Fort Worth

Catholic leader fires back amid criticism that he’s overbearing: ‘I’m not a dictator’

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.

Bishop Michael Olson says he has been as transparent as possible in dealing with the departures of priests and other decisions affecting parishes under his supervision in the Diocese of Fort Worth.

In a meeting with the Star-Telegram on Friday, Olson also addressed criticism from parishioners who say they fear retribution if they speak out against him.

“People have a right to be critical,” Olson said. “I don’t think people have a right to slander or be destructive or say untrue things.”

Olson agreed to the interview to address concerns raised in an online petition that calls for an investigation by the Catholic Church into Olson and his operations of the diocese.

The petition has more than 1,300 signatures, but Olson said he believes the majority of the 1 million Catholics in the 28-county diocese support his leadership. Hours after the interview, Olson posted a video to the Diocese of Fort Worth Facebook page, addressing many of the questions the newspaper raised.

The petition was started by parishioners at St. Martin de Porres in Prosper, prompted by the resignation of Father Richard Kirkham last summer.

“They are a handful of people with their own agenda,” said Olson, who contended that the group is using social media to link unrelated issues in the diocese. He called the effort a political campaign to undermine his leadership.

The issues raised in the petition go beyond Kirkham’s departure.

There were also questions about the resignations of the Rev. Jeff Poirot from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wichita Falls and the Rev. Gary Picou from St Elizabeth Ann Seton in Keller; the closure of San Mateo Catholic Church; and changes at Nolan Catholic High School.

“I don’t think this is as big of a problem as is being presented,” Olson said. “I think this is a concerted effort that is tied to these FRK (Kirkham) advocates to try and link all of these people who are unhappy. And they’re a small handful and (they’re) vocal.”

The FRK Advocates group formed in what members say is an attempt to get Kirkham reinstated and to raise questions about other issues in the diocese.

“The FRK advocates started researching other problems in the diocese and found numerous incidents similar to the Father Richard Kirkham incident — that popular priests disappear or churches close — without due process or procedure according to canon law,” said member Steve Knobbe.

Poirot and Picou resigned days apart in late October and early November.

While there has been much speculation about why both priests left, Olson said he was as surprised as parishioners by their resignations. He said there were no issues of misconduct or disobedience with either priest.

“I asked them to stay, consider a retreat, they said no and they walked out,” Olson said. “The timing is such that people are disappointed and saddened that each of them are gone, as am I.”

Vivian Wolf, a parishioner of Sacred Heart in Wichita Falls, said much of the unrest in parishes is because priests were rotated outside of a typical schedule.

Management style

Some online posts have criticized Olson for a heavy-handed management style that tolerates no dissension. Olson said that is an unfair characterization.

“I’m not a dictator,” Olson said. “I’m not a potentate. People are going to do what they want to do. I just ask them that they worship in peace.”

Many people who have talked to the Star-Telegram about Olson have said they fear repercussions if they were identified publicly. Wolf said many diocesan employees have either quit or are afraid to speak up.

Asked if parishioners have the right to be critical of him, Olson said, “I think people have a right to be critical. I don’t think people have a right to slander or be destructive or say untrue things. I think people have a right to be happy and a right to be unhappy, and if you are, pray for me, pray for themselves. This is about the salvation of souls ... it’s not a hobby. It’s centered on Christ.”

Asked why parishioners say they fear him, Olson said he doesn’t know.

“I’m decisive, and I’m direct, but I’m not violent,” he said.

“I don’t think I’m vindictive,” he added. “I don’t know what else there is to say to that. I think that there’s a standard of accountability for our clergy, for a safe environment. I’m a priest 25 years of this diocese, I personally know survivors and victims of sexual abuse. I’ve heard them, I’ve listened to them. It’s my responsibility to respond to them. I think at times I can be frustrated by the insensitivity of others.”

Some of the priests that parishioners are defending, such as at All Saints Catholic Church in Fort Worth, have accusations of sexual misconduct against them. And Olson said parishioners are losing sight of the need to protect victims.

“Now there are people who say — ‘no — he needs to be reinstated’ and that’s ridiculous,” Olson said in reference to the Rev. Genaro Mayorga Reyes.

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.

San Mateo Catholic Church

Another point of contention is San Mateo Catholic Church, which has been off-limits for more than two years as parishioners of the church appeal its closure.

Supporters of the church have contended that Olson failed to explain his reasons for closing the church two years ago and vowed to fight to reopen it. They’ve also been frustrated by what they see as a lack of communication from the diocese over the reasons for closing San Mateo.

Olson placed the blame on San Mateo’s parishioners for the church’s closure.

“I met with them initially as a small group of leaders in this room early on and I said, ‘Let’s talk about what it could look like’ and they got defensive,” Olson said. “And the next thing I know is they have gone to media saying I’m going to close them.”

The actions of parishioners, Olson said, led him to close San Mateo.

“Their behavior was such that I said, ‘We better stop services there because I’ve got to get a handle on this rogue group running amok. I need to rein them in,’ ” Olson said.

Yolanda Hendon, who is a parishioner speaking for San Mateo in a canon law appeal to the Vatican, said three members of the church met Olson about the future of the church. Hendon was not at the meeting but said the account of those individuals differs from what Olson has said.

“They had asked to come and meet with him,” Hendon said. “They had a plan and steps to accomplish all of those things he had asked for but he canceled the first meeting and kept rescheduling others.”

The parishioners learned of Olson’s plans to close the church while they were staging a protest outside St. Patrick Cathedral. Olson, who had been celebrating Mass inside the church, came out and confronted the group after services were over, Hendon said.

“He had taken off all of his bishop articles of clothing,” she said. “He opened the door and yelled at women of the church who had been members of San Mateo for 20 or 30 years. He got red-faced and started yelling at them saying, ‘Who are you? I have not seen you at San Mateo. You are not members of San Mateo.’ ”

Hendon said she and elderly parishioners of the church are still traumatized by that moment.

The bishop said the parishioners have lost two appeals to the Vatican to keep the church open, and San Mateo has been decreed to be a mission and not a stand-alone parish.

“The Holy See has responded to them twice, and they have said, ‘The bishop is right — we’ll open it for adoration, for time for prayer’ but they’ve been given their rights, their due process.”

The closed church has code violations from the City of Fort Worth for damage to electrical wiring, water damage to the sanctuary’s floors and holes in the wall board.

The diocese is studying the costs to repair the church, Olson said, and it must be safe before anyone can be allowed inside. He didn’t commit to when that could happen.

Nolan Catholic

At Nolan Catholic High School, Marianist priests had run the school for the diocese. When Olson became bishop, he said, he was informed by the Marianists that they were going to leave. They offered to stay another year but Olson said he thought it was the right time to make a change.

Since then, there’s been a change in the school’s leadership, including coaches and many new faculty, according to parents of students who attend the school.

Some social media posts have talked about Nolan’s social media policy and some students being told they were no longer enrolled at the school due to criticism of the school or the diocese by their parents.

Olson said any disciplinary issues at the school are dealt with by the school’s leadership — not him. A copy of the Nolan social media policy wasn’t available.

Olson said Nolan was not responsive to the entire diocese under the Marianists and that needed to change.

Kirkham’s departure

Asked about his decision to ask Father Richard Kirkham to resign at St. Martin de Porres in Prosper, Olson said he stands behind the decision. He said he’s been as transparent as possible with parishioners.

“I said that he resigned, and I was very cautious in how I said it,” Olson said. “I wanted to assure them that no crime had been committed, no act against a minor, and also I wanted to protect those in the letter.”

Olson said Kirkham failed 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. Asked why he hasn’t given the letter to the parish, he said, “That’s not their right to see it.”

He said again Friday that Kirkham admitted he never had intentions of reporting the alleged abuse.

Kirkham’s attorney, Jack Walsh, denied the allegations against the priest in a letter to Olson after his removal. On Saturday, Walsh said Kirkham did everything he was trained to do when he became aware of possible sexual harassment in the workplace.

“The process he was following (called fraternal correction) is the process they are taught as priests,” Walsh said. “Go to the person first and get them to take action, and that’s exactly what happened.”

In October 2017, Kirkham, who was friends with the Dallas-area priest, learned the priest had an affair with a woman who worked at his church, Walsh said. He was told the affair was over and thought the issue was resolved, Walsh said.

But in early 2018, Kirkham learned the affair was not over, and he worked to confront the priest to get him to do the right thing, Walsh said.

“At some point in the spring, he was concerned that there was a bigger issue with bigger implications in terms of workplace harassment,” Walsh said. “He reached out to some professionals and asked if he had an obligation to report what he knew, and they said yes.”

Kirkham then drafted a letter to the Dallas priest that outlined everything the priest told him.

“All the lewd things in the letter that Olson was referring to were quotes from the (Dallas) priest,” Walsh said. “The concept (of the letter) was that if the priest wasn’t going to deal with it, Kirkham would.”

Walsh said that follows fraternal correction and since the Dallas priest went to his bishop — Edward Burns — about the letter, then Kirkham’s actions were correct.

“That’s the whole point of fraternal correction — to go to the source first and give them an opportunity to recognize they’re doing wrong,” Walsh said.

Olson disagrees. In a public letter following the posting of his video on Facebook, Olson wrote, “An allegation as serious as predatory behavior in the workplace as detailed by Father Kirkham in his letter is beyond the pale of ‘fraternal correction’ and requires the intervention of authorities for the safety and integrity of the victim of the predatory and sexual misconduct allegedly perpetrated.”

Walsh said Kirkham questions the signature that appears at the bottom of his letter to the priest. “Father Richard never signed the letter,” he said. “It was a draft letter. I don’t know who signed the letter but it wasn’t Father Richard.”

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

The Dallas priest left the diocese in September, which caused another stir in Prosper, and people questioned Olson’s connection with the priest, which he addressed Friday.

“I was his rector in college,” Olson said. “I don’t have a peer relationship with him. I have not talked to him since I had the conversation with him (about the letter) at Bishop Edward Burns’ permission.”

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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.