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Sanctity or Scandal: An Interview with Fr. Steve Grunow

January 9, 2019


Paul Senz of Our Sunday Visitor recently interviewed Word on Fire CEO Fr. Steve Grunow for an article on how priests are reacting to the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. You can read the published piece here, but below is the interview in its entirety.

OSV: State your name, diocese, ordination date and assignment.

Fr. Steve Grunow: Father Steve Grunow, Priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I reside in Santa Barbara, California. Full time assignment: CEO and Executive Producer for Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Ordained in 1997.

OSV: Please tell your vocation story.

FS: My vocation to the priesthood arose out of the conviction, born of an act of faith, that since God in Christ gave his life for me and did so without qualification or reservation, the proper response in faith to his gift is to offer my whole life to him.

OSV: What is your memory of the scandals of 2002?

FS: The scandalous crimes that were revealed in 2002 were a watershed event, I believe, not just for myself but for all priests, indeed for the whole Church. (I vividly remember all the priests of the Archdiocese being gathered together and fingerprinted and submitted to background checks.) As the extent of the crimes were revealed, we all watched as a mask of virtuous unrealities and pious pretense slipped off, and behind that mask was revealed a howling visage of diabolical evil and human stupidity. I was never naïve about the reality that inasmuch as human beings are in the Church, sin would also be in the Church, but the scope of these crimes and the violation of the innocent was shattering. The manner in which the crimes had been dealt with by the Church was baffling and seemed to indicate a lack of empathy antithetical to disciples of the Lord Jesus. Hearing testimony from victims of abuse and their family members was a visceral experience that felt like hearing Christ’s cry of abandonment on the cross. While I understand that we are all embedded in historical particularities that influence our understanding and decisions, I could not, and still cannot, understand the rationale that justified the approach that had been taken to these crimes.

OSV: What was the personal impact of the scandals of 2002?

FS: The result was a terrifying time of intense introspection, the result of which was an Abrahamic decision to move forward with only an act of faith to guide myself through a deep darkness. This act of faith increased my resolve to proclaim the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Church, which is under constant attack by devilish plotting and human iniquity. This reality of the beautiful, true, and good Church is not the institutional reality, but that of the Mystical Body of Christ, of which, at its best, the institutional reality can point towards but cannot be reduced to. We know this Mystical reality through the witness of the saints and the works of mercy, and see it also expressed in the great creative power of the Church as it seeks to evangelize civilization and culture. This Church as Christ’s Mystical Body casts light even as the institutional reality, the human reality (beset by sin and the devil), casts shadows. The task is to dispel the shadows with the light of Christ. Every age of the Church’s life is an age of scandal, and into every age of the Church’s life men and women are called forth to bear the light of Christ into the darkness of their times.

OSV: What are your thoughts about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report?

FS: Reading the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was like reading the script of a horror movie or the manuscript of a horror novel that, in a dramatic twist of the plot, turns out to be factual and true. The crimes described in that report are but one aspect of the horror; the other is the implication that the Church appears to be, according to the report, a network for criminal behavior. It is no wonder to me that many other states have followed suit with their own investigations of how these cases of abuse by the clergy were handled historically and whether or not persons of interest in these crimes still remain outside the demands of justice.

In my discussions with Bishop Barron and the Word on Fire leadership team about the report, I remarked that the impact of these crimes will be a reality of the Church’s life for some time. Indeed, it will take 500 years of saints to restore the Church’s credibility. It is important to remember that each victim of sexual abuse is embedded in a wide-ranging social network of family, friends, and communities, all of whom are justifiably angered and sickened by what has happened. No incident of sexual abuse is merely singular or an isolated incident, but the violation reaches out from the victim in a kind of ripple effect that encompasses hundreds, indeed thousands of people. The devastation and destruction unleashed by this crime is diabolical in its scope—thus, the absolute urgency of coming to terms with the historical realities and making sure that any incident of abuse is dealt with forthrightly. Many good protocols were put in place in the wake of the revelation of the crimes in 2002, and the Pennsylvania Report seemed to indicate this has had an effect, but the insidious nature of these crimes and the vigilance that is necessary to prevent their occurrence demands that all the pastors and laity of the universal Church commit themselves to a sea change in the Church’s internal culture.

OSV: What are your thoughts about the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick and the ensuing scandal associated with him?

FS: The allegations against Archbishop McCarrick reinforce the necessity of change. It seems to me that as a result of the McCarrick revelations that there needs to be a thorough examination of the protocols already in place, but also the introduction of new ones that deal specifically with the Church’s bishops. The allegations against McCarrick renew the scandals of 2002 inasmuch as they reveal that McCarrick, himself an architect of the Dallas Charter, is credibly accused of having sexually assaulted a minor, but also they expand the scandal to credible accusations that a high-ranking prelate used his office to sexually assault seminarians and priests. So many questions have arisen! Did McCarrick’s involvement in the development of the Dallas Charter explain the lacuna in regards to how allegations against bishops would be dealt with? And further, what real recourse does a seminarian or priest have if they are themselves victims of threatening or sexually coercive behavior by a bishop or superior? How many victims of the kind of abuse perpetrated by McCarrick are out there? Were his crimes isolated expressions of his pathological narcissism, or are there others like him in the hierarchy and more victims who either do not have the means or the support to speak? Finally, in the wake of the McCarrick revelations, can priests and seminarians still trust their bishops and superiors?

The scandal is escalating with the credibility of the Church’s hierarchy in shambles. I don’t know how the wound of the McCarrick situation can be healed without a full and transparent investigation into its causes and effects. The Holy Father has cited the significance of clericalism in all this—a reality for sure—but I prefer the perhaps more jarring language of how a narcissist and possibly a sociopath was enabled to advance into the highest echelons of the hierarchy and what can be done to prevent such types from advancing in the future. The Church in its institutional reality is a human society, and human societies must work diligently to protect the vulnerable from those who would inflict harm, but also work tirelessly to assure that the narcissist and the sociopath are kept from positions of power.

The damage to the credibility of the hierarchy is no small thing, as it undermines the work of the Church in every way. It also leads to a diabolical scattering of the faithful. It is no surprise that the divisions in the Church, which have been simmering for decades, are now reaching a rolling boil. In the current cacophony of the Catholic commentariat, it seems the voices of the victims are drowned out by divisive rhetoric and ideological posturing. The lack of trust, the scapegoating, and the defensiveness all indicate this scattering effect.

The aftereffect of the 2002 scandal was that priests lost their moral authority. The clerical collar, once an indicator of a trusted person, became associated with shameful and diabolical behavior. As a result of the Pennsylvania Report and the McCarrick revelations, all this has again been exacerbated. The social benefit of being a priest has been drastically reduced, as has the appeal that it is a credible way of life. Being a Catholic is also associated with living in association or even acceptance of terrible corruption. A Church that is struggling already with attrition finds itself in an even more difficult situation vis-à-vis the missionary mandate of the Gospel.

OSV: Any personal thoughts regarding the impact of the current scandals on your own pastoral/apostolic work?

FS: The Pennsylvania and the McCarrick scandals broke while Bishop Barron was on a missionary tour of Ireland and the UK, and when he returned he immediately convened his leadership team at Word on Fire, comprised of myself and the lay directors of the apostolate. Not only did this provide an opportunity for conversation and for us to receive his pastoral direction, but also we spoke frankly about what we were all thinking and feeling. The fruit of this was the production of two videos by Bishop Barron: one a Q&A and the other an impassioned plea that we all claim this moment as a time to work tirelessly for the reform and renewal of the Church. These videos, which were viewed well over a million times and shared widely, gave me hope inasmuch as they represented how the collaborative work of a bishop with a priest and the laity could cast some light into a gathering dark. I do think that it is absolutely necessary that the bishops work with the laity in regard to the scandals that have enveloped us, or the darkness will continue to overtake the Church, and we will remain behind, rather than ahead of, these crimes.

But I feel I must also stress this: credibility will not come from videos, or a post on social media, or policies, or procedures. Nor will it be granted immediately as the result of a synod or a speech. These all can help us, if they are directed by faith and charity, but they cannot save the day or restore what is lost. Credibility will only come from saints—and this is the hard way the Church seems called by the Lord to go. Sanctity is not easy, and perhaps this is why there seems to be a preference during this time of crisis for distractions, particularly those born of ideological preferences. I can understand the retreat into distractions, but the reality is that we all face a decision right now for sanctity or scandal. Sanctity cannot be coerced. We all have to choose.