Cynthia M. Allen

Efforts to remove Fort Worth bishop are about more than his decisions and style

At a time when the Catholic Church in the U.S. is undergoing a serious but deserved crisis of confidence over its handling of sexual abuse within its ranks, Bishop Michael Olson is the face of the faith in Fort Worth, charged with leading his flock through ominous times.

Olson and his contemporaries across the country are bearing the burden of the Church’s sins, with consequences ranging from dwindling mass attendance to investigations by secular authorities and a constant stream of public admonition. Again, much of that is deserved.

Olson’s response to the crisis has been unequivocal, in word — his condemnation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick at a meeting of the U.S. Catholic Bishops was among the strongest of his rank — and in deed.

“When anyone reports anything to me — grooming, harassment, stalking, assault — I act on it immediately,” Olson assured me in February.

Bishop Olson
Fort Worth Catholic Diocese Bishop Michael Olson says “we should not be fooled into thinking that this law, in any way, resolves the complicated problems of our immigration system.” Rodger Mallison Star-Telegram archives

True to his word, Olson has been quick to remove several clergy suspected of or complicit in alleged sexual misconduct.

That’s to be commended, especially when many of his fellow bishops have responded to the sexual abuse crisis with reluctance and ambiguity.

Removal petition

So it’s a wonder that Olson is now the subject of a petition seeking his removal, in part because of actions taken to fight abuse in the diocese of Fort Worth.

In December, several hundred area Catholics started a petition seeking an apostolic visitation, or formal investigation by the Vatican, “into the actions and behaviors” of the bishop, including his removal of the Rev. Genaro Mayorga Reyes of All Saints Parish, who was accused of sexual misconduct.

And in the ensuing months came a second effort (although there is likely some overlap) by disgruntled laity, now formally seeking Olson’s removal, citing nine cases. They include the closing of San Mateo Church and the forced resignation of the Rev. Richard Kirkham, whom the bishop cited last year for failing to report knowledge of alleged sexual misconduct and predatory sexual harassment regarding a Dallas-area priest.

The other seven cases against Olson are not yet public, but if they reflect similar concerns, they are likely to involve the precipitous but voluntary resignations of the Rev. Gary Picou and the Rev. Jeff Poirot, as well as accusations of verbal abuse to diocesan priests and parishioners and a high turnover of diocesan staff.

It is disappointing, although not disqualifying, that the bishop may have engaged with priests or laity in less than gracious fashion, although such allegations are subjective.

But none of the alleged abuses to date suggests the bishop has engaged in any conduct that would warrant censure, let alone removal.

Frustration with bishops over parish closures isn’t novel. Archbishop Charles Chaput faced similar criticisms after shuttering churches in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Turnover in large organizations after the changing of the guard isn’t novel, either, particularly when a leader’s style or vision differs from his predecessor.

And a no-tolerance policy for priests cited for sexual misconduct should be welcome change, especially when the Church needs to do everything within its power to restore faith in its leadership.

The petitioners’ complaints appear to be a tempest in a teapot — frustration with decisions and actions completely within the bishop’s prerogatives.

They also suggest an underlying discontentment with something more fundamental to the bishop’s leadership — his orthodoxy.

Serious-minded traditionalist

Olson is not a theological lightweight; his reforms at Nolan Catholic High School, staunch support of pro-life causes, hard line on behaviors that might detract from a clergy’s duty to his parish, approach to alleged sexual misconduct and elevation of young, orthodox priests to positions of influence, all indicate he is a leader with deep adherence to the sometimes difficult teachings of the Catholic Church.

That makes a lot of people angry, particularly those who would prefer that the Church go the way of some Protestant sects — more downstream of culture, less rigid, more flexible.

Perhaps Olson’s devotion is mistook as heavy-handedness. Perhaps his manner could be more pastoral. Perhaps his decisions would benefit from more sunlight.

But I’ll take a religious leader with an abiding commitment to shepherding his flock in the fullness of the faith any day. And I wager that many of my fellow Catholics agree with me. I wish they would speak up.

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Cynthia Allen joined the Star-Telegram Editorial Board in 2014 after a decade of working in government and public affairs in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Editorial Board and writes a weekly opinion column on a wide array of topics, including politics, faith and motherhood.