Renewing Word on Fire: A List for Change
“What actions would Word on Fire have to take for you to be confident that it is moving in the right direction?”
Over the last three weeks, I have been writing about various institutional problems at Word on Fire, the Catholic media organization run by Bishop Barron. (You can find a recap here.) While writing about and continuing to try to understand the situation, I have been working with one of the victims, some former Word on Fire employees, and others who want to see change for the better in the Church and Her institutions. We desire not only to shed light on problems, but also to ignite the flame of justice and to be a source of renewal within the Church. We believe that Word on Fire can change, can truly be a place where victims of sexual violence and other harm can find support, where women are respected as colleagues and leaders, and where change for the broader Church can begin. But becoming this type of institution will require soul-searching, sacrifice, and ongoing commitment.
To this end, we have provided below a list of actions we believe will be required of Word on Fire to facilitate healing, secure trust, and begin renewal. We have provided first a list of hopes, and then a list of concrete actions to take. The operating question for building this list has been: “What actions would Word on Fire have to take for you to be confident that it is moving in the right direction?” More will be shared in the coming weeks on why these changes are needed, but we are sharing the list now in order to keep a focus on the need and opportunities for renewal. This list is not meant to be comprehensive of what all the victims and those impacted seek or require. It will be up to Word on Fire to discover what additional work will be needed to support those who have been harmed but have not been a part of this particular process.
A number of these items will be relevant to any Catholic institution. If you work for a Catholic institution, we highly encourage you to bring this list to its leaders and to explore how your organization can also implement them. We hope that this can be an opportunity to learn and grow, not only for Word on Fire, but for the entire Church.
What we hope:
To see the Church improve in its understanding of abuse: to see Church members grow in their understanding of what abuse is, how to identify it, how to stop it, and how to grow beyond it.
For the victims and survivors of abuse by Church leaders, including leaders in Her ministries, to see that what they have endured is abhorrent to the Church and to God, and that the Church—even those in the Church who have never met them—will fight for them; that victims and survivors will see that they are members of the body of Christ with us, and they deserve to be fought for.
For abusers to see the work of the Church and to fear harming the vulnerable, even if they don’t understand that what they do is abuse.
For people to place their trust in the Church, and not just in Catholic celebrities, influencers, and clergy; that Catholics understand that these are all people who will need to be held accountable at times; and that Catholics understand, as Leah Libresco Sargeant has put it, an organization “that makes celebrities of employees gives them opportunity to prey as their fame grows.”
That when Catholic institutions have concerns raised, instead of doubling down on how great they are or reflexively seeking to discredit those raising concerns, they commit to listening and continuing to improve.
That Word on Fire staff and followers have the bravery to address concerns with content put forward by the ministry and its leadership.
That Church leaders bring to light all mishandling and excusing of abuse in the Church in an effort to protect victims, validate their experiences, and provide solidarity.
That Word on Fire will fight to be inclusive of women in leadership positions, fostering and celebrating the feminine genius which is so necessary in the work of the Church, and will work to hinder any developments of interpersonal and institutional dynamics which silence, belittle, marginalize, or underutilize the varied gifts and talents of women.
A number of actions will be required to help achieve these hopes. Below is the list that has been developed, divided into four areas: accountability and leadership, for the victims, protecting employees and vulnerable persons in the future, and for the Church.
Accountability and leadership:
Submitting to an independent investigation that covers every aspect of the process related to Gloor’s termination, from the time the victims first came forward, auditing every email and text message that was sent by Word on Fire’s leadership, and all processes and protocols, and providing recommendations. This should be conducted by a qualified third party organization such as GRACE or Guidepost Solutions. At the commencement, the investigating organization should be directed to independently prepare and publicly share a report detailing key findings and recommendations.
Permanently removing Fr. Steve Grunow as CEO, and barring any managers with whom complaints of harassment, discrimination, misconduct, or retaliation were raised but not officially recorded or processed from acting as CEO.
Changing management, with at least 50% representation of women in upper management.
Instituting term limits for the board of directors, and increasing the percentage of women on the board of directors.
Committing to having 50% of interviewers for all job candidates be women.
Collecting and publishing the following data publicly on an annual basis (including an initial report sharing data from the last four years): the percentage of women employees, the percentage of women in management positions, the number of internal and external complaints related to harassment and discrimination, and the percentage of women interviewed and hired for open roles.
Committing to maintaining a qualified HR professional on staff who will be responsible for developing and maintaining HR policies and protocols, and ensuring adherence to all relevant laws and regulations.
Doug Cummins publicly apologizing for his treatment of women who raised concerns on social media.
For the victims:
Publicly apologizing to the victims, to Will Sipling, and to the other current and former employees who were harmed by the actions of Word on Fire and its leadership, including Gloor.
Thanking the victims for coming forward, for possibly helping to protect other women, and for their heroic bravery.
Publicly acknowledging Word on Fire’s failures during this process.
Sending a personal letter from Bishop Barron to each of the victims, apologizing to them for what happened and for any role that he or Word on Fire may have played in perpetuating any harm, and thanking them for their bravery in coming forward and contributing to changes for the better that will be coming.
Asking the victims and former employees who have been harmed what they want and need in order to heal and and become enablers of change, including the question: “What actions does Word on Fire have to take for you to feel confident that we are moving in the right direction?” This question should be asked in an open and receptive way, with the opportunity to provide a full answer without commentary or criticism. Any explanation as to why Word on Fire cannot take a particular course of action should only occur after they have had the opportunity to share the entirety of their thoughts.
Protecting employees and vulnerable persons in the future:
As a general matter, Word on Fire and its leaders must listen to its female employees.
Establishing a partnership with an experienced victim-centered third party, such as tEQuitable, to handle investigations of sexual and other misconduct, which includes an ombudsperson dedicated to advising, advocating for, and protecting the anonymity of the victim(s).
Requiring all current staff, and all future staff, to undergo bystander training as part of onboarding, consisting of at least several hours of live training on that specific topic; and facilitating a training for all management and the board of directors on gender bias, sexual violence and harassment, and workplace investigations. These should be conducted through qualified organizations such as Soteria Solutions or Mariana Strategies.
Requiring all staff to review SNAP’s resource on “What to do when your minister is accused of abuse,” inviting both current and former staff to anonymously share the ways in which Word on Fire and its leaders have failed to respond appropriately to the victims and their stories, and sharing with the entire staff a detailed summary of these comments.
For the Church
Ceasing publication of Letter to a Suffering Church, inviting a qualified individual to write a post for Word on Fire on problems with the book, and engaging a victim advocate or victim/survivor to write a replacement book.
Releasing a public acknowledgement from Bishop Barron that his treatment of Bathsheba in Letter to a Suffering Church and his other writings (such as his commentary on 2 Samuel) wrongfully engaged in victim-blaming, including an apology for doing so and a commitment to not do so in the future.
Requiring all Word on Fire writers, including Bishop Barron, to complete training so that they can write from trauma-informed perspectives when writing on issues related to abuse or the Church’s abuse crisis.
Establishing a partnership with a survivor-focused organization to create resources for Catholic institutions on combatting gender bias, misogyny, and sexual harassment.
Partnering with an organization such as Awake Milwaukee to promote victim-centered work in the Church.
This is not an exhaustive list of what will be required to truly transform Word on Fire into the ministry that it could be. True cultural transformation and renewal cannot be reduced to a list of recommendations. However, we believe that this will provide a strong starting point for the future and will contribute to bettering the life of the Church. We are open to partnering with Word on Fire on additional changes to secure a better future for the ministry and the Church.