Fort Worth

Parishioners’ petition calls for papal investigation of Fort Worth diocese and bishop

Bishop Michael Olson addresses the petition against him

Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth posted a video to Facebook addressing complaints in a petition calling for an investigation into him by the Catholic Church. Olson posted the video after a sit down with the Star-Telegram on Friday.
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Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth posted a video to Facebook addressing complaints in a petition calling for an investigation into him by the Catholic Church. Olson posted the video after a sit down with the Star-Telegram on Friday.

A petition requesting an investigation by the Catholic Church into the Diocese of Fort Worth and Bishop Michael Olson had more than 800 signatures as of late Friday afternoon.

The petition comes after years of turmoil between some of the parishes and the bishop. It’s spearheaded by parishioners at St. Martin de Porres in Prosper.

“Since his ordination as our Bishop in January of 2014, Bishop Olson has operated against canon law on numerous occasions, has employed abusive language and vindictive actions against priests and the lay faithful in our diocese,” the petition on the Care2 Petitions website states.

A number of the problems between parishioners and Olson have played out in public, including the removal of Father Richard Kirkham from St. Martin de Porres over the summer, a change in leadership at Fort Worth’s Nolan Catholic High School during Olson’s first year as bishop, as well as the closure of the San Mateo Catholic Church and the Catholic Renewal Center.

The petition also mentioned the departure of numerous priests, including Rev. Jeff Poirot, who was known for his beer-making skills but was asked by Olson to stop the activity while he was at Holy Family Catholic Church in Fort Worth. Poirot has since taken a leave of absence from active ministry.

Responding to an inquiry about the petition, the diocese said in an email that Olson has “faithfully executed” his duties as bishop.

“From time to time, Bishop Olson has made decisions after appropriate consultation during his tenure that have upset some people and that have been directed for the care and protection of the vulnerable,” the diocese said. “Bishop Olson understands this reality and respects those who do not always agree with him. Bishop Olson will continue to provide the spiritual leadership and guidance to the people of The Diocese of Fort Worth for which he was ordained to do and for which he was assigned to do by Pope Francis.”

While the battle over San Mateo’s closure has played out over the last two years, this new petition for an apostolic visitation is one of the first signs of public opposition in other parts of the diocese.

Yolanda Hendon, who is representing San Mateo parishioners in their appeal to the Vatican, said former parishioners from the church are not part of this petition drive and won’t join until their lawyers sign off on the idea.

“Unless I have their OK for us to participate, we’re not going to take part,” said Hendon, who filed the parishioners’ second appeal of the church closure to the Vatican in late November under the Catholic Church’s Canon law.

“I know they’re working with a lot of other parishioners in the diocese and are addressing various complaints about things that the bishop has done since he has been here in Fort Worth,” she said of the petition organizers.

San Mateo held its last Mass on Nov. 20, 2016. Parishioners learned from a church insert that the long-time Hispanic parish was closing with diminished attendance cited as a reason. Olson never met with church leaders once the closing was announced and his lack of communication has been one of the chief complaints from San Mateo’s supporters.

Philip Gray, president of the Ohio-based St. Joseph Foundation and a canon law specialist who has served as the canon lawyer for the San Mateo parishioners, said apostolic visitations in such cases are a recent phenomenon.

“Up until a year or so ago, I would say they are fairly rare,” Gray said. “However, since Pope Francis became pope a few of these have occurred, including the one in Memphis.”

Earlier this year, The Memphis Commerical Appeal reported that the Vatican investigated complaints against Memphis Bishop Martin D. Holley, and he was removed in October.

Anthony St. Louis-Sanchez, a canon lawyer in the Archdiocese of Denver, told the Catholic News Agency in a story about the Memphis diocese that these types of visits are made on behalf of the pope.

“An apostolic visitation could be for a lot of reasons. It could be just routine — we’re just making sure the Church is running the way it should be — or, there’s some crisis that is happening and the Holy See needs to intervene,” he told the Catholic News Agency.

But Gray said there is no spelled out criteria for an investigation of a bishop in canon law, and it’s unclear what the petitioners would have to prove to prompt an investigation.

“I really don’t know what the Vatican is going to do with this particular petition,” he said.

Though the petition appears to be a step toward having their concerns heard, none of the more than 800 online signatures that were recorded as of 4 p.m. Friday included first and last names. A handful of people chose not to have their first name displayed.

Comments under the signers’ names give a glimpse into what people are upset about.

“Too many good priests in our diocese have either been forced out or have left,” wrote Cathleen P. “Why is this occurring? The diocese needs to be investigated. There are too many questionable events that have taken place.”

Patricia H wrote: “We love Father Richard & from what we understand he did nothing immoral to be suspended & we need more priests like him in our diocese. We are so short of priests now & yet so many are leaving under Bishop Olson’s leadership. We are members of St Martin de Porres & see the members are dropping as well as contributions.”

Scott S wrote: “I am saddened by the following events which have occurred under Bishop Olson’s tenure: 1. The Franciscan Friars of downtown Fort Worth who helped the poor and homeless were returned to New York 2. The Marianist priests who held daily mass in the morning at Nolan High School were removed 3. The outstanding priest at TCU Catholic Community was asked to retire 4. The Annual Catholic Schools Banquet was discontinued 5. Fr. Gary from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton suddenly and inexplicably quit I never new Fr. Jeff, but based on the couple of youtube videos of his that I saw, he seemed like an very personable priest who could easily relate to the community.”

One unidentified signer wrote: “Nolan’s climate has drastically changed since the arrival of Bishop Olson. Parents and their children were silenced and couldn’t openly voice their opinions without the real threat of retribution. We were painfully aware of our place within the Nolan community. ... My heart sank last night when my child said that with the current conditions at Nolan you would be hard-pressed to graduate as a devout Catholic.”

The reasons for the investigation

Father Richard Kirkham also violated the Diocese safe environment policy on reporting allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct, according to Bishop Michael Olson.

The petition lists 14 reasons that those signing want an investigation into Olson’s actions. It highlights the public removal of the Rev. Kirkham from St. Martin de Porres in Prosper over the summer. It’s his church that started the drive.

Members of the church have also created a private Facebook group and public Twitter account to support Kirkham.

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 fact that Olson gave a copy of the letter to the newspaper is part of the petition, which notes “the scandal caused by the Bishop’s release to the newspaper of a private letter from one priest to a priest of another diocese in a manner that was redacted, incomplete, defamatory and fraudulent in the sense that the signature published was clearly not that of the author of the letter.”

Kirkham’s attorney, Jack Walsh, denied the allegations against the priest in a letter to Olson after his removal. The Star-Telegram’s attempts to interview Walsh or Kirkham have been unsuccessful.

Annette Gonzales Taylor, spokeswoman for the Dallas diocese, has maintained that the allegations in Kirkham’s letter against the Dallas-area priest and woman were found to be untrue.

The Dallas priest left the diocese in September, causing another stir in Prosper.

In an emailed statement to the Star-Telegram on Sept. 4, Gonzales Taylor said, “(The priest) reportedly told (the parish) he had been suffering from stress and anxiety and that he had requested time away from the parish.

“I was not in the parish to hear the message but am told that he let them know that (Dallas) Bishop Edward Burns had granted him a leave of absence and he asked parishioners to pray for him while he spent time away for rest and renewal,” Gonzales Taylor said.

Other reasons the church is requesting a visitation include:

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

“Lack of due process and transparency” in the removal of 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 pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church spends his Tuesday afternoons brewing beer with his buddy, Plano's Nick McCoy. Video by Matthew Martinez.

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Bill Hanna is an award-winning reporter who has covered just about every beat at the Star-Telegram. He currently covers Arlington but also writes about a variety of subjects including weather, wildlife, traffic and health.
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.