Lexington's Ronald Gainer named bishop at Harrisburg, Pa., diocese

Gainer, left, attended a rally at Phoenix Park in March of 2012 to protest the Obama administration's ruling that health insurance plans must cover birth control.
Gainer, left, attended a rally at Phoenix Park in March of 2012 to protest the Obama administration's ruling that health insurance plans must cover birth control. Lexington Herald-Leader

Pope Francis has named Lexington Bishop Ronald W. Gainer to be the new bishop of the Catholic diocese in Harrisburg, Pa.

Gainer, 66, is a native of Pottsville, Pa., and was ordained a priest for the Allentown, Pa., diocese in 1973. He has been bishop of Lexington since 2003.

In a statement issued by the Diocese of Lexington, Gainer said he was "completely surprised and, quite frankly, stunned by the news of my transfer. I willingly and happily accept our Supreme Pastor's decision as God's will for us and for me."

An announcement from the Vatican on Friday said Gainer would succeed the late Joseph McFadden, who died in May. Gainer was introduced to the Diocese of Harrisburg Friday at the Harrisburg Catholic Center.

Once Gainer takes over in Harrisburg, the Diocese of Lexington's College of Consultors, a standing body of priests, will elect an administrator for the diocese. That person will oversee operations until the pope appoints a new bishop for Lexington. Such appointments usually take some months, according to the diocese.

Gainer, a coal miner's grandson, was a monsignor in Allentown in December 2002, when Pope John Paul II named him to be bishop of Lexington. Gainer was installed as Lexington's bishop in February 2003.

"In the coming weeks there will be opportunities for me to express my sincere gratitude to all of the faithful of the diocese and to say our good-bys," Gainer said in his statement. "For now, I humbly ask for a remembrance in your daily prayers and at Mass ...

"Pray especially for the faithful of the Harrisburg Diocese as I prepare to join them as their shepherd ..."

While in Lexington, Gainer took a generally conservative stance that pleased many Catholic traditionalists, but rubbed some others the wrong way.

In 2004 Gainer made it known that he wanted pro-choice Catholic politicians in the diocese to voluntarily refrain from taking Communion.

Deborah Burton, who was a member of a conservative Catholic group in Lexington when Gainer arrived, said at the time that Gainer didn't "mince words" on key issues and "doesn't apologize."

But Linda Piwowarski, a former assistant editor of the diocese newspaper, said in 2004 that Gainer was "using the sacraments as a stick" against dissenters. She called his style "hierarchical and autocratic."

Gainer also participated in some liberal causes. In 2012 he was part of a rally in downtown Lexington calling for immigration reform. He joined other Kentucky bishops in 2008 in calling for the commutation of a death sentence against a Kentucky prisoner who had asked to be put to death. The inmate, Marco Allen Chapman, ultimately was executed.

Gainer wrote a letter to members of the Lexington diocese in November 2008 stressing the church's stance against abortion. He wrote that while there were many issues voters might consider, the sacredness of human life was "the paramount issue of our time."

Gainer said in an interview then that he expected some resistance to his statement but that the church's position should be heard.

"We have a right to raise our voices in the public square," he said.

While in Lexington, Gainer gave lifetime suspensions to at least two priests alleged to have abused children. But he didn't make the facts public until news reports of the cases were about to be published. Some critics argued that the diocese should have quickly released its findings in such cases.

The Harrisburg diocese said Gainer has served in parish, campus ministry, marriages and family, and tribunal positions during his priesthood.

He will be installed March 19 as bishop of the diocese, which is made up of 15 central Pennsylvania counties and according to officials has almost 250,000 registered Catholics.

The Lexington diocese has almost 45,600 members in 50 Central and Eastern Kentucky counties.

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