Petition, evidence being gathered to ask Vatican to remove Fort Worth Bishop Olson

Hundreds of parishioners from across the Diocese of Fort Worth have begun the process to ask Pope Francis to remove Bishop Michael Olson.

Philip Gray, a canon lawyer and president of The St. Joseph Foundation, is advising the groups, gathering evidence and writing the petition. There are nine cases being brought against Olson, Gray said, but he declined to give details on the ones that haven’t been made public.

The two public cases involve the closing of San Mateo Church and the forced resignation of the Rev. Richard Kirkham.

More than 2,500 mandates — a form that officially allows Gray to speak on behalf of a parishioner who seeks removal of the bishop — have been distributed and he has received hundreds of signed forms back, Gray said. The mandate says Olson “has become ineffective and harmful.”

Diocese spokesman Pat Svacina said in a statement that Olson addressed these efforts in a pastoral letter and video in December. The diocese has not been notified of Gray’s involvement, Svacina said.

“I currently have 1,500 pages of evidence in the case,” Gray said, adding that in his 25 years as an advocate and canon lawyer, he’s never seen this level of action taken against a bishop.

Canon law is a law system within the Catholic Church that regulates how the church operates in the world.

Removal process

Three years ago, Pope Francis issued a process for the removal of bishops called come una madre amorevole, translated into “a most loving mother.” While the 2016 letter issued and signed by the pope focused on bishops who are negligent in relation to sexual abuse, the letter helped define the process overall.

“The pope began to recognize that sometimes bishops are not good for the faithful where they’re appointed,” Gray said. “A bishop or priest, if they became ineffective or harmful to either a person or group of people ... they could pursue a petition for the removal of the bishop based on the 2016 process.”

J. Michael Ritty, a canon law expert based in New York, said any petition can go to Rome.

“The people have the opportunity and right to express their views and if they feel a bishop is not doing something correctly — according to the law — they have the right to bring that issue forward,” he said.

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Ritty spoke to the Star-Telegram about the process in general, not directly as it relates to Olson.

“There are some things that may occur that people don’t like, but the obligations and decisions of the bishop that he must make as part of his job,” Ritty said. “Certainly people can disagree, but if he’s followed the law, if he’s listened to advisers, if he’s taken all matters into consideration before making a decision, then that’s his decision.”

Gray said a “very large number” of Fort Worth Diocese parishioners began to ask him for assistance several months ago. There were enough phone calls that he traveled from Ohio to Fort Worth to meet with parishioners in person.

There are more than 1 million Catholics in 90 parishes and missions in the diocese.

“I realized there was one particular remedy that would be helpful across the board and that is the removal of Bishop Olson,” he said.

Once the petition and evidence is submitted to the Vatican, the Congregation for Bishops will review it. The bishops will then have three options:

They could reject the petition.

They could start an investigation and appoint an investigator to visit the diocese. They would also determine if the problems could be solved without removing the bishop.

Based on the petition and evidence, they could recommend the removal of the bishop to the pope.

The amount of people who have decided to take action against the bishop is rare for the modern era, Gray said.

He pointed to an example of the 2018 removal of Bishop Martin Holley in Memphis. However, the removal of Holley came after the Vatican received complaints from priests — not parishioners, according to the Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

Gray’s effort is separate from one that a group called “FRK Advocates” began in December. It asked for a papal investigation of the diocese and bishop, and received 1,510 signatures. The FRK Advocates are from St. Martin de Porres and have been working to get Kirkham reinstated by the church following his forced resignation in June 2018.

Church members have told the Star-Telegram that they fear repercussions if they speak out against the bishop, but they cannot be excommunicated for signing the mandate, Gray said.

Building turmoil

The December petition created by some St. Martin de Porres parishioners listed 14 reasons why they wanted an investigation into Olson’s actions including:

The public removal of Kirkham and the lack of transparency in why he was removed. Olson accused Kirkham of failing to report knowledge he had of alleged sexual misconduct and predatory sexual harassment in the workplace regarding a Dallas-area priest. The Diocese of Dallas has denied that the priest there ever committed those violations.

Olson gave the Star-Telegram a copy of a letter Kirkham is accused of writing to the priest in Dallas that outlines the allegations. Olson deemed the letter intimidating, manipulative and inappropriate.

The battle over San Mateo’s closure, where its last Mass was celebrated on Nov. 20, 2016.

The resignation of the Rev. Gary Picou, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Keller.

“Lack of due process and transparency” in the removal of the Rev. Genaro Mayorga Reyes of All Saints Parish in Fort Worth. Reyes was removed after he was accused of grabbing a man’s genitals at a park in September, according to church officials and police. Reyes has denied the allegations, according to police reports. Olson requested that Reyes be recalled to Mexico effective Nov. 5.

Allegations that Olson has verbally abused several priests and used abusive and demeaning conduct toward parishioners.

Alleged loss of donors to capital campaigns and to weekly stewardship at multiple parishes.

The new mandate says Olson “has lost his good reputation among Catholics, and his actions and behavior have harmed the reputation of the Catholic Church by non-Catholics.

“The situation has reached a point that requires his removal for the salvation of souls and the Good of the Church,” it says.

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.