More Words on Fire: An Ex-Employee's Statement
"I left my job at Word on Fire due to the 'Joe' situation and how it was handled."
A recap for those of you who have not been following the situation (this recap has been updated since its original publication):
Over the last several months, some had asked why Word on Fire had removed all mention of it’s highest-paid employee, executive producer Joseph Gloor, from its website and social media pages. On April 30, I shared an explanation. In August of 2021, according to one of the victims, Word on Fire received complaints from four women alleging sexual assault or abusive sexual behavior perpetrated by Gloor. Gloor was placed on a paid leave, and Word on Fire hired a law firm to conduct an investigation. One of the women participated in a full investigation. The investigation concluded that Gloor had engaged in “unwelcome” sexual activity, and that “some of the sexual acts were unwanted.” Before the Word on Fire board of directors had made a final decision, the organization (mistakenly) thought one victim had posted about her allegations on facebook, and they decided to terminate him at that time. On October 13, Bishop Barron convened a large staff meeting to discuss the allegations and the termination of Gloor. During the meeting, he revealed the name of one victim without her consent. Staff also shared that they had been threatened with termination by Word on Fire CEO Fr. Steve Grunow if they spoke about the situation.
On May 2, Word on Fire released a public statement that said, “Word on Fire did not ignore or bury any accusations; rather, it took swift and decisive action to ensure that an independent investigation moved forward without interference. Ultimately, 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.” Later that day, I posted a follow-up piece.
On May 4, I shared stories from women about Gloor making sexually inappropriate comments at Word on Fire in the presence of both Grunow and Barron, neither of which stopped those comments or corrected him.
On May 6, Word on Fire released a second public statement which accused me of lying, publicly charged a former employee with illegally recording a staff meeting, and revealed additional details about one of the victims without her consent.
On May 12, The Pillar reported on two additional employees who had resigned over these and related problems at Word on Fire, and also spoke with other and current employees.
On May 14, another employee shared that she had written her last piece for Word on Fire, though she has not shared additional details publicly.
On May 17, Elizabeth Scalia wrote publicly about her resignation from Word on Fire.
On June 1, the National Catholic Reporter published an investigative piece on on the scandal.
In its May 6 statement, Word on Fire said I had “defamed Bishop Robert Barron and attempted to smear Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.” This was in response to my pieces on sexual misconduct, employee intimidation, the harming of victims, and misogyny by and within the organization. The Word on Fire statement personally named ex-employee Will Sipling as my “primary source,” claimed that the posts were “factually false and full of unsupported conclusions intended to damage Bishop Barron and Word on Fire,” and said that “Damian and Sipling are driven by agenda and animus, not a concern for truth, fairness or justice.” It stated: “The Damian posts are nothing more than attacks by an ex-employee.”
In light of Word on Fire’s statement, I have received permission to share the full statement of a female employee who resigned in the wake of the investigation at issue. The following is her statement…
I left my job at Word on Fire due to the “Joe” situation and how it was handled.
I left for two primary reasons:
Although Word on Fire has done good work in the past, I did not feel that was enough to overcome the moral issue in that my work was directly benefiting abusers. I did not want to be complicit against so much that was happening, especially when there was clearly more than I was aware of. I do not regret this decision.
Often, the work at Word on Fire seemed more oriented to pulling followers towards Bishop Barron, rather than Christ. When I would tell people I worked at Word on Fire, “oh, you’re a Barronite” was not an uncommon response. He felt more like a celebrity than a pastor, even to me on his staff. This was not something that I was proud of supporting, and so while I enjoyed my work and coworkers, it was clear that continuing to work there was not good for my soul, nor the souls of those who were impacted by my work at Word on Fire.
The second reason for which I left was safety. To put it bluntly, I do not feel that if I had been one of the victims, I would have been protected in any way. I also do not trust that if I were to be a victim in the future, Bishop Barron or Father Steve would view sexual assault in a way which would be sympathetic to a victim.
From the beginning, it was clear that my safety was not prioritized. It was common knowledge that Joe was not trustworthy with women. He dated much younger women, and people openly discussed the extreme favoritism that he received from Bishop Barron and Fr. Steve. He got away with more, and he did what he wanted. Even his blog, which has since been removed, discussed marriage as a conquest (now that he has accomplished a list of other achievements).
The first time I spoke to Joe in person, he asked me if I was married within a few minutes of speaking.
Lack of boundaries
Although it was well-known that Joe was not someone to trust with women, he was given no restrictions. It was common for coworkers to Slack (IM) or email regarding work matters. Although many were extremely hard-working and checked their emails after hours, it was typical for employees to communicate only through these professional means, and usually only during work hours (with little to no expectation of messages being responded to outside of these hours). Even when directly asked to use Slack or email, Joe refused, and instead texted me, frequently after hours.
While this alone is not terrible, it was one example of how Joe pushed boundaries and lines, and Fr. Steve allowed it (but only for him). Personally, I was not a fan of Joe, someone I did not trust, having the expectation of texting me around the clock where messages could not be monitored. It felt like a slippery slope, and even something as simple as this request was not respected by Fr. Steve.
Discussion of abuse on Bishop’s call
I was incredibly bothered at the way in which everything was discussed by Bishop Barron on the call.
As a survivor of sexual abuse myself, it was horrifying to see Bishop discuss these serious matters in the way in which he did. This call did not appear to be rehearsed, which made it all the worse—these were his genuine thoughts regarding the matter. The women were simply accusers, and Joe’s reputation needed to be prioritized over them. He needed to be prioritized over their privacy, over their testimonies, and over the safety of our coworkers (which was made clear when we found that Fr. Steve had threatened other employees who asked about what had happened to Joe).
Three of the four women were anonymous to us. For all we knew, they even could have been part of our own staff. It is horrible to think that if one of them had been me, I would have simply been called “an accuser,” even after it was made clear that these were not false accusations.
Legal terms or not, it was saddening that abuse was dismissed with verbiage such as not “non-consensual,” just “unwelcome”—as if there is any real difference between the two. I do not see why I would have been any different than the other staff members who compromised Joe’s situation when they asked about the truth—I expect that Fr. Steve would have also threatened my job security over the matter if I had spoken to him about sexual abuse from one of his staff members.
As a woman, and as someone who has friends and family who are women, this treatment of victims and of truth is unacceptable.
I’ve lived through this before, but from the side of the victims, and it’s demoralizing, terrifying, and painful. To have the response that these women had from leaders who are supposed to be pastors not only for the Word on Fire staff, but also for their dioceses, is inhumane and scary. This is why women do not speak up. This is why other people don’t defend them.
I am proud to have left for the morality of it all, and to say that I no longer support Bishop Barron or Fr. Steve, but I am also relieved to have left an environment in which my safety would have come second to the reputation of a man many of us knew to be misogynistic and unsafe.
In its May 6 statement, Word on Fire wrote: “The primary concern regarding Bishop Barron in the Damian posts was that he mishandled charges of sexual impropriety by a Word on Fire staffer.” Unfortunately, Word on Fire does not seem to recognize the myriad of issues that have been raised. A number of current and former employees are being harmed, as well as the victims of Gloor’s actions. There is more to come, but here are some of the issues raised thus far:
During the staff meeting, Bishop Barron shared the identity of one of the victims with the broader staff without her consent, violating her privacy.
Staff had been intimidated by and were afraid of Word on Fire CEO Fr. Steve Grunow. They were afraid of retaliation if they spoke about these issues. Grunow had threatened staff with termination if they did so. When staff raised issues of intimidation, Barron spoke about how Grunow sees the staff as his “children.”
In the staff meeting, and in its first public statement, Word on Fire did not acknowledge the victims as victims. In the staff meeting, Barron declined to refer to the women as “victims,” even after the request of a staff member and after the investigator determined they were victims. Instead, he insisted on referring to them as “accusers” and, according to the meeting transcript, focused his empathy on the perpetrator. The Word on Fire May 2 statement also declined to refer to the women as victims. After being publicly critiqued, the May 6 statement referred to the women as “victims.”
Sexually inappropriate comments that made women uncomfortable were permitted in the workplace, and, according to the women who shared with me, occurred in the presence of both Barron and Grunow.
Neither Bishop Barron nor Word on Fire offered support to the victims, contrary to the recommendations of the USCCB’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People.
Gloor’s replacement, Doug Cummins, has been using his social media accounts to argue with those who are raising concerns about the mistreatment of victims and staff at Word on Fire, telling them to “get with it” and to “grow up.”
As shared previously, prior to Gloor’s termination, one of the victims discussed the investigation into Gloor in a private group chat. One of the individuals in the chat was the wife of a Word on Fire employee, who shared the discussion with her husband, who then shared it with Grunow (none of this with the victim’s consent). According to my source, Grunow then notified Gloor that the victim had posted her story on Facebook. (Grunow mistakenly thought that it was a Facebook post, and not a group message.) Gloor then began harassing the victims and drove three hours to one of the victim’s homes, where he made threats if she did not take down the post. The actions of these employees resulted in further harm and harassment of the victims.
As shared above, the Word on Fire CEO did not respect the request of a (female) employee that her (male) coworker (in a position of authority) not send messages to her personal number. This communicated that professional boundaries requested by a female employee would not be respected or enforced when it came to Gloor.
The May 6 statement, unfortunately, added to the problems. The statement included: “During the independent investigation – conducted solely by the investigator – only one woman who made allegations chose to participate. She had been in a relationship with Gloor for approximately a decade. Subsequently, two of the other women formally withdrew their complaints, and the third declined to speak with the investigator.” Problems with this include:
It shared additional personal details about one of the victims, likely obtained during the investigation, without her consent.
It suggested that the length of a relationship is somehow relevant to the issues of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment. Such details are often shared as part of attempts to discredit victims, as many victims can attest to.
According to one of the victims who spoke with me, the other two women did not formally withdraw their complaints, but just did not want to speak with their “paid investigator.”
In the statement, Bishop Barron, and Word on Fire generally, also tried to disclaim any responsibility for the situation by outsourcing responsibility to an outside firm. As the statement said: “[Bishop Barron] couldn’t have mishandled the situation since he was not handling it at all.” In essence, they have tried to wash their hands of responsibility by passing it on to someone else. In any event, the October staff meeting was handled personally by Bishop Barron.
The statement also shared publicly details of an internal investigation into Sipling’s alleged recording of a staff meeting, even though the investigation (to my knowledge) was never concluded. The statement focused its indignation more on that recording than on Gloor’s actions against the victims. And while the May 6 statement claims that my understanding of the situation is based on hearsay, Word on Fire’s allegations against Sipling are actually based entirely on double hearsay: what the investigator said about what the staff member said about what Sipling said. (I am familiar with the concept of hearsay, because I am an attorney.)
Rather than focusing on the facts and addressing the issues, the statement focused on attributing motives and intentions to those raising issues:
Multiple times, the statement accused me of lying or providing false information, without clarifying what those lies or false information were. No quotations were provided for these claims. It may be that the leadership at Word on Fire disagrees with my interpretation of the comments made during the staff meeting. But this would be another problem: accusing people of lying because you disagree with an interpretation. It equates malice/sin with confusion/misunderstanding, in a way that is manipulative and controlling.
“… he defamed Bishop Robert Barron and attempted to smear Word on Fire Catholic Ministries… ”
“The primary concern regarding Bishop Barron in the Damian posts was that he mishandled charges…” As noted above, this is incorrect.
“The false information published by Damian was provided to him by a disgruntled ex-employee…”
“Damian’s posts are factually false and full of unsupported conclusions intended to damage Bishop Barron and Word on Fire.”
“Damian and Sipling are driven by agenda and animus, not a concern for truth, fairness or justice.”
“The Damian posts are nothing more than attacks by an ex-employee…”
As the statement provided by the former employee above shows, this is not simply an issue of one disgruntled former employee. Unfortunately, Word on Fire seems to focused on attacking Sipling’s (and my) credibility that it is unable to see other current and former employees who have been hurt by the organization and are trying to address issues and seek change. It seems unable to see how the victims continue to be hurt by its actions. And this is yet another problem that needs to be addressed, something that strikes at the heart of the toxic culture being brought into the light.
More on this controversy: