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Resigning employees call for change amid Word on Fire controversy

Two prominent Catholic writers and speakers have resigned from the Word on Fire media apostolate, adding to recent charges that calls for a reform of communications and organizational culture have gone unheard, and that an investigation into sexual misconduct on the part of a former employee was mishandled.

Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire. Credit: Word on Fire.

“We believe in the mission and the principles of Word on Fire, but not at all costs, and definitely not at the expense of our mental health,” wrote Jackie and Bobby Angel, in a May 9 resignation letter obtained by The Pillar.

“Any ministry that speaks truth with love will receive spiritual attack, but it is poor leadership, communication, and organizational principles that brought us here.”

The married couple, well-known Catholic authors and speakers, were appointed fellows of the Word on Fire Institute, a branch of Word on Fire, in early 2020: Jackie Angel as the fellow of family life and Bobby Angel as the fellow of parish life.

Their resignation came after public controversy over Word on Fire’s handling of an investigation into alleged sexual assault on the part of former senior producer Joseph Gloor, who was fired in October 2021.

Employees and former employees have charged that Word on Fire, a media organization founded by Los Angeles auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, inappropriately identified an alleged victim of sexual assault, did not provide sufficient communication to employees about an investigation surrounding the incident, and that Word on Fire leaders favored Gloor during the probe into his conduct, only eventually firing him only as a public relations measure.

The allegations came to light in late April, in a blog post from Catholic writer Chris Damian.

Employees told The Pillar they are frustrated with the way Word on Fire has responded to criticism since the story emerged, citing a statement that several employees said was an attack on Damian and a former Word on Fire staffer, with no evidence of reflection on whether the Gloor investigation was addressed fairly.

“There have just been PR responses, instead of any talk about whether we could have handled it better, or recognized what’s expected from a Church mission in a situation like this -  transparency, and caring about the victims and not just defending ourselves,” one employee told The Pillar.

The Angels wrote that employees had pushed internally for months to see the situation addressed more directly.

“From the beginning of the Joe Gloor incident, many staff members pleaded for our leadership to own the situation and be transparent, not only to its own staff members, but to the public as well, because the truth will always come out. Seven months later, only when we were called out through a blog exposé, did we respond with a pitifully un-pastoral, bare minimum press statement that was buried on our website - a message that never even apologized to the women, the true victims in this situation … if we call ourselves a ministry, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard,” the couple wrote.

Their resignation letter raised another incident, in which Word on Fire removed from its website reference to book it had published, after its author, Mark Galli, was accused of sexual harassment in March.

“The posture of protecting ‘the Brand’ at all costs has revealed the deeper dysfunction within our company. This was confirmed when the Mark Galli book was scrubbed  out of existence without any forward facing communication, or communication even to our own staff members. This situation sadly revealed that our company prioritizes brand protection rather than facing any perceived failure, which leads us to our current moment in time.”

Citing the investigation of Gloor as a period of dysfunction at the company, the Angels wrote that “it has been a frustrating past seven months as we have not been allowed to do the very jobs you hired us for. We, and many other staff members, have raised concerns along the way that have been brushed aside. We feel like we’ve been strung along with little-to-no communication, clear leadership, or expectations of when this situation within the company will get better.”

Word on Fire began when Barron was a Chicago priest broadcasting homilies on a local radio station. With the support of Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, the priest began a ministry of engagement and apologetics on the internet, which gradually grew to include a small staff.

In 2011, the organization - an Illinois non-profit - published “Catholicism,” a documentary miniseries on the faith, which was broadcast on PBS stations. The wildly popular series is credited with encouraging or engaging many Catholics in the faith, and Word on Fire developed other catechetical and evangelical media projects, which were generally well-received by other U.S. bishops.

Barron became an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles in 2015, and has continued to be the face of Word on Fire, which now has offices in Illinois, California, and Texas, and, with roughly 60 employees, is one of the largest Catholic media organizations in the U.S.

The Pillar has spoken with six current or recently resigned Word on Fire employees who said the organization’s handling of the Gloor investigation was inappropriate, and symptomatic of a broad set of problems at Word on Fire.

Several told The Pillar that Word on Fire handled a situation involving sexual misconduct, conflicts of interest, and imbalances of power without transparency, clarity, or attention to the dynamics of power and authority in a Catholic environment — criticisms that evokes the charges leveled against dioceses and religious institutes over sexual misconduct allegations in recent years.

The investigation into Gloor began in August 2021, when Word on Fire recieved four allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Gloor from women who were not employees of Word on Fire. The organization contracted a law firm to conduct an investigation, and Gloor was placed on leave. Only one woman who wrote to Word on Fire formally participated in the investigation, according to a statement from Word on Fire.

At an October 13, 2021 meeting, Barron explained the inquiry to other Word on Fire employees, telling them that investigators determined the allegation was a “he said-she said,” with “some ambiguity” about non-criminal sexual advances and “unwelcome…unchaste behavior,” according to a transcript of the meeting obtained by The Pillar.

Sources affirmed that the investigation determined that Gloor had likely made advances it characterized as unwelcomed, and that he should undergo additional assessment before a decision was made about his employment at Word on Fire.

Barron told employees Oct. 13 that Gloor’s future at Word on Fire would have been decided by its board of directors, after the preparation of a report by the investigators. But he said concern that an alleged victim had spoken publicly about the allegations on social media - she hadn’t - accelerated the process. Gloor was fired that day, with the board’s approval and Barron’s “strong recommendation.” In the process of discussing the situation, Barron identified the alleged victim to Word on Fire employees.

In a May 6 statement, Word on Fire said that “the entire process of handling the misconduct of the Word on Fire employee, Joe Gloor, was undertaken by a sub-committee of Word on Fire’s board of directors, not by Bishop Barron.”

As the result of a third-party investigation, Word on Fire said, “which concluded that no crimes had been committed, the board sub-committee members determined nevertheless that it was appropriate for Word on Fire to terminate Gloor’s employment. Bishop Barron did not make the decision to terminate Gloor’s employment. Bishop Barron communicated to Gloor the board sub-committee’s decision.”

“The board sub-committee  carefully followed a process to investigate non-work charges against Gloor through independent counsel and an independent investigator. The board sub-committee members, and the independent investigator, consistently showed empathy and respect for the victims. The board sub-committee ultimately decided to terminate Gloor’s employment. Bishop Barron was not involved in that decision,” Word on Fire added.

But employees told The Pillar that Gloor - who was known to be close to Barron and Word on Fire CEO Fr. Steve Grunow - was treated with “pretty clear favoritism” at the organization, which employees believe impacted the way the investigation was handled and internally addressed.

Some cited instances where Gloor spoke inappropriately in front of Grunow with no repercussions, or said that complaints about his failure to observe professional boundaries with female colleagues went unaddressed.

Even while Gloor was under investigation, the organization was discussing plans that would see him featured in catechetical resources, sources said, with no indication that Gloor might not remain at the organization.

While some employees did not know that Gloor was being investigated, those who did were confused by those discussions, sources said.

“It was just like, this guy is under this investigation and we’re talking about what videos he’s going to be in. Really?” one former employee said. “It just made no sense.”

Others noted that while Gloor was placed on a leave during the investigation into his misconduct, employees were not given any information about why he was not in the office for roughly two months — even that he had been placed on leave.

A senior Word on Fire staffer who raised questions about Gloor’s absence during the 2021 investigation was threatened with termination if he brought up the subject again, according to several employees and former employees at the organization.

“So Joe’s the senior producer, so he’s involved in every single production — what he did directly impacted 40 employees, at least. And I know Word on Fire can’t just say ‘he’s under investigation for sexual assault,’ but there should have been some communication that he was on some leave, to give clearer direction to the people underneath him, who were given no instruction, and they didn’t even know what was happening with Joe — and so there were projects totally in limbo, and no one knows what’s going on, all because of this one guy,” one former senior employee told The Pillar.

Several sources said it was their impression that the lack of communication came from a desire of Word on Fire leaders to protect Gloor.

Others said the threat of termination highlighted a culture of employee intimidation within Word on Fire.

One Word on Fire employee described a “culture that gets created where once you threaten someone with their job, more than once, to more than one person, there’s just a feeling of intimidation that doesn’t go away — especially when your boss is a priest. That adds another level to it. When you’re in Christian ministry and it’s a priest doing it, it’s a totally different reality.”

“For some employees, it’s going to take a serious spiritual healing to get through this, because it just caused a lot of harm for people, on how they feel about the ministry, how they feel about our leadership, all of that,” he added.

“It feels to me almost exactly like how the Church has handled things, and it has failed. And that worries me a lot. Because we encouraged the Church to get out there, hold yourself accountable, and it’s just not happening,” the employee said.

One former senior employee at Word on Fire told The Pillar he had been initially hopeful that allegations against Gloor would be well-handled.

But he summarized the concerns he had once the complaint was made: that Word on Fire officials seemed to be moving forward with projects related to Gloor amid an investigation and Gloor’s unexplained absence; that employees were intimidated or threatened when they asked any questions about Gloor, that employees with concerns about the investigation were shut out of decision-making discussions, and that Gloor was fired only because, he charged, senior Word on Fire leaders believed one of Gloor’s alleged victims was going to speak publicly about her allegations.

The former employee also lamented that Barron, apparently carelessly, identified one of the alleged victims.

“Even to the extent that they fired Joe, it’s a CYA,” the former employee told The Pillar.

Most troubling, some sources said, is that Gloor seemed to have been told of the person who made the allegations against him before he was terminated. That put an alleged victim in danger, because Gloor had shown himself to have a volatile temper, they alleged.

For their part, the Angels wrote that Grunow’s dual roles at the organization caused problems for employees.

“Fr. Steve, as CEO...never should have been a spiritual director or confessor to his own staff members, as this violates the dynamic of internal/external forum, which blurs the appropriate spiritual boundaries,” their letter said.

Some staff members agreed, saying that a lack of boundaries meant that issues they raised were “overspiritualized” or framed as “spiritual attacks” on the mission or unity of Word on Fire. Staffers said that Grunow exercised control over every aspect of Word on Fire’s ministry, and seemed to evoke spiritual authority in doing so, which employees described as an effort to “gain control.”

Other staff members attributed organizational problems to Word on Fire’s rapid growth, and Barron’s schedule as a bishop, suggesting that Grunow had become encumbered with more responsibility than he could manage, and had not transitioned his management style from leadership at the small organization Word on Fire once was, to the well-funded multi-state apostolate it had become.

The Angels said that organizational structure led to festering problems for employees.

“Not having a proper HR department, or a Board of Directors who have term limits, leaves us with no truly unbiased individuals to confide in without fear of repercussions. Many individuals are afraid to speak out to the dysfunction they perceive, for fear of being reprimanded or shunned out of the company. We have serious issues of artificial harmony, fear of conflict, and an absence of truth” they wrote in their resignation letter.

Other staff members and former staff members told The Pillar that a lack of ecclesiastical accountability was confusing at Word on Fire, and that they also experienced ambiguity about how to raise internal problems without facing intimidation or threat of termination.

Sources told The Pillar they were reluctant to speak with the media - with some citing their unwavering support for Word on Fire’s mission of evangelization - but felt they saw no other means of addressing a dysfunctional workplace at an influential apostolate. Sources emphasized they were speaking out because of their love for the Church, and their desire to see success in the apostolic work of Word on Fire staffers.

“This is the most dysfunctional company I’ve ever worked for,” one former staffer told The Pillar. “I have never seen anything like this at secular companies, and this is a Catholic organization.”

“I believe in Word on Fire and Bishop Barron’s ministry, but there is so much potential here, and the workplace needs to be a Christian environment,” another source said.

While some staff members said they were hopeful Word on Fire could be reformed, several said they were skeptical change would come without board and personnel changes. One staffer emphasized that Barron is “a gifted priest and prophet, but not good at leading an organization. And Fr. Steve is the same, so there is no one who is running functionally this large thing that Word on Fire has become.”

Some staffers told The Pillar they see ambiguity now about who is actually in charge at Word on Fire.

Grunow was not present at the Oct. 13 meeting, and has not been seen at Word on Fire since then. Several staffers said they have been told that Grunow is on a leave of absence, but others said they believe he has been involved in decision-making processes since at least February, and remains functionally in charge, even if from a distance.

A spokesman for Word on Fire told The Pillar that Grunow is “still employed by Word on Fire. He has not been suspended. He is not the subject of any investigation.”

The spokesman added that another employee, Sean Lee, is functioning as the “interim chief executive officer of Word on Fire.”

The Word on Fire spokesman also addressed charges about Word on Fire’s culture, and responded to accounts that Grunow threatened a staffer with termination.

“The insinuation that there is a ‘culture of hostility’ at Word on Fire associated with Fr. Stephen Grunow is simply absurd. Prior to the Joe Gloor incident, no complaint along these lines was ever made by anyone employed by Word on Fire,” the spokesman said.

“In order to protect the integrity of the Gloor investigation, independent counsel advised those aware of the investigation to maintain the strictest confidentiality. In his interaction with staff, Fr. Grunow followed that instruction, communicating the seriousness of the need for confidentiality. The need for confidentiality was communicated in an appropriately serious manner.”

Addressing charges that Word on Fire’s workplace culture favors men, or did not sufficiently listen to women making allegations, the spokesman said that “concerns of a ‘misogynistic’ culture are baseless.”

“Word on Fire could not perform its mission to spread the Gospel without the significant contributions of our talented female employees. In the history of the organization, two instances have occurred where women brought forth concerns regarding the workplace environment to the head of HR, and Word on Fire took swift action to remedy those concerns.”

One former employee said he has been most troubled by Word on Fire’s response to the criticism against it in recent months - both internally, where employees said they feel unheard, and externally, where the organization’s posture seems defensive.

“All we had to do was back in October say that we whiffed on the Joe thing and he was up to no good, and kind of using Word on Fire to achieve his ends. And we should have been more vigilant and we’re sorry, but Joe’s not Word on Fire; Word on Fire is bigger than this, let’s move and continue to do the good work that we’re doing, and we’re sorry,” one employee said.

“But every single time they’ve had an opportunity … if we took our own advice, and went out there and owned up to it, that would have been the right way to handle it.”

As a ministry urging accountability in the Church, “I think we’re held to a higher standard,” one source said. “And there’s a lot of people trying to address this internally, but nothing has changed.”

“We didn’t learn enough from the sex abuse scandal,” a former employee told The Pillar.

“Like, we just kind of left it at [addressing] serious sex abuse, and it’s like, well, what about workplace culture that can be really spiritually harmful? It’s no secret that parishes have stuff like this all the time, and ministries are ripe for this kind of stuff, and…how do you adjudicate these issues? How does the Church address this? Where do people go to talk about this?”

Several sources said they expect more staffers to resign from Word on Fire.

”Word on Fire has assembled a pretty awesome talent pool that could do so many great things,” one source said. “And you’ve got a lot of people now probably looking to walk away. And that’s a lot of unrealized potential.”

Ed. note: This report has been updated after publication to recount details of the Oct. 13, 2021 meeting, and to respect a request to better protect confidentiality of an alleged assault victim.

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