When a celebrity becomes a bishop: Will Barron set aside Word on Fire for his new diocese?

Bishop Robert Barron could pose a historic first contradiction between two mandates for bishops.

Bishop Robert Barron. Photo courtesy of Word on Fire

(RNS) — In the Roman Catholic Church, a bishop is meant to be “bound” to his diocese as a husband to his wife. But also, a bishop should “strive to make use of the various media at hand nowadays for proclaiming Christian doctrine.” In a 2,000-year-old church, it’s very rare to come across something genuinely new. But Bishop Robert Barron could pose a historic first contradiction between those two mandates for bishops.

Originally a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and rector of Chicago’s seminary, Barron rose to fame in 2011 when Word on Fire, a Catholic media organization he created in 2000, released a 10-part documentary, Catholicism, that ran on PBS stations and attracted considerable positive attention from Catholics and non-Catholics. In 2015, Pope Francis appointed Barron to be auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and, on June 2, the pope named Barron the new bishop of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota.

Even now, Barron continues to function actively as Word on Fire’s founder and a member of its board of directors. His image is ubiquitous on the organization’s webpage. Despite the popularity of Word on Fire’s media products — which now come as podcast episodes, prayer resources, YouTube reflections and more — Barron has been a somewhat divisive figure. The Catholicism Barron’s Word on Fire celebrates and promotes has garnered disapproval from all sides of the divided Catholic Church. He has been criticized in Crisis Magazine and in the National Catholic Reporter, a fact my friend Bill McCormick, SJ, celebrated in America magazine to suggest Barron must be doing “something right.”

There is no need for us to wade this week into the waters of whether Barron tilts to the right or to the left. There is plenty more to focus on.

When Pope Francis appointed Barron to Winona-Rochester on June 2, the word reached Catholics scarcely hours after the National Catholic Reporter published a story detailing a “toxic culture” inside Word on Fire. That reporting followed work done by attorney and independent writer Chris Damian, who first broke the story in April.

Joseph Gloor, until recently the highest-paid employee at Word on Fire, had been accused of sexual abuse and harassment by a woman with whom he had been in a relationship. Word on Fire has been careful to emphasize the misconduct took place outside the workplace. But the reporting Damian and NCR have done calls attention to something else. Employees inside Word on Fire have told reporters some troubling things about the internal investigation into Gloor.

“If anybody talks about this, they’re fired on the spot,” Father Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire, told employees, according to NCR reporting. Barron denies having known about those threats. But Barron did defend Grunow, urging employees to pray for him because the Gloor affair had “been a tough, tough time for” Grunow. Barron also praised Gloor on a staff phone call, saying the investigation had been “a difficult period” for Gloor and that Gloor “loved Word on Fire with his whole heart and soul.”

The lack of transparency, the intimidations surrounding the investigation and the palpable reluctance to support survivors of sexual abuse are a bad look for a Catholic apostolate more than two decades after revelations about the sexual abuse of minors rocked the church. The Catholic Church often reassures Catholics that it has learned a lot from those events and that it has learned to listen to survivors of sexual abuse.

A new bishop of Winona-Rochester who skeptically referred to women who reported sexual misconduct as “accusers” might raise some uncomfortable questions in his new diocese that paid a $21.5M settlement to survivors of sexual abuse only last year. Bishop Barron has not managed to come off sounding sympathetic to survivors. But perhaps the problem is even deeper.

The plain fact is that Bishop Barron is a celebrity. His biography on Word on Fire and his Wikipedia page both boast about his 25 million YouTube views and his 1.5 million Facebook followers. But more than that, Bishop Barron has cultivated celebrity. Assessing a priest and bishop who has built a media empire with himself so visibly always at the center, it is challenging to reach a different conclusion. And celebrity has one overriding goal — to protect the brand.

The way we find Barron in that NCR report, stubbornly downplaying the allegations and sympathizing with both Gloor and Grunow, seems a lot like protecting the brand. It also recalls the reason why so many generations of Catholic bishops transferred abusive priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to law enforcement: to protect the good name of the church, to protect the brand.

When he was appointed to Winona-Rochester, Bishop Barron issued a statement about the future of Word on Fire. It was filled with “we” and “our” statements. We have had no definitive signal from Barron that he will step aside from Word on Fire as he becomes the “spiritual father to the priests and people (of Winona-Rochester) who have been entrusted to his care.” And that could pose a historic problem.

In his First Letter to Timothy, Saint Paul writes that a bishop must be a “husband of one wife.”  Bishop Barron indeed has made “use of the various media at hand nowadays.” No question about that. But his devotion to the people of Winona-Rochester appears to be an open question while he retains — for want of a better way of saying it — his “first wife” in Word on Fire. And the lengths to which Bishop Barron has been willing to go in defense of his “first wife” should be troubling to the people in southern Minnesota entrusted to his care.

Most of all, it should be troubling to the survivors of abuse, those who love them and those concerned that the Catholic Church may never escape the harm done by bishops who would sacrifice vulnerable people to protect the church’s good name and their own.

(Steven P. Millies is professor of public theology and director of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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