The bishop was under the impression that something physical had transpired between the reverend mother and the priest, but Gerlach assured him that they had not met in person: “The priest did not come down here,” she said. “It was all done on the phone.”
Olson seemed momentarily at a loss. “That’s something different,” he said. Nevertheless, the bishop read a pair of decrees he had prepared in advance, before hearing Gerlach’s side of the story. There would be an investigation, and the reverend mother would be placed on leave. Next came a long list of restrictions: she was to move to the guest quarters of the monastery, she was not to sit in the prioress’s chair at mass, she was discouraged from talking to the other sisters, and she would have to surrender her phone and computer for “forensic review.” The investigation would be conducted with discretion, he assured her.
“So the community does not have to know?” Gerlach asked.
“Well I’m not sure yet, Mother,” he replied.
When the bishop noticed Gerlach checking her phone one last time before handing it over, the encounter took on the tone of a principal speaking to a wayward child.
“Mother, what did you just do with your phone?” he asked. “You didn’t delete anything?”
“No, bishop, no,” she replied.
The bishop then spent two hours questioning Sister Therese while a computer technician collected the reverend mother’s laptop. The next day, April 25, Gerlach had to have her feeding tube replaced in a procedure that required general anesthesia along with the powerful painkiller fentanyl. Afterward, the bishop came back to the monastery and insisted on continuing his questioning of her, even though she was weak and groggy from her medication. She felt she had no choice but to comply.
Later that day, however, the sisters rallied behind Gerlach. They decided they’d had enough.
The bishop was formidable, but the nuns had a potentate of their own—Sheila Johnson, the 76-year-old granddaughter of Amon G. Carter, the legendary newspaper tycoon who helped transform Fort Worth from a dusty cow town to a shining boomtown. Today you can’t go anywhere without seeing his name, from one of the city’s most prestigious art museums to Texas Christian University’s massive football stadium. Johnson helps administer the family’s foundation, which remains hugely influential, and she has long been a pillar in civic circles, having served on numerous nonprofit boards and commissions. Johnson’s mother, who was Catholic, donated the land that the monastery was built on, and Johnson has remained a financial supporter of the nuns in the years since.
Beyond that, she made friends with the sisters. For years she volunteered to drive them to medical appointments, errands often punctuated with a trip to Sonic, a rare treat for nuns accustomed to eating food cooked by their colleagues in the same kitchen night after night, year after year. After she told her friend Anne Bass, wife of the Fort Worth billionaire Robert Bass, about the monastery, Bass visited and was so moved by the nuns’ dedication that she eventually donated the funds to make some needed upgrades to the property.
After the sisters contacted her about Olson’s visits, Johnson helped them hire a canon lawyer, someone who specializes in representing priests or nuns in the church’s internal legal system. Alarmed at the bishop’s aggression, he advised his clients that hiring a lay attorney as well would be a wise move. He referred them to an outspoken Fort Worth trial lawyer named Matthew Bobo, who immediately counseled his new clients to stop talking to the bishop. When Olson showed up the third consecutive day, the nuns gave him a set of conditions for their further participation in the investigation. According to Gerlach, the bishop was enraged. He shouted that the monastery was closed—meaning there would be no more public masses—and slammed the door as he left. Shortly thereafter, the sisters received a letter from Olson threatening to have them dismissed from the Carmelite order, which would have forced them to leave the monastery. Bobo filed suit seeking to have the sisters’ devices returned; he later added a defamation claim and a demand for $1 million in damages.
Though he had promised discretion, the bishop responded by going public. He posted a letter to the diocese website, informing the faithful that he had received a report that the reverend mother had “committed sins against the Sixth Commandment and violated her vow of chastity with a priest.” (The sixth commandment states, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”) The clear implication, as Bobo complained to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which broke the story a few days later, was that some kind of sexual liaison had occurred, even though the bishop had no evidence of such and Gerlach and her caregiver flatly denied it. Later in court, Olson didn’t produce anything incriminating from Gerlach’s phone or computer—no evidence of a secret assignation, no “sexting,” no compromising photos.
The morning after the Star-Telegram report ran, the first tabloid story landed. London’s Daily Mail, a purveyor of salacious stories (and long headlines) blared: “Disabled Reverend Mother Superior at Texas Carmelite convent sues ‘pure evil’ local bishop for $1M ‘after he interrogated her . . . and got her to admit to SEX with a priest.’ ” This unsubstantiated claim—that the reverend mother had sex with a priest, or at least was accused of doing so—would be repeated over and over again in the days that followed as the “news” of her alleged sins spread around the world.
Olson declined to be interviewed for this story. A diocese spokesperson referred me to two pastoral statements, one of which was a video that Olson posted to the diocese website about the Holy Trinity investigation. In the video, Olson denied overstepping his authority and blamed others for bringing the dispute into what he called the “inappropriate venues” of the courts and the media.
The tabloid coverage was embarrassing for everyone involved, not least the Catholic Church itself. But at a hearing seeking to dismiss the reverend mother’s civil suit, the bishop doubled down. His attorneys played the entire humiliating recording of his interrogation of Gerlach in a courtroom full of reporters, which inevitably prompted another round of stories.
Bobo wasn’t surprised. As an active member of the local Catholic community, he was familiar with the bishop’s history. Olson’s decade-long tenure as head of the Fort Worth diocese has been marked by conflict, including numerous clashes with priests and parishioners over the years, some of which resulted in petitions to the Vatican to have him investigated or removed. In the summer of 2022, he made headlines by forcing the head of Catholic Charities Fort Worth to resign, in part because the charity leader was planning a women’s conference with an agenda that Olson considered to be, as he put it, “aligned with the principles of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” and not with Catholic social teaching. The bishop was also miffed because he supposedly hadn’t been invited to speak. “Anyone who crosses him gets eliminated,” Bobo said.
Now Olson has found himself in the middle of yet another controversy, this time for threatening to kick an ailing nun out of her home.
Devout Catholics believe that demons walk among us, and that nobody is immune to their influence, even a bishop. For an earthly explanation of Olson’s character, the best insight comes from the person who arguably knows him better than anyone, a 94-year-old woman from Wichita Falls named Dianne Cluley. In a remarkable sworn statement collected by an attorney working for a priest Olson ousted in 2018, Cluley recounted her decades-long relationship with Olson, describing the timid and intelligent young man she first met and the much different man he eventually became.
Cluley met Olson, who grew up in Des Plaines, Illinois, a suburb on the north side of Chicago, when he was assigned to her church as a young seminarian getting his first taste of life as a priest. Living away from home, he was lonely and, Cluley said, intimidated by the parish priest at the church, so he began coming to the Cluleys’ house every day after work and staying for dinner. Cluley, the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant, was actively involved with the church and had six sons, so one extra place at the dinner table was no imposition. In time, Cluley said, Olson became like a son to her.
Olson’s relationship with his own mother was not good. At a dinner celebrating his friend’s ordination as a priest, she told a story in front of Cluley and some of Olson’s colleagues that seemed calculated to humiliate her son. She recalled that when Olson was a child, he had once dressed up as Hitler at Halloween and trick-or-treated at the home of a Jewish neighbor. Olson’s mother seemed to think the story was funny. As Cluley recalled the incident, Olson was horrified.
“That’s not true,” he protested.
“Yes it is, because I have a picture of it,” his mother replied.
Cluley felt terrible for him and began to better understand his insecurity. Over the years he would call and read his most recent sermons, looking for approval, which she would always give. Olson presided over nearly every important ceremony in Cluley’s extended family: weddings, christenings, funerals.
Olson left Wichita Falls and went on to earn a doctorate at a Catholic academy in Rome. He later served five years as the rector at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, just west of Dallas. When Olson’s star began to rise in the church, he took Cluley with him on several trips, most memorably to Rome. Olson finagled a private visit to the Vatican, and Cluley was thrilled to see masterworks by artists such as Caravaggio and Fra Angelico that were normally off-limits to the public. Olson was remarkably well educated about the history of the church, and Cluley remembered the trip as one of the highlights of her life.
Olson was happiest when he served as the head of Holy Trinity Seminary, Cluley recalled. Even then, though, she could sense his insecurity. They would never remember him when he was gone, he would say about the young seminarians he enjoyed teaching and spending time with. One night, in fall 2013, he called and told her he had to see her. It was late, but he insisted. When he arrived, he told Cluley and her family that he’d been made the bishop of Fort Worth. “We were just hugging him and crying, and we were so thrilled for him,” she said. “It was all wonderful.”
Then, Cluley recalled, Olson said, “Now the first thing I’m gonna do—I’m gonna get rid of the Marianist priests.”
Cluley was taken aback. “What—the ones at Nolan?” she asked.
Nolan Catholic High School is a cherished institution in Fort Worth. The order that administered Nolan, known as the Marianists, was dwindling, much like the Carmelites in Arlington. Its members were getting old, and it was time for a change, Olson said. Would he at least give them some kind of ceremony honoring them for their service? Cluley asked.
“Hell no,” Olson replied. “I’m gonna tell them they’re out right now. Kick them out.”
The Catholic Renewal Center associated with the school had to go too. “It’s just a bunch of women there,” he said. “A bunch of nuns.” Cluley was struck by how disdainful he was of the nuns and cringed when he referred to them as “aging lesbians.” She later learned that he had an ugly confrontation with one of the nuns at the center. “He didn’t really trust women,” she said. He would make jokes about women both young and old that left Cluley and her daughters-in-law uncomfortable.
Early in his tenure as bishop, Olson also shut down a small church in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood, citing prohibitive repair costs for the aging building. He reportedly screamed at a group of women gathered at the church, something he has been accused of doing on more than one occasion, and parishioners complained about his insensitivity.
It was just a hint of what was to come. Olson’s attitude toward priests was controlling and cavalier. “He’s mine,” Cluley heard him say again and again, as though priests were pawns to be moved about at his whim. He became obsessed with a priest named Isaac Orozco, who taught at the seminary in Irving that Olson used to lead. Olson seemed to believe that the seminarians loved Orozco more than they had loved him. He told Cluley that he was sure Orozco was taking the young men out drinking, and he called the Dallas bishop, asking that Orozco be investigated. But the bishop found nothing wrong and stopped taking Olson’s calls on the subject. Orozco eventually became a priest at a parish in Clifton, part of the Fort Worth diocese, which made Olson his superior. Parishioners told the Star-Telegram that Olson forced him to resign.
Cluley was also concerned about the state of Wichita Falls’ beloved Catholic school, Notre Dame, which had suffered waning attendance and was in need of major repairs. She had assumed that Olson’s loyalty to her hometown, which had been a kind of spiritual home for him, would mean he would give the parish the attention it needed, but this didn’t prove to be the case.
Cluley was alarmed by the person her old friend was becoming. She went to confession and told the priest what she had learned about Olson. By coincidence, she found herself confessing to Jeff Poirot, who had a long history with the bishop. Poirot had been a popular Fort Worth–area priest who was suddenly transferred to Wichita Falls, more than one hundred miles to the northwest, after a flattering profile of him appeared in the Star-Telegram that described his outstanding beer-brewing skills. Poirot’s hobby fit into a long tradition of priests producing their own beer, wine, and spirits. Monasteries across Europe are celebrated for the craft libations they sell to the public. But Olson told Poirot to stop making beer and, in 2017, exiled him from his Fort Worth parish. “You’re not alone,” Cluley remembered Poirot telling her as the pair sat in the confessional booth. Others who knew Olson had reached the same conclusion about him. “He’s been trying to oust me for six years,” Poirot later told her. (In statements to the diocese, Olson denied pressuring Poirot to resign from the priesthood; Poirot could not be reached for comment.)
Olson seemed to have some level of self-awareness about his behavior, Cluley told Poirot. Olson would often ask her, “Do you think I’ve changed?” She would always reply that he hadn’t, that the pressures of the job were just getting to him. But now she wasn’t sure she believed that anymore. Poirot suggested she tell him what she really thought.
The next time Olson called, she took Poirot’s advice. Olson instantly turned cold. “I’m sorry I’m not to your liking,” he said.
“Everything’s wrong, Michael,” Cluley said. “You’re not the same; our school is in shambles.”
“I’m sorry the school is not to your liking,” he replied. Then he ended the conversation abruptly.
His calls to her over the years had become darker and more disturbing. The worst was a late-night call about Father Orozco. Olson was cursing and raging, saying he’d like to torture and murder the priest. “That goddamn little troublemaker,” she remembered him seething at one point. Afterward, Cluley dialed her son Joe crying. “Mama, just don’t answer the phone at night,” he told her.
Eventually Cluley decided it was time to speak up, even though she knew it would be painful—even though she still cared about Olson. “We loved him,” Cluley said. “We thought he would be the greatest bishop in the world, but he has failed us.”
Bishop Olson has never fully responded to the allegations in Cluley’s sworn testimony. Olson’s attorney told the Star-Telegram in 2020 that Cluley’s allegations were “false and salacious” and accused Olson’s opponents of “taking advantage of an elderly woman.” He also pointed out that his side was never given an opportunity to question Cluley, as they would have in a traditional deposition. Video of Cluley’s statement has now been widely circulated; she comes across as lucid and credible.
The attorney who collected the testimony was representing a priest named Richard Kirkham, a man who, like the nuns in Arlington, got crosswise with Olson and turned out to have some loyal and influential friends.
In 2018 a group of parishioners, organized in part by an engineering consultant named Stephen Knobbe, began gathering signatures for a letter to be sent to the Vatican that requested an investigation of Olson. Only the Pope can approve such an investigation, known as an apostolic visitation. He is also the only official who can order a bishop to be removed, which would not be unprecedented; in 2018 Pope Francis removed the bishop of Memphis, Tennessee, after an investigation prompted by complaints from parishioners.
Eventually 1,600 parishioners from across the diocese would sign Knobbe’s letter. It cited several complaints, but the incident that finally spurred action was Olson’s treatment of Kirkham, who led Knobbe’s church in Prosper, one of the fast-growing towns on the far northern edge of the Dallas suburbs.
In October I met Knobbe in a conference room high above downtown Fort Worth, in the Frost Tower, where he works as a vice president at the nationally known engineering firm HNTB. Below us, six blocks to the southeast, stood the splendid St. Patrick Cathedral, the mother church of the Fort Worth diocese. Knobbe, who is in his early sixties, has thinning gray hair and hazel eyes. He speaks with the competent air of a man who has spent a lifetime managing multimillion-dollar construction projects.
His current project is organizing the diocese against Olson, and he has been extremely methodical about it. “The latest incident with the Carmelite nuns—I just scratch my head and say, this is exactly what happened to Father Richard,” he said.
Father Richard Kirkham had come to the priesthood late in life, after a seventeen-year career in the corporate world. Olson assigned him to a new parish in Prosper, where he oversaw the construction of a new church and school, known as St. Martin de Porres. Knobbe, who lives not far from Prosper, in Frisco, volunteered his time to oversee the design and construction. He got to know the bishop during this process, but mostly he worked with Kirkham, and the two became close friends.
Kirkham was a popular priest, a gifted homilist who had the charisma to build a genuine connection with parishioners. During mass on June 3, 2018, he mentioned that his seven-year anniversary at the young church was fast approaching and noted how blessed he felt to have found such a wonderful home. The congregation gave him a standing ovation.
The next Sunday, Kirkham was gone. A monsignor sent by the bishop to conduct mass in his stead would say only that Kirkham resigned from his post for personal reasons. That was not quite true. In fact, as Kirkham told Knobbe, he had been forced to resign by Olson. (Kirkham declined to speak on the record. “I’ve been advised that it would not be good for my future,” he said.)
The precipitating incident was a conflict between Kirkham and a priest in Frisco named Paul Iverson. The two often met for dinner and had become friends, though Kirkham was eventually alarmed by the stories Iverson told him about his personal life. According to Kirkham, Iverson admitted to a number of self-destructive behaviors and, most troubling, to having an affair with a widow more than ten years his senior who worked in his church’s office. At Kirkham’s urging, Iverson promised to stop the affair. When Kirkham discovered that Iverson had in fact not ended the relationship, he wrote Iverson a letter threatening to report him to the bishop of Dallas. (Frisco is in the Dallas diocese.)
Not long after he sent the letter to Iverson, Kirkham was summoned to his own bishop’s office without explanation. When he got there, Olson confronted him about the letter. It seemed that Iverson, who had once been a student of Olson’s at seminary, had turned the tables on Kirkham. Olson quizzed Kirkham about the version of the story that Iverson had told him: Iverson had tried to put some distance between himself and Kirkham because he had become uncomfortable with their relationship. According to Iverson, Kirkham had hugged him and kissed him on the cheek and continued to contact Iverson after he’d asked him to stop. The letter, Olson seemed convinced, was an attempt by a spurned suitor to manipulate someone who had rejected him.
Kirkham denied Iverson’s account, but Olson berated him for hours, accusing him of being obsessed and mentally unstable, and demanded his resignation from his parish. Worn down, Kirkham reluctantly agreed to depart. To avoid being suspended from the priesthood entirely, he also consented to Olson’s stipulation that he get a mental evaluation at a counseling center for wayward priests in Maryland.
Kirkham almost immediately regretted his decision to resign and tried to rescind it, but Olson refused to allow him back. That’s when Knobbe got involved. Convinced that his friend had been wronged, Knobbe helped Kirkham find a lawyer, who wrote to Olson demanding that Kirkham be allowed to return. Olson responded by suspending Kirkham from the priesthood and by locking him out of the rectory where he lived—with all his possessions inside.
Knobbe, a member of the church’s building committee, sent Olson a letter on behalf of several parishioners. He asked for an official meeting to discuss Kirkham’s removal, but he heard no response. Later, at a hearing at the Denton County courthouse, where Kirkham successfully filed a writ to get his possessions back, Knobbe approached Olson in the courthouse lobby. That’s when he got a sense of who his adversary really was, he said.
As Knobbe recalled the encounter, he asked Olson if he had received the letter requesting a meeting. Olson replied that he had but that he would not be meeting with the group. “[Kirkham] knows what he needs to do,” he said. “He needs to stop putting your group up in front of this.”
When Knobbe protested that parishioners were organizing on their own initiative, Olson instantly turned red, his face twisted with rage. “You liar!” he shouted.
“What did you say?” Knobbe asked.
“You heard me,” Olson said, putting his hand next to his mouth to shield his lips from onlookers, though Knobbe and Olson were essentially alone. “Liar! Liar!”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Knobbe asked in astonishment.
Just then Olson’s lawyer approached the pair, and the bishop’s expression transformed to one of placid calm. “Steve, I didn’t call you a liar,” he said. “You must have misheard me.”
Olson declined to reply to written queries about this incident. Just as he would later do in the conflict with the nuns, he responded to pushback from his adversaries by going public. In August 2018, Olson released Kirkham’s letter, which contained a graphic recounting of what Iverson had allegedly told Kirkham about his private life, to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and in an interview he gave his first public explanation for why Kirkham had left. (Both Iverson’s name and the woman’s name were redacted from the letter, and the Star-Telegram did not identify them in the story.) Kirkham had been asked to resign, the bishop said, for failing to report sexual abuse on the part of a fellow priest.
But that explanation didn’t track. A consensual affair might constitute abuse, according to a spokesperson for the Fort Worth diocese, if the adult involved was “vulnerable.” But it remains unclear how Bishop Olson made this determination without an investigation. A statement from the Dallas diocese, meanwhile, announced that Iverson’s superiors had looked into the affair allegations and determined them to be baseless, and that Iverson had not been suspended. If this were true, then there was no abuse to report. In any case, Kirkham’s lawyer argued, his client had fulfilled his duty to intervene. His letter to Iverson was an attempt at “fraternal correction,” an established means of addressing misbehavior on behalf of a fellow priest.
In the same interview, Olson offered a second reason why Kirkham had to go. He told the Star-Telegram Iverson’s version of the story, including the suggestion that Kirkham was trying to manipulate Iverson because Iverson had rejected him. Yet even after Kirkham sued the bishop for defamation—a move that allowed the diocese’s attorneys to obtain Kirkham’s phone records, texts, and emails in the course of preparing their defense—Olson never presented any evidence to reporters in support of this notion.
Meanwhile, Iverson’s credibility has come into question. Not long after the story about the letter broke, Iverson took a leave of absence and, according to the Dallas diocese, is no longer a practicing priest. He is currently living in Frisco with the woman named in Kirkham’s letter. (On a recent visit to the woman’s house, the person who answered the door confirmed that Iverson resided there. Iverson himself didn’t respond to interview requests.) At least part of Kirkham’s account, it seems, was likely true.
Olson’s account is another story, at least for Knobbe, who said he lost faith in the bishop’s honesty very early in the process. After Kirkham told Knobbe he’d been forced to resign, Knobbe went to see Olson. The bishop insisted the priest had left of his own volition, which Knobbe knew wasn’t true. He told Olson he found it hard to believe. “Steve, I’m your bishop,” Knobbe remembered him saying. “I’m your shepherd. You are my sheep. You need to trust me, what I’m telling you. And you should not question it.”
If Olson underestimated the support Kirkham inspired among his flock, he seems to have repeated the mistake in his fight with the Holy Trinity nuns. The nuns’ benefactor, Sheila Johnson, is the kind of person who gets her calls returned—especially when she’s dialing the Star-Telegram, which her grandfather founded (along with the city’s first radio station and television station). Johnson called the bishop’s behavior “deplorable.” She thinks he should be removed from office and believes his ultimate goal is to take the land her mother had donated to the Carmelites so many years ago.
That land is now appraised at $3.8 million, though Johnson told me it would likely be worth several times that amount to a developer. Olson has denied that he’s after the nuns’ land, but there is precedent for the church doing what Johnson described. When a monastery closes down—often for want of new initiates—the Vatican has been known to transfer its assets to the local diocese to sell or use at the bishop’s discretion. The Holy Trinity monastery is stable for now, though like most others, its membership is trending in the wrong direction. The facility can accommodate as many as twenty nuns, which means it’s at less than half of its capacity. Johnson’s theory, which she has not been shy about sharing with anyone who will listen, is that the bishop is trying to speed the monastery’s demise by getting rid of the group’s leadership. “You know the hierarchy in the Catholic Church thinks that most of us, especially us gals, are just disposable, particularly if they happen to be nuns,” she said. “We’re just barely even second-class citizens according to the current bishop.”
Emboldened by Johnson’s support, the nuns have shown a striking degree of solidarity. Shortly after they filed suit, the bishop sent his head of security to accompany the visiting priest who normally says mass for the nuns. Sensing an effort to intimidate her, the reverend mother declined to allow the security guard to enter the monastery.
The bishop’s next move took the story in a bizarre direction. After Olson allegedly received a tip that marijuana was being used at the monastery, a diocese official encouraged three sources to talk to local TV reporters. WFAA obliged with a report that was heavy on melodrama, complete with interviews filmed in darkened rooms with voices altered. Since so few people have access to the private portion of the monastery, it wasn’t difficult for the nuns to identify the whistleblowers: a cleaning lady who lived on the premises, a handyman the nuns had used for years, and a former bookkeeper.
It seemed that none of them had seen anyone using marijuana at the monastery, but the handyman produced a picture he said he’d taken inside the nuns’ quarters that showed canisters of marijuana edibles. The former bookkeeper told Olson that years ago she had found a receipt from a head shop in Arlington and was told by the then–reverend mother that Gerlach needed marijuana to treat her condition. This was certainly plausible; marijuana or its derivatives are commonly used to treat the nausea and abdominal pain associated with gastroparesis, and millions of cancer patients also use it to treat symptoms and side effects of cancer and cancer treatments.
It was another invasion of privacy for a community that considers isolation a key part of its identity. The whistleblowers came forward, they told WFAA, out of concern for Gerlach’s well-being and the feeling that she was not well enough to continue running the monastery. But the result was anything but helpful to Gerlach, who had to endure another round of tawdry tabloid stories. The nuns’ lawyer, Bobo, denied the allegations on Gerlach’s behalf, and the bishop turned the matter over to the police, who paid a visit to the monastery and then promptly announced they had no interest in investigating further.
A district judge in Fort Worth eventually came to the same conclusion about the nuns’ lawsuit against the bishop, which was dismissed on the grounds that the dispute was an internal church matter. The sisters have continued to reject his authority, in ever more strident terms. “No one who abuses us as has the current Bishop of Fort Worth has any right to our cooperation or obedience,” the nuns announced in a recent public statement. The bishop’s proclamations have grown increasingly draconian at the same time; all of the sisters, he declared, are now risking excommunication if they continue to flout his authority.
The nuns’ plight continues to resonate with Johnson, who said she knows a bully when she sees one. “There are 1.2 million Catholics in this diocese, and he doesn’t have anything better to do than ruin people’s lives?”
Recently, I reached Dianne Cluley’s son Joe, but he declined to speak about Olson on the record or to make his mom available for an interview. The attention his mother’s statement attracted had been difficult on her, he said, and the family wanted to move on.
A year after Cluley’s statement made news, the Fort Worth diocese announced that Notre Dame, the beloved Wichita Falls Catholic school, would be closed and demolished. In local media coverage, parents expressed surprise at the decision. A spokesperson for the diocese cited excessive repair costs along with diminishing enrollment. Joe Cluley, who now runs an insurance agency, had served as the principal there in the nineties. He felt Notre Dame was rebounding from a difficult period and that the cost of needed repairs to the facility were not insurmountable. “We had finally turned a corner and then had it taken away,” he told the local news channel KAUZ. I asked Joe if he thought the school’s closure, coming as it did on the heels of his mother’s decision to speak out about the bishop, was retaliation. He declined to comment.
Others who have crossed paths with Olson over the years have moved on as well—or at least tried to. Jeff Poirot found work at a craft brewery in downtown Fort Worth. Isaac Orozco drove an Uber in New York City after leaving the priesthood. Richard Kirkham is living with his ailing mother in Denton, where he leads Bible studies for a small community of Catholics, some of whom have mobility issues and participate online. Kirkham dropped his defamation suit against Olson—his lawyer told him if he went through with it, he’d likely never serve as a priest again. The Vatican didn’t overturn the bishop’s decision to force Kirkham’s resignation from his parish, but it did rule that Olson overstepped in trying to remove Kirkham from the priesthood altogether, so he remains ordained. Yet only the bishop can approve his assignment to another parish, which he has thus far declined to do.
Gerlach’s case continues to wind its way through the Vatican’s opaque internal legal process. Now that the tabloids have lost interest, the nuns seem to be winning the war for public opinion. In August they invited the public back to the monastery for the first time since the bishop declared it closed. Lacking a priest, they simply prayed a rosary in communion with two dozen attendees, most of whom were women. In September the National Catholic Reporter ran an editorial in the sisters’ defense, calling the bishop’s actions an “abusive power play” and advising that other orders of nuns might do well to “double-check their own constitutions and governance papers with canon lawyers and, perhaps also, the deeds to their properties.”
Stephen Knobbe told me that the saddest thing about the situation in Prosper is seeing parishioners turn away from the church in response to the conflict and the bitterness. He grew up in St. Louis, one of the great bastions of American Catholicism, and was immersed in the church as a child. He raised his kids in St. Louis in the same way. “It was just a true, perfect Catholic community,” he said of his old parish. Everything in the kids’ lives revolved around the church—school, sports, Boy Scouts, mass on Sunday. “It was just beautiful.”
His description of what the church can be—a nurturing, protective community whose members care for one another, a place where the dominant emotion is love—is what keeps Catholics like Knobbe in the church. “I wanted to replicate that here in North Texas with this parish,” Knobbe said. “And we were on track with that, because we had the right vision, the right priest, and we implemented the right church and school infrastructure to really carry that on.” He felt that he and Kirkham and the rest of the community had built something admirable together. And now it was gone.
He has kept up the fight in the intervening years, hitting the diocese where it hurts. Money collected during Sunday services is typically shared with the diocese, but Knobbe has started a new nonprofit, called Laity in Unity, that provides an alternative way to donate to specific projects in a given parish, effectively cutting the diocese out of the loop (and keeping the bishop’s hand out of the collection plate). It gives parishioners a way to vote with their wallets against the current leadership of the diocese. Catholics from dozens of parishes across the diocese have participated. In a statement, Bishop Olson described Knobbe’s group as a “handful” of “dissatisfied people.”
“I don’t think the pressure that we’re putting on Olson is really going to change him,” Knobbe told me. “But we will not stop. We will always fight for what we believe is right, and that is to take back our church.”
His bid to get the Vatican to investigate Olson is ongoing, though he’s made little progress thus far. His latest missive to the Vatican’s ambassador in Washington, D.C., was a thick packet filled with more signatures from parishioners along with information about Olson’s recent conflict with the nuns in Arlington. It was returned unopened.
Photo Credits, Opening Illustration: Olson: Rodger Mallison/Star-Telegram/AP; Nuns: Edoardo Fornaciari/Getty
This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Bishop Who Messed With the Wrong Nuns.” Subscribe today.