Former Lexington bishop is among clergy criticized for protecting abusive Pennsylvania priests

In this March 2013 file photo, then Bishop Ronald Gainer, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington, led a special Mass at Cathedral of Christ the King for newly elected Pope Francis.
In this March 2013 file photo, then Bishop Ronald Gainer, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington, led a special Mass at Cathedral of Christ the King for newly elected Pope Francis. Herald-Leader

A former longtime bishop of the Lexington Catholic Diocese has been accused of preventing the expulsion of a few priests in Pennsylvania where a grand jury exposed the widespread sexual abuse of children, according to multiple reports.

The 900-page report from the grand jury found more than 1,000 identifiable victims over a period of 70 years. It included descriptions of the rapes and abuse suffered by victims and names of abusers, according to the New York Times. Church leaders are accused of protecting more than 300 “predator priests” in six dioceses, including the Harrisburg, Penn., diocese led by Ronald Gainer.

Gainer was bishop of the Lexington diocese from 2002 to 2014; he left after being named the bishop in Harrisburg. He is also president of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

In 2014, Gainer asked the Vatican to not defrock two priests who had been suspended for sexual abuse, according to the grand jury report obtained by multiple news outlets. Joseph Pease was accused of fondling and performing oral sex on a 13-year-old boy, and confessed to at least one accusation, according to the grand jury report. The other, James Beeman, was accused and later admitted to repeatedly raping a girl, beginning when she was 8 years old, according to The Sentinel. For at least one of them, Gainer wanted to avoid “risking public knowledge of his crimes.”

Gainer wrote to the Vatican requesting Pease “live out his remaining years in prayer and penance,” and said Beeman’s scandal caused by his admission had been “sufficiently repaired,” according to the Post-Gazette and Sentinel..

The Harrisburg Diocese told the Sentinel that Gainer didn’t want a church trial to expel the men because both had “diminished mental capacity” as of 2014.

A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released August 14 says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses.

In a statement released Tuesday, Gainer acknowledged the sinfulness that was disclosed in the report and expressed sorrow for the survivors of child sex abuse.

“I read the grand jury Report on child sexual abuse with great sadness, for once again we read that innocent children were the victims of horrific acts committed against them,” Gainer said in a statement, according to Penn Live. “I am saddened because I know that behind every story is a child precious in God’s sight; a child who has been wounded by the sins of those who should have known better.”

“As I stressed last week when we released information regarding our own internal review of child sexual abuse in the Harrisburg Diocese, I acknowledge the sinfulness of those who have harmed these survivors, as well as the action and inaction of those in church leadership who failed to respond appropriately,” the bishop added.

Earlier this month, Gainer disclosed the names of 71 past and present clergy members affiliated with his local diocese who were accused of sexually abusing children. He also ordered the removal from diocesan property the names of the former bishops who failed to protect children from the priests accused of sexual misconduct, Penn Live reported.

He said the church leadership failed to protect children by not adequately responding to the allegations, many of which came from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Gainer was the second bishop in the six dioceses to come forward in disclosing names.

Less than two weeks later, the grand jury report was released and it was called by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro the “largest, most comprehensive report into child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church ever produced in the United States,” according to CNN.

In his statement Tuesday, Gainer said the church will continue to make amends for the past sins.

“We are committed to continuing and enhancing the positive changes made, to ensure these types of atrocities never occur again. Since the turn of the century, the church has instituted policies that take clear and decisive action to prevent future abuse,” he stated.

“I want children, parents, parishioners, students, staff, clergy and the public to know that our Churches and our schools are safe; there is nothing we take more seriously than the protection of those who walk through our doors,” he continued. “We send every and all complaints to the proper legal authorities. The safety and well-being of our children is too important not to take immediate and definitive action.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.