New Lexington Bishop Outgoing, Outspoken
Gainer Doesn't Shy from Issues Involving Priests or Social Matters

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal
Downloaded March 8, 2004

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Just four months after being selected to lead the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Ron Gainer went to his first national conference of bishops and was told by veteran colleagues, "Congratulations. This used to be a lot more fun."

Becoming bishop at the height of the church's sexual-abuse scandal and replacing a bishop who resigned over abuse allegations, Gainer might have been tempted to lie low.

Instead, since his ordination as bishop in early 2003, the Pennsylvania native has returned an accused priest to work, ordered a serial offender to stay at a treatment center indefinitely and excommunicated a priest who joined a splinter church.

And although some critics say bishops should be the last to offer moral guidance these days, Gainer has been speaking out against such things as same-sex marriage, abortion and for-profit prisons.

"There are many who ... say the church ought to be silent until we get our whole house in order," said Gainer, 56, who acknowledged that this is a "time for the church to houseclean." But, he said, "it can't paralyze us in the other dimensions where we need to interact with society."

Gainer's predecessor, Bishop J. Kendrick Williams, had served the mostly rural, 50-county diocese since its founding in 1988, but resigned in 2002 after three men sued the Archdiocese of Louisville, alleging that Williams had sexually or emotionally abused them when he was a priest in the archdiocese.

Jane Chiles of Lexington, former executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the lobbying arm of the state's bishops, said Gainer has handled his challenging situation well since arriving from Allentown, Pa.

He "has worked very hard to establish his style of leadership" while showing openness "to people in the diocese who either sympathize with Bishop Williams or have other strong feelings of disappointment in Bishop Williams," said Chiles, who serves on a National Review Board monitoring bishops' response to the sexual-abuse crisis.

Louisville Archbishop Thomas Kelly agreed that Gainer "came into a most difficult situation and he has dealt with it very well. It's not as if anybody could heal all of that at once, but he's certainly got the personality and the faith to help make that happen."

As the provincial bishop for Kentucky and Tennessee, Kelly presided over Gainer's ordination but said he does not supervise him. Gainer "brings with him a wealth of experience from Allentown," Kelly said. "He's got the background for the job."

Sister Robbie Pentecost, director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, said Gainer "knows there are concerns and encourages dialogue. He certainly has brought some healing to the diocese by his gentle presence."

But Kay Montgomery, Central Kentucky director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, faulted Gainer's response to the abuse crisis, in particular for restoring an accused priest to ministry.

At first, "we were all very glad to see a young bishop," said Montgomery, noting that abuse victims and their advocates were pleased with Gainer's initial statements that he would not handle cases in secrecy.

"He said it was going to be totally transparent," Montgomery said. "I just don't see that happening. We still remain in secrecy with a lot of things."

Reinstatement debate

Gainer's reinstatement of the Rev. William G. Poole in December has been one of his biggest controversies.

A diocesan administrator who served as interim chief of the diocese after Williams resigned had suspended Poole in 2002 after learning that he had twice been arrested on sex-related charges in a park.

Neither offense involved children, but the Diocese of Covington paid a settlement last year to a man who accused Poole of abusing him as a boy in the 1970s. (The Diocese of Lexington was created out of sections of the Covington and Louisville dioceses; Poole had served under Covington's jurisdiction at the time.)

Gainer said he and Lexington's review board concluded that the claim was not credible.

"When you do have somebody who vehemently protests his innocence, then you've got to look to the substantive proofs that are brought forward," Gainer said. "If they are inconclusive or not credible, then it becomes a matter of justice regarding the individual priest's right to be recognized as a priest and to function as such."

Montgomery said the Diocese of Covington found the accusation credible. "Why Lexington has chosen to take a different approach on that, I just don't understand," she said.

Gainer said he's worked hard to deal openly with the abuse crisis.

"There have been so many allegations in the past (in which) the church turned a deaf ear or cold shoulder to victims when they came forward," he said. "There's no bishop that wants to risk that perception or that kind of performance today. So when we deal with someone who comes forward and identifies herself or himself as a victim, we want to err with generosity."

In another high-profile case, Gainer agreed with victims' desires to keep a 97-year-old retired priest, Leonard Nienaber, in a Missouri treatment center beyond the conclusion of his 10-year sentence on multiple counts of abuse.

`He's very accessible'

The Rev. William Bush, pastor of St. Luke Church in Nicholasville, said he sees Gainer as clearly proclaiming Catholic teachings and acting as "an excellent role model." He noted that Gainer traveled to a recent anti-abortion march and heard confessions from young people on the trip.

"He's very accessible to priests and people," he said.

Although some had lauded Williams' work in launching the diocese and building ties with Protestants, critics called him too liberal and reluctant to emphasize some traditional Catholic devotions.

Some Lexington Catholics had complained to the Vatican that Williams blurred the distinctive role of priests by appointing nuns, brothers, deacons and lay people to administer small parishes during a priest shortage.

But Gainer said he plans to continue the program, which has 15 "pastoral directors" working among the diocese's 64 congregations.

"I do not believe at present that there is any abuse on the part of any of the lay ministers where they are usurping the prerogatives of the priest," Gainer said. "But I do believe perhaps we need to bring more clarity" to their responsibilities.

Gainer said he keeps in touch with Williams and has occasional meals with him. Williams is "living privately outside the Diocese of Lexington" and is no longer doing public ministry, Gainer said. Williams declined to comment for this article.

Becoming bishop

Before coming to Kentucky, Gainer spent all of his life in his native Eastern Pennsylvania except for two years studying in Rome.

His father is deceased, but his mother has witnessed high points in his career, including his consecration as bishop last year. Gainer said his parents supported him, "but always told me right up to the end of seminary" that the decision on becoming a priest was his alone.

Ordained in 1973, Gainer rose steadily through the administrative ranks of the Diocese of Allentown.

He said that with his workload as bishop, he has to struggle to maintain a daily routine of prayer and Mass and to pursue hobbies such as cooking. Traveling widely through the far-flung diocese, he tries when possible to attend his parish, the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington.

The Pennsylvania coal country native said he feels "very comfortable with the people" in Eastern Kentucky, whose economic problems are familiar. "Many of my high school friends who went away for some education or training just left the area," he said.

But whereas the part-Slovak Gainer grew up around Catholic immigrant families in Pennsylvania, Catholic numbers aren't great in Eastern Kentucky.

Cooperative ventures?

Gainer said he hopes to get more involved in cooperative ventures with the Protestant majority. But "at this point, there's so much focus on things going on within the church and getting a grasp locally."

Beginning last month, Gainer started holding a series of regional Masses and town-meeting-like forums for the diocese's 45,000 Catholics.

"Certainly they have questions, and I want to be able to provide contexts in which those questions can be asked and responded to candidly," he said.

Gainer said he hopes some questions were answered with the diocese's release last month of statistics showing that it paid $159,000 in all abuse-related expenses.

In contrast, its parent dioceses of Covington and Louisville have paid about $14 million and $26 million, respectively, to settle claims dating back 50 years.

All incidents in what is now Lexington's territory allegedly occurred before 1988, when the diocese was created. But even with Lexington's low payouts, Gainer said diocesan finances are tight, and the diocese has frozen two vacant positions.

Gainer last year excommunicated a priest, the Rev. Kenneth Waibel, who affiliated with a separate religious group, the Orthodox Catholic Church of America. Gainer said that under church law, affiliating with another church "carries with it an automatic suspension or excommunication of the priest."

Gainer also has spoken out against a Massachusetts court ruling authorizing same-sex marriages and against proposals in Lexington to extend benefits to unmarried domestic partners of employees.

"I do believe there are questions of justice for everyone who's an employee of the city," he said. "But I believe it would deteriorate the fabric of our society to begin to extend those benefits at the risk of diminishing our understanding of marriage and family life."

Andrea Hildebran of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a gay-rights group, said it's "unfortunate for any leader in our community and certainly a person of faith to advocate that families not be able to take care of each other."

Pentecost said Gainer is following the model of Pope John Paul II, a conservative on sexual issues while "very progressive" in social and economic matters.

On a recent visit to Eastern Kentucky to discuss issues related to mountaintop mining, "he heard the issues from the people themselves" and put them in touch with the diocese's social justice coordinator, Pentecost said of Gainer.

"Many conservative bishops might have backed off," she said. "I feel like we've lucked out."


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