Barron’s Barren Word?

Word on Fire
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While the Catholic Left and Right are often at odds with one another, there are at least two areas of agreement among members of both camps. The first is outrage at the Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse cases. The second is criticism of Bishop Robert Barron and his Word on Fire ministry.

A recent article from Chris Damian suggests that these two areas might be linked.

Before I delve any further into the discussion of alleged sexual misconduct committed by a Word on Fire employee, I must acknowledge that while I believe there is some truth to the testimonies provided to Mr. Damian, it is still too early to make any conclusive and definitive statements.

In addition, it is necessary to disclose all of the available information related to this situation—including Word on Fire’s initial press release, issued two days after Damian’s article. Following that statement, Word on Fire published a supplemental release with a detailed response to the information conveyed by Damian.

Separately, J.D. Flynn offered an astute clarification in The Pillar that Word on Fire is not a canonical entity, and therefore the alleged sexual misconduct and response from the organization is not likely to result in an ecclesiastical investigation.

In his article, Damian presented a possible reason for the sudden dismissal of Joseph Gloor, Word on Fire’s Senior Director of Production and highest paid employee, from the organization, along with the removal of any Word on Fire online content associated with him: he was accused by four women of “some kind of inappropriate or abusive sexual behavior.” 

Note first that Word on Fire initially made no public comment about Gloor’s dismissal or the organization’s scrubbing of his digital footprint, which apparently occurred late last year. While it’s not required to announce every employee’s departure, it’s unsettling that Word on Fire seemed to hope that one of their most prominent employees could be quietly dismissed and removed from the public eye without anyone noticing—particularly considering the alleged reason for his departure. 

Once the story came out, Word on Fire’s initial press release indicated that there were allegations made about an employee that “surrounded events in the employee’s personal life, not the Word on Fire workplace, and did not involve any other Word on Fire employees.” The organization attested to immediately putting the employee on leave once the allegations were made, hiring a third-party investigator, and then terminating Gloor’s employment. For confidentiality purposes, the dismissed employee was not named. 

In its follow-up statement, Word on Fire identified the terminated employee as Gloor and claimed Damian’s article and follow-up posts “defamed Bishop Robert Barron and attempted to smear Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.” 

Curiously, Word on Fire’s press statements made no mention of removing Gloor from its online media.

In his article, Damian shared excerpts from a transcript he received from a Word on Fire employee of an October 2021 staff meeting. Note that the information from this transcript appears to contradict some of the disclosures made in Word on Fire’s initial press release. Further, Word on Fire’s supplemental statement named Will Sipling as the person who provided Damian with the transcript and noted that Sipling recorded the staff meeting without the knowledge and consent of those present.

This meeting transcript revealed that four women accused Gloor of unwelcome sexual activity. According to the transcript, Word on Fire did not take any action against Gloor until its leadership believed one of these women made her allegation public on Facebook (NB: Damian learned following the publication of his article that the woman did not share her story on Facebook, as believed by Word on Fire’s leadership according to the transcript, but in a private group chat), prompting Word on Fire to remove Gloor from the company and its online presence.

One of the main conflicting claims among the respective accounts is whether the employee under investigation was terminated following the conclusion of the investigation or abruptly after it was believed that one of the women had shared her allegations online. The meeting transcript indicates the latter, whereas Word on Fire’s initial press release did not reference any allegation that was shared by the women who came forward as influencing the organization’s decision. 

We do not know which of these two accounts is true, but what we do know is that Word on Fire’s initial statement was not released until after Chris Damian disseminated his article. 

If patterns do hold, then it would appear consistent that Word on Fire might have taken action after information about allegations against one of its employees became disseminated, as opposed to being independent from this.

While there is still much to be investigated with these allegations against Gloor, along with Word on Fire’s actions, this storyline, if it is accurate, resembles the reaction of Church leaders in the face of sexual misconduct allegations—protecting their own image and not the image of God present in the ones claiming harm. 

Speaking of which, what has been Bishop Barron’s stance on the clergy abuse crisis?

Word on Fire’s initial press release claims, “Word on Fire and Bishop Barron have been leading voices for accountability in the Church. The organization has zero tolerance for abuse or harassment of any kind.”

Barron joined others in denouncing McCarrick’s sordid acts as well as the “tragic incompetence of so many who were charged with investigating” McCarrick. 

In 2019, Barron penned Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis. This short book calls on Catholics to stay and fight amid the ugliness of the Church’s poor response to the sexual abuse scandal, but it does little to address the victims of abuse or take a hardline stance against the abusers. 

The book reads like much of Barron’s material—theoretical and in the clouds. He is a bit too tempered in an area that should evoke in every believer seething indignation toward the bad actors and tender compassion toward the victims, as Christ demonstrated multiple times in the Gospels. Barron’s book is more pro forma than protective of minors and vulnerable adults.

A clergy-abuse survivor offered the following assessment of Letter to a Suffering Church: “I think many victims and Catholics in general might have picked up this letter…and been sorely disappointed.”

If Barron and Word on Fire truly had a zero-tolerance policy for abuse or harassment, and if those who claimed harm were put first, there would be no apparent need to share this information or the meeting transcript through Chris Damian’s article.

Moreover, it is telling that Word on Fire’s initial press statement needs to self-promote Barron and his organization’s “leading” stance for accountability in the Church. If this were evident, it would not need to be stated. Just as a humble person would never declare oneself to be humble, a true advocate for clergy-abuse victims testifies by actions more than words.

And it is hard to lend credibility to this claim when victims of clergy abuse did not find Barron’s book on the subject to offer solace, nor when there is a possible pattern of his organization being reactive to allegations as opposed to being proactive. Word on Fire’s initial statement was hollow in offering sympathy for those alleging harm. 

The ministry’s supplemental statement was also void of tangible sympathy for those who came forward, even when it states Word on Fire acted “out of compassionate concern for the victims.” These words needed to be included because the sentiment is not evident. Moreover, Word on Fire appears to be prioritizing its stance as being the victim and recipient of attacks over and above the women who came forward to report Gloor. 

In the first paragraph of the release, Word on Fire states, “Since the publication of Damian’s posts, Word on Fire staff and their families have received threats.” While, if true, such threats are to be condemned, the mention and placement of these alleged threats presents Word on Fire as the true victim here rather than any women who were harassed by a Word on Fire employee.

Perhaps Barron and Word on Fire believe themselves to be leading voices for accountability within the Church, but these recently reported events have not suggested that they are leading with the same level of accountability for their own ministry. 

According to the transcript, regarding the women who reported unwanted advances from Gloor, Barron allegedly responded, “People do make things up sometimes.”

If Barron truly stated that, then this further suggests Barron’s lack of care for those reporting sexual abuse and misconduct. This, too, resembles how the Church has historically regarded the victims of abuse—with distrust and lacking in care for them.

Juxtaposing this alleged quote regarding the women who came forward against Gloor, Barron is reported to view Gloor as the “lost sheep of Matthew 18,” thereby possibly expressing more sympathy for the accused than the ones reporting harm. This, too, is a rehashed tactic from the clergy-abuse playbook.

Based on the reported transcript, on the advice of legal counsel Barron showed no direct outreach to the women who came forward to report against Gloor. 

While adhering to legal advice is prudent in some respects, Barron chose the words of lawyers over the words of Christ, who named those who harm people under the guise of His Name as deserving to have a millstone tied around their necks (cf. Matthew 18:6).

Again, this is how Church leaders dealt with the crisis—hiding behind legalese

In fact, Damian cites a February 2004 report from the USCCB’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, which states: the “first role of a bishop or any other Church leader must be to act as a pastor to the Catholic faithful.” Bishop Barron, both according to the reported transcript and in Word on Fire’s press statements, offered no semblance of sympathy to the persons reporting harm. 

Further, the USCCB report indicates that one of the problematic areas in Church leaders’ response to victims is their “misplaced reliance on myopic legal advice.” Barron similarly prioritized legalese over compassion. The bishop appears to be aligning with the Church’s playbook during the abuse crisis to protect the organization’s image and absolve it from culpability rather than upholding the Church’s inherent duty to the People of God.

According to the reported transcript, the troublesome dialogue of the meeting did not end there. Word on Fire employees stated that the organization’s CEO, Fr. Steve Grunow, allegedly threatened employees during Gloor’s investigation not to discuss the details or they would be “fired on the spot.”

I can understand the need for classified and proprietary information to not be disclosed, but when the matter is related to reported sexual misconduct, the optics of threatening termination clearly does not look good. This, again, echoes the historical practice of Church leaders to silence those reporting misconduct and their witnesses, sweeping these allegations under the sanctuary rug.

Moreover, the visible power differential offers credence to the employees reporting the impact of this hostility from Grunow, who is not only the CEO of the organization that pays them, but a priest and an intimidating physical figure. If he were angrily threatening employees, then it seems reasonable that they would feel shaken up.

And according to the transcript, Barron reportedly offered no support or comfort to the employees who felt threatened. There was no indication that Barron would address Grunow’s alleged unprofessional and uncharitable behavior. 

While ethically I needed to caveat the references from the Word on Fire meeting transcript—and what it possibly conveys—as needing further substantiation, I do wish to express that this does not diminish the veracity of any allegation made by those who reported against Gloor.

As I shared in a twopart series in Crisis, I, too, reported an instance of sexual misconduct, which resulted in no justice on the basis of a simple “my word versus Father’s word” conclusion. The process of reporting this incident was more of an investigation of whether there was enough of a threat of a lawsuit rather than curbing problematic clergy behavior.

Candidly, had I known making such a report would have been a wasted effort, I never would have done so. 

But therein lies the problem: if Church leaders are not truly invested in total accountability and unwavering action—not simply that which would suffer in the court of law but in the Heavenly court—then they are the ones perpetuating the problem. The burden for change should not be on the victims but on the Church leaders themselves.

My experience of reporting this incident, which involved rehashing a very painful memory with multiple parties, was so awful that I cannot envision anyone who would willingly endure this if what happened wasn’t true. 

This is not to say that every accusation of sexual misconduct is credible, as I know of multiple priests who have been falsely accused, but there is a danger in quickly discounting the statement of someone who comes forward. 

In Gloor’s case, there were four women who reported misconduct, and there could potentially be more. My hope is that more persons might have the courage to come forward and share their stories so that we can have a more complete picture of what has allegedly been happening at Word on Fire. 

Following Damian’s initial article on the controversy with Gloor and Word on Fire, other persons, including former employees, anonymously came forward to share their experience of a toxic culture at Barron’s organization. They cited statements and actions by Gloor that would qualify as harassment, as well as Word on Fire’s permissiveness and tacit approval of such actions.  

In light of growing testimonies of Word on Fire’s questionable culture, it is time for Barron and his leadership team to listen to the words of Christ more than their lawyers and come forward in complete honesty and transparency, not under the guise of legalese as Church authorities did during the abuse crisis. If Word on Fire’s leaders are truly innocent, then they have nothing to hide and now is the time to come forward in fullness. And if the opposite is true, then there is an even greater need to come forward.

If the account presented to Damian is factual, then Word on Fire appears to be a microcosm of the Church’s sexual abuse crisis and cover-up. While Barron denounced Church leaders for their incompetence and laxity in handling the accusations against McCarrick, it appears, if true, that he and his own house are on fire for committing the same inaction.

In fact, in my opinion, Word on Fire’s press releases—both their timing and their content—did little to convey transparency. The organization’s statements mainly mimicked the legalistic responses from Church authorities during the abuse crisis. This further signifies that Word on Fire’s actions are a microcosm of the Church’s historical lack of accountability. 

Word on Fire’s initial press statement appears to make light of its responsibility amid the allegations as well as its duty of concern for those who made these reports. Both of the organization’s press releases, while attempting to defend against counter-narratives, seemingly made Word on Fire look worse, not better. These statements further pointed to Barron’s ministry as part of the problem of the abuse cover-up in the Church, not the solution.

Many of us admired Robert Barron’s breakthrough Catholic media beginning in the late 2000s, which was highly effective in communicating the faith to a widespread audience.

However, if the information disclosed in the meeting transcript is true, it appears the organization’s fire has been extinguished and Bishop Barron’s message is barren. 

And if the transcript shared with Damian is true, then I pray that the Spirit may pour forth the grace of repentance and conversion to Word on Fire’s leadership so that they might take ownership of any role played in this and make amends for such actions. This will allow them to return credibly to the mission entrusted by the Word and be an instrument of the Fire of the Holy Spirit.

Matt Kappadakunnel

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Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is from the Syro-Malabar Rite. Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest, culminating in graduate studies at Fordham University. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder.

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