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Word on Fire and the limits of canon law

Bishop Robert Barron. Credit: Word on Fire.

A set of allegations emerged late last week which accused Catholic media apostolate Word on Fire and its leadership of mishandling an investigation into sexual misconduct on the part of an employee.

Because Word on Fire is not a canonical entity, the accusations are not likely to lead to an ecclesiastical investigation of any kind. But as Pope Francis contemplates changes to Vos estis lux mundi, his 2019 policy on investigating allegations against bishops, the criticism of Word on Fire could lead to a kind of “Barron Rule,” which aims to regulate the “side gigs” of ecclesiastical leaders running religious nonprofits in their spare time.

Accusations of employee mismanagement by Word on Fire and its founder, Bishop Robert Barron, were first raised publicly April 30 by Catholic writer Chris Damian.

A senior Word on Fire employee, Joseph Gloor, was in August 2021 accused of sexual misconduct. The allegation was investigated by an outside law firm, which, according to Barron, found that Gloor had engaged in inappropriate conduct and made “unwelcome” sexual advances toward a woman who did not work at Word on Fire, but with whom he had reportedly had a long-term relationship.

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.

The bishop told staff 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 that after an alleged victim of Gloor’s misconduct made a social media post about it, the process accelerated: Gloor was fired that day, with the board’s approval and Barron’s “strong recommendation.”

It turned out the alleged victim hadn’t actually made such a social media post, but Barron didn’t know that when Gloor was fired. Still, according to the transcript of the Oct. 13 meeting, some employees told Barron that his handling of the matter made them uncomfortable because they had not been told that Gloor was under investigation, and because his firing seemed mostly a response to the prospect of a public relations problem for Word on Fire.

Others at the meeting made additional charges against Gloor at the meeting, or charged that Word on Fire CEO Fr. Steve Grunow fostered a culture of intimidation in the workplace, which impeded the prospect of raising concerns — one employee claimed Grunow threatened to terminate employees who discussed allegations against Gloor. Still others asked whether Barron and Grunow had a bias in favor of Gloor, who was known to be their friend.

After the meeting, some former employees raised concern that Barron had identified the woman who made an allegation against Gloor, when her identity had not otherwise been known to most Word on Fire employees, and some continued to allege intimidation in the workplace at Word on Fire.

Barron, for his part, said that he had followed protocol, noting at the meeting that “there’s no cover-up involved…from the first minute we got this information, we reacted to it in very appropriate ways.”

The bishop also said during the meeting that he was open to hearing more about the prospect of fear or intimidation in the offices of Word on Fire.

After the issues were made public last week, Word on Fire issued a statement Monday which said the organization “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,” the statement said.

The allegations have predictably led to debate among some Catholics about Word on Fire, its culture, its mission in the Church, and about Barron: the apostolate’s founder, frontman, and a member of its board of directors.

On social media and at Damian’s website, some former employees have pushed back on the Word on Fire statement, alleging an unhealthy work environment, which one described as misogynistic and another characterized as “toxic.”

Some affiliated with Word on Fire have defended the organization, and some employees expressed support for Barron during the Oct. 13 meeting itself. Some observers have said that Barron seems to have followed protocol, that Gloor was fired, and the workplace disagreements are not evidence of a major scandal. Others say that underlying concerns have not been addressed.

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It is not clear what next will happen. There may emerge new allegations about the culture or environment at Word on Fire. Barron and the organization may issue new statements or clarifications. Or the entire thing might drop from public attention with the next turn in the Catholic news cycle.

But whatever happens in the public eye - and whether allegations are true or not - the criticisms of Word on Fire will almost certainly not be investigated by ecclesiastical authorities.

That poses something of a problem for both Barron and his critics — if the bishop has acted rightly, he’s got almost no shot at being cleared by the Church, and, on the other hand, those raising the concern have little chance of feeling that their concerns were addressed by the most appropriate authority, the Church.

In fact, The Pillar has confirmed that at least one former employee of Word on Fire raised concerns through a misconduct reporting system established in 2019 by the U.S. bishops. But even if the claims are judged plausible, Bishop Barron likely won’t see an ecclesiastical investigation, because of the limits of the Church’s jurisdiction.

While Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 policy promulgated by Pope Francis on investigating allegations against bishops, limits its scope to clerics and religious, the pope has more recently expanded the Church’s penal law to include the prospect of sanctioning laity with ecclesiastical offices if they committed certain kinds of sexual misconduct.

And since Vos estis makes clear that charges a bishop impeded or mishandled an allegation of sexual misconduct can be investigated by ecclesiastical authorities, it seems reasonable that allegations Barron did so — true or not — might be investigated under the aegis of the pope’s policies.

But the Church's canon law doesn’t have much reach into Word on Fire, or Bishop Barron’s involvement there; it would be hard to find clear jurisdictional grounds for an ecclesiastical investigation into the concerns raised about Barron.

Word on Fire is a nonprofit organization in the state of Illinois, and it is principally regarded as Barron’s apostolic project. But Barron’s actual day job in the Church is to be an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles — he is assigned as the episcopal vicar for the Santa Barbara pastoral region of the L.A. archdiocese.

Word on Fire is, in effect, Barron’s side gig. And the apostolate is not organized or juridically recognized as an ecclesiastical entity - not an association of the faithful, a juridic person, or some other definitive Catholic reality. Neither is it an apostolate of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It is, corporately, a nonprofit which happens to be fronted by a bishop, with another cleric at the helm.

When Barron makes decisions at Word on Fire, he’s not exercising ecclesiastical power or authority, properly speaking. And when Word on Fire employees face accusations, they don’t do so as ecclesiastical functionaries of any kind. Though led by a bishop, the entire thing sits just outside the scope of most actual canon law.

The Church could technically investigate the conduct of a bishop anytime, but a look into charges at Word on Fire would not be guided by the Church’s norms on governance, organizational management, or misconduct investigation. And it’s hard to see what the outcome could be.

On his own authority, Los Angeles’ Archbishop Jose Gomez could ask Barron to explain the situation, and even to step back from Word on Fire if he thought it appropriate. But actions like that don’t seem the archbishop’s style - and without a formal investigation, it’s unlikely Gomez would see any such step as necessary.

Still, if a budding controversy about Word on Fire generates more attention, the limits of the Church’s authority to intervene may become more apparent — and if the whole affair becomes a well-known public scandal, those limits will be seen by at least some Catholics as excuses from engaging, rather than fundamental legal realities. And since Pope Francis will soon be contemplating changes to Vos estis lux mundi — whose three-year ad experimentum period is drawing to a close — the pope may well decide to change a situation that could be regarded as a kind of loophole in the Church’s law.

It is hard to envision how the situation could be addressed by revisions to Vos estis lux mundi itself. But Pope Francis has proven himself willing to tinker with norms of canon law as he sees fit. It is possible that the pope might choose to extend the provisions of canon 286, which forbids clerics from running businesses, to limit their ability to run nonprofits that are not recognized ecclesiastical entities.

If non-canonical nonprofits had to become canonical entities, they would become obliged to the norms of canon law regarding management and financial administration, and their operational documents would need to be approved by ecclesiastical authorities. In principle, that would give diocesan bishops the ability to ensure best practices well before allegations of scandal and mismanagement, which have arisen at Word on Fire, but at much smaller clerical nonprofits as well.

That decision might get a lot of pushback from clerics administering charities or religious apostolates without formal ecclesiastical identities. But in such situations there is potential for real scandal, which is mostly outside the Church’s reach to prevent. That creates the potential for conflict between what the Church can actually do, and what most Catholics would expect it to do. Francis might decide that as he revises his policies on Church accountability, it’s the right time to mitigate that risk.

Whatever has happened at Word on Fire - whether Barron and company acted rightly or not - the situation could prompt an effort to ensure that clerical side gigs are better regulated, and that the next time issues are raised, there is no question of the Church’s jurisdictional competence.