Sexual Misconduct and Employee Intimidation at Word on Fire
During the meeting, multiple staff members described Word on Fire's CEO as “terrifying.”
Update: Below it says that the woman shared her story on Facebook. This is not accurate. She shared her story in a private group chat, and Barron thought she had shared it on Facebook but was mistaken.
CW: Discussion of sexual misconduct, the clergy abuse crisis, and institutional cover-up.
Last week I shared stories of rape, spiritual abuse, manipulation, and loss of faith and ‘orthodox’ Catholic colleges. Since sharing these stories, I have continued to have men and women reach out to me to share similar stories at Catholic colleges and other institutions. These issues are pervasive and widespread. And while the acts of abuse and manipulation are horrifying in their own right, Catholics must also take responsibility for the ways in which our institutions and leaders inhibit the Church’s ability to respond to harm, perpetuate silence, and protect perpetrators. One institution which should be held accountable is Word on Fire, led by Bishop Robert Barron and Fr. Steve Grunow.
The termination of Joey Gloor
Joey Gloor was a professional bodybuilder and fitness spokesmodel featured on MTV. He experienced a religious conversion and eventually made his way to Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire. In 2016, Gloor was named Assistant Content Director at Word on Fire. He most recently held the title of Senior Director of Production and was the organization’s highest-paid employee, making more than $130,000 in annual compensation. Gloor was one of the prominent faces of Word on Fire, featured regularly on the organization’s social media platforms. As of September 17, he was part of Word on Fire’s “Catholicism 101” video series.
Gloor’s relationship with Word on Fire has at times been a source of controversy. A National Catholic Reporter piece called Word on Fire’s mode of engagement with Gloor “crass” and emblematic of secular marketing. (It’s also worth noting that the piece raised eyebrows at another former bodybuilder who had been named the executive director of the Word on Fire Institute. And Word on Fire CEO Fr. Steve Grunow has been criticized for bodybuilding self-promotion.) But Word on Fire has yet to publicly comment on Gloor’s quiet removal from the Catholic ministry’s online presence. He is no longer a listed speaker for Catholicism 101. His testimonies have been removed from YouTube.
The beginning of an explanation can be found in the transcript of an October 13 Word on Fire staff meeting which was made available to me by a Word on Fire employee. According to the transcript, in August, Word on Fire received complaints from four women alleging “some kind of inappropriate or abusive sexual behavior” from Gloor. Word on Fire hired an attorney to conduct an investigation, during which one of the women withdrew her complaint and two others, as Barron put it, “chose not to cooperate.” The investigation proceeded with the fourth woman.
The investigation determined that Gloor did not engage in any “non-consensual” sexual contact, but that he did engage in “unwelcome” sexual activity, and that “some of the sexual acts were unwanted.” At the October 13 meeting, a staff member also shared that Gloor had used his position at Word on Fire to manipulate the women. During the investigation, Gloor had been placed on a paid leave. However, the woman who participated in the investigation shared her story on facebook, which alerted the staff to the situation. Because of this disclosure, Word on Fire terminated Gloor’s employment at that time.
While the allegations against Gloor are certainly concerning, additional concerns arise due to the discussion among staff and Bishop Barron in the October meeting. Barron demonstrates a lack of care for the victims. And not only this, but the transcript details incidents of staff intimidation, censorship of writers, and retaliatory threats.
Letter to a Suffering Church
In May of 2019, Bishop Barron published Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis. The book, published by Word on Fire, advertised itself as “yet another masterpiece” by Barron. The book asks why Catholics should stay in the Church, seeks to demonstrate how Barron “both understands and empathizes” with the dissent and anger of many Catholics, and exhorts Catholics to “stay and fight for his [Jesus’s] Church.” It is with this goal that I am sharing what I have learned--and what Barron appears to have not learned.
Letter to a Suffering Church has received mostly praise from Catholics. But one reviewer, who identifies herself as a victim still committed to the Church, points out that the book did not seem to be written with victims at front of mind. For example, Barron lays out the gory details of the crisis without any warning, which put her off as a victim:
“I've also spoken to other people who had the same reaction. If he's trying to encourage people to stay, he should have considered that some victims and their families might be reading this. I wouldn't be surprised if some readers may have abandoned the letter as soon as they came to that part. At the very least, Bishop Barron could have put a brief ‘warning’ somewhere explaining that these particular pages contain disturbing details.”
Perhaps Barron’s focus on combating “the woke movement” prevents him from including things like “trigger warnings.” But this is an instance where a victim seems to have felt forgotten in the culture wars. Interestingly, it’s the abuse victim who is forgotten in a book about our abuse crisis. As a whole, however, the woman did say she thought the book did a good job of opening up a very important conversation.
It’s significant that Letter to a Suffering Church focuses primarily on getting Catholics to hold on to their “beliefs,” as if the primary problem which arises due to the abuse crisis is one of intellectual assent. The book’s marketing moves us away from the crisis of abuse and focuses on a crisis of faith, understood as a crisis of Catholics questioning whether “to stay and fight for their beliefs.” The book seems to be institution-centered, rather than victim-centered. Continuity of focus can be seen in the October 13 meeting.
In Barron’s October discussion with his staff, the victims received almost no empathy or care. Early in the meeting, Barron openly and without prompting disclosed the full name of the victim who had participated in the investigation. At least one staff member, according to the transcript, had not known about the issue before the meeting. Thus, Barron was the means by which her identity was disclosed to him. Barron opened the meeting by saying:
“All right, well let's get going. Thank you everybody, good morning to you all. As you know, this is kind of a difficult time we're passing through. You know that this lady [full name of victim] published, I guess, on her Facebook page, some of these original charges, allegations, concerns, that came forward a couple of months ago. Let me give you the backstory.”
Barron himself did not seem to see the woman as a victim. During the meeting, a staff member expressed discomfort with the way in which the victims were discussed and said, “We can call them victims because the lawyers had come to that conclusion.” Barron, however, declined to refer to the women as victims at any point in the 29-page transcript. He once referred to them as “alleged victims,” while opining to his staff:
“People do make things up sometimes, was it exaggerated, is this in fact a victim-victimizer thing, so I don’t think we knew at the beginning.”
During the meeting, one staff member asked whether there had been any communication with the victims. In response, Barron said:
“Only one communication by mail. We were urged strongly by the lawyers not to engage in like a personal outreach. You know, I suppose that's a prudential call, but we were advised not to reach out, personally and directly. You know, part of it is just that, intensity of feeling involved, and all that. But that was the advice we were given, we should proceed in a very objective way to get to the truth of things.”
Barron seemed to be unaware of the institutional dynamics which enabled the clergy abuse crisis and, indeed, he repeated these dynamics. In February of 2004, the USCCB’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People published a report on the clergy abuse crisis. In part, the NRB attributed the crisis to dioceses’ over-reliance on legal counsel. The report stated:
“Many diocesan attorneys counseled Church leaders not to meet with, or apologize to, victims even when the allegations had been substantiated on grounds that apologies could be used against the Church in court. The Review Board believes that offering solace to those who have been harmed by a minister of the Church should have taken precedence over a potential incremental increase in the risk of liability.”
No pastoral care seemed to be necessary for the victims, in Barron’s eyes. It’s notable, however, that Barron focused significantly on the need to offer care and compassion to the individual determined to have perpetrated sexual misconduct against at least one of the women. When a staff member asked about how Gloor received his termination, Barron responded, “I shouldn’t talk about Joe, I think it would be disrespectful to his privacy.” (Again, it’s worth noting that Barron started the meeting by disclosing the name of the victim to his staff.) Barron told the staff that Gloor “loved Word on Fire with his whole heart and soul” and that “he always denied that there was anything unwelcome… [and he even] admitted from the beginning to being unchaste.” Based on the way in which Barron engaged in the conversation, one would think that he considered Gloor, rather than the women, to be the victim here. In the meeting, Barron likened Gloor to the lost sheep of Matthew 18 and said that he and Grunow “wanted to be pastorally present to him.”
The victims here did not receive similar attention. This is frustrating for me, personally, as I’ve been working with Catholics who have been harmed by Church leaders and are struggling to “stay in the Church.” Often, blame is placed back on the victims, as Barron seems to do. When asked about whether the victim would pursue legal action, Barron responded:
“I don't know, I don't think so, I mean she's had a lot of time to you know, mull it over, and we've, you know, in some ways, she put this in our hands in a way that was very awkward. Kind of compelling us to take this to action. Which we did, following our own prompts. But I don't know. I don't know what she's going to do.”
A staff member mentioned that two police reports had been filed against Gloor and said that the victims could choose to file charges, to which Barron responded, “Fine, I mean, that’s her prerogative, obviously. It’s a free country.” These charges and reports didn’t seem particularly relevant to Barron, who focused on his role as a friend, employer, and spiritual mentor to Gloor. Barron seemed to communicate that he felt inconvenienced by the way the woman came forward. When asked whether the woman was motivated by “any particular animus toward Word on Fire” or whether there was “someone else behind this,” Barron responded, “Yeah, I honestly, I don’t know. Yeah, it’s a fair question.” He later said that she may be motivated by a “concern that she was mistreated.”
Barron referred to the women as “the accusers” multiple times during the meeting. He did this, even after the investigator had determined that at least one woman was a victim of “unwelcome” and “unwanted” sexual activity. Biblically, the name that Barron gave to the women, “accuser,” is significant, as it identifies them with Satan. Barron himself wrote in March: “the pope well knows that the devil’s two principal names in the New Testament are diabolos (the scatterer) and Satanas (the accuser). I cannot think of a better characterization of what gossip does and what it essentially is.” (More on this below.)
Given the above, it shouldn’t be surprising that three of the women who initially came forward did not decide to pursue the matter with Word on Fire.
A “Public Relations Issue”
During the meeting, one staff member tried to make sense of how Word on Fire was to approach the situation with Gloor. Barron clarified that his legal advisors had stated that the claims against Gloor “have no legal status or bearing.” He then continued:
“But they, everyone knew, given our unique situation as a Catholic ministry, that there’s a PR, it’s a PR issue, it’s a public relations issue. And you know, I think, that’s important. I don’t mean, thereby, it’s superficial. It’s not, that’s very important. Because we’re a public ministry of the Church.”
The public relations concerns may have driven Word on Fire’s approach to Gloor’s employment. During the meeting, Barron emphasized that it was important for Word on Fire not to terminate Gloor as soon as it received the complaints. Multiple times Barron emphasized how protocols were followed “scrupulously.” Barron stated the need to “be fair to Joe.” When asked whether Barron or Grunow had conflicts of interests, given their close relations to Gloor, Barron stressed how his goal was “to get at the truth of it.” (It’s also worth noting that Barron and Grunow were on the organization’s board and would have participated in a vote about whether to terminate Gloor following the investigation.) But the broader context of his response seemed to legitimize that staff member’s concern. Barron said:
“I can assure you that Fr. Steve, both of us, I mean, from the beginning, were so deeply concerned about this, and in dialogue with the lawyers, in dialogue with the board, we were always trying to get at the truth of it. I wanted to be fair to Joe! I said that from the beginning, I said that Joe needs to have his voice heard, I want to make sure he can defend himself. And he did! He had every opportunity to. But no, I don't see any sort of conflict there.”
One can, again, see the stark contrast between Barron’s approach to the victims and Barron’s approach to Gloor in this case.
The concern for process and protocol, however, lost relevance as soon as Word on Fire faced the risk of public exposure. The investigation was still underway, and the board had yet to decide how to respond, when the victim shared her story on facebook. Despite the concern for protocol, and the insistence that protocol was “scrupulously” followed, protocol was certainly not scrupulously followed to its conclusion. When faced with the risk of public exposure, Barron decided to sidestep the protocol and terminate Gloor’s employment. When Barron was asked whether Word on Fire would have terminated Gloor without that social media post by the victim, Barron responded, “Well, I can’t say absolutely for sure.”
Threats and Intimidation
But not only this. About midway into the meeting, the staff shared that Word on Fire CEO Father Steve Grunow had threatened employees during the investigation. A staff member shared that Grunow had told staff, “If anybody talks about this, they’re fired on the spot” and, “I don’t want anybody even mentioning any of the details of this to anybody else.” The staff member shared that a number of employees were wounded personally by Grunow’s hostility. Barron’s response is worth relaying in full:
Barron: Well, I guess, clarify, [name], that for--I don’t know anything about Fr. Steve saying, ‘You talk, you’re going to be fired.’
Staff member 1: He said that to me, Bishop.
Barron: But, but, but, we were from the beginning--
Staff member 2: Can you answer [staff member 1], please?
Staff member 1: Bishop Barron, Fr. Steve actually said that to me.
Barron: Yeah, that’s the first I’ve heard of that. My general point is that from the beginning is, following our own protocols, that to be completely about this process, we were just concerned about people’s reputations, the reputations of the accusers, as well as of Joe, so that was, I just sort of took it for granted that we should not be talking about this, that we didn't want it to become public. And our lawyers were very scrupulous about that too, that we keep this very confidential. So, I just saw that as a way of protecting all the people involved. But in terms of—I don't know anything about Fr. Steve saying that.
Barron is either incapable of or unwilling to hear that his staff is expressing fear and pain. His staff communicated that they felt threatened and were hurting, and Barron responded by reference to protocol and legal advice. Later in the meeting, a staff member expressed fear of retaliation and asked whether anything said in the meeting would eventually be used against them. But instead of giving a direct answer, Barron responded in a way that strikes me as manipulative. He turned the concern back on his staff by asking, “Well, have you gotten an impression from me that’s the case?” If the staff member had gotten such an impression, what is that person to say in response? Rather than providing a reassuring answer, Barron made the question about himself and pressured the staff member to answer their own question.
The staff member repeatedly asked for a “plan” to address the threats by Word on Fire’s CEO, but Barron only said, “I can discuss it with him, of course. Bring it up to him.” When pressed again for a plan, Barron said, “For the time, pray for him [Fr. Steve Grunow], he’s going through a really tough time. Pray for Fr. Steve. But, I’m happy to bring that point up, and discuss it.” When staff members expressed fear after a superior threatened them, Barron advised them to pray for the perpetrator and said he will have a conversation with him. Barron later said that Grunow “has a very pastoral heart” and “thinks of you [the staff] as his children.” Barron characterized Grunow’s threats as a “kind of deep affection” that came out “in a very strong way, with Joe [Gloor], he wanted to protect him.”
Barron’s disposition seems to be a continuation of the clergy abuse crisis. Perhaps Barron means well. But Catholics would do well to recall that much of the clergy abuse crisis was held up by good intentions -- a desire not to damage the image of the Church, a desire to protect the reputations of “the accused,” etc.
Indeed, some of Barron’s other writings suggest that he also believes staff should be silent about these types of incidents. Last month, Barron wrote a piece criticizing gossip, which he defined as “discussing anything negative with someone who can’t solve the problem.” Barron received this definition from Dave Ramsey, whose former employees have accused his organization of having a “cult-like” environment in a lawsuit.
All of this may be related to a larger institutional problem at Word on Fire. As one staff member pointed out:
“If nothing else, we’re a Christian organization… The legalistic, overly savvy, overly lawyered language is just going to go like a lead balloon to the public. Because everybody’s tired of it. They’ve heard it all… [And] very distressing to hear that anybody had their job threatened over this. But to me, this connects to a larger strain… Sometimes, I get the sense that we’re so overprotective, we’re so protective of Word on Fire, and of you--I mean justly--that maybe we pull our punches, or we’re not saying all the things we should be saying, or we’re not speaking out enough.”
In response, Barron repeated the need to protect the reputations of those involved, “including the accusers.” Barron said he followed the advice of legal counsel, and that his ultimate aim was “justice and fairness.”
Another staff member shared that the threat by Word on Fire’s CEO was not an isolated problem, but that an atmosphere of silence had been created in the organization where “everybody’s terrified of the consequences of bring[ing] this up.” Multiple staff members described Grunow as “terrifying.” A staff member said that there’s not just a fear of bringing up this particular concern about retaliation in this instance, but a fear of “addressing any concern.” The staff member said that there is an atmosphere of “zero transparency” which is “extremely concerning.”
Barron again responded, not with a desire to understand more fully, but with a defense:
“Well, again, I don't know where you think there's lack of transparency. We were trying to be as transparent as we could with this process. But that's a broader issue, we can discuss another time, maybe. But, I don't know what the other issues of lack of transparency are.”
One staff member shared how this is connected to the control over ideas and content, sharing how they had been asked not to write about certain topics they thought were important in the Church and how certain conversations about content do not seem to be permitted in the organization.
Where from here?
A first thought I had as I reviewed the meeting transcript was: What if one of the women in the meeting had been a victim of unwanted/unwelcome sexual activity by Gloor? How would Barron’s defensiveness, characterizations of “the accusers,” inability to register the harm of his staff, and pastoral focus on Grunow and Gloor have been received? And what are we all to make of this, given that at one point Barron had tried to position himself as a key spokesperson on the clergy abuse crisis?
In the end, I don’t believe this is really a Barron problem. This is a global Church problem, in which Barron participates. His visibility is certainly concerning. And Word on Fire has yet to address any of this publicly.
More on this controversy: