The second half of Bishop Ronald Gainer’s nine-year Episcopacy in Harrisburg have been times of challenge, seeking forgiveness and forging new paths forward in hope.
Beginning with the 2018 release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on the sexual abuse of children by priests, and through the closing of churches and schools in response to the first waves of the COVID pandemic reaching the country in the spring of 2020, Bishop Gainer was the shepherd keeping the Diocese on course with its focus on Christ.
“I’ve seen Bishop in very unpleasant situations and in difficult decisions, and he’s always led with measured words and never lost a gentlemanly demeanor,” said Father Jonathan Sawicki, who has served as Diocesan Vocations Director and pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Steelton prior to his appointment at St. Theresa Parish in New Cumberland later this month.
“When I think of Bishop Gainer’s leadership, I think of the words in the Order of Installation of a New Pastor: ‘Always be a loving father, a gentle shepherd, and a wise teacher of your people, so that you may lead them to Christ who will strengthen all that you do.’ I think his example in that sense is something he has cultivated even in his own persona,” Father Sawicki said.
When the Grand Jury Report on the sexual abuse of children by priests in six Dioceses in Pennsylvania was released in August of 2018, the Diocese of Harrisburg, under the leadership of Bishop Gainer, responded unequivocally, making public the names of its accused, launching a youth protection website and aggressive youth protection practices and developing a survivors’ compensation fund.
“I want to take this opportunity to express my sadness that youth under the Church’s supervision were abused. Many of those victimized as children continue, as survivors, to suffer from the harm they experienced. In my own name, and in the name of the Diocesan Church of Harrisburg, I express our profound sorrow and apologize to the survivors of child sex abuse, the Catholic faithful and the general public for the abuses that took place and for those Church officials who failed to protect children,” the bishop said.
In January and February of 2019, he listened as parishioners and members of the general public voiced anger, frustrations and questions about the scandal during nine deanery-wide listening sessions.
“Tonight is an opportunity to have a frank and open conversation about the past, present and future of the Church,” he said during the gatherings. With attendance varying from 140 to more than 400 at some sessions, he spoke to more than 2,240 people in total who turned out.
The sessions were filled with raw emotion, and were a necessary step in the healing process for the Diocese.
Apologizing and making amends for the sins of our past, he stressed that we must continue working to enhance positive changes put in place to ensure these types of atrocities never occur again. “During my tenure as Bishop of the Diocese, I have a zero-tolerance policy with respect to child sexual abuse…. The safety and well-being of our children is too important not to take immediate and definitive action,” he said.
As the Diocese’s Victim Assistance Coordinator, Kelly Gollick has seen first-hand Bishop Gainer’s sincere compassion for survivors of sexual abuse and unwavering commitment to ensure it never happens again.
“He has been strong in shepherding us and shepherding the survivors. He never hid from the scandal, he knows it was a horrible wrongdoing, and he wants to do what we can to support those who are in need of healing,” said Gollick. “In speaking with him about the clergy abuse, he was also concerned about rebuilding people’s trust in the Church and taking steps to preventing abuse in the future.”
Prompted by legal costs and harsh financial consequences for the local Church, the Diocese filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code in February 2020. Filing for Reorganization allowed the Diocese to continue its ministry work, while also equitably compensating its creditors.
“When I think about our current situation and the future, I cannot help but think about what it will take to rebuild and strengthen our Diocese as we move forward. You cannot build anything without a strong and solid foundation,” Bishop Gainer said during the filing.
The reorganization was a lengthy and arduous process, and one that was finalized in March of this year, during which time the Diocese established a trust fund for financial compensation for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
“In addition to establishing the trust, we will continue to offer mental, spiritual and pastoral counseling to survivors, if they so desire. We will work tirelessly so all survivors know that the Church cares for them. Our foremost concern will be their emotional and spiritual welfare and we will continue to offer survivors immediate, loving and compassionate care,” the bishop said in March.
The unchartered waters and safety precautions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic also called upon the leadership of the bishop, especially in a time when there were more questions than answers on how to navigate the worldwide health crisis.
On March 16, 2020, he announced the unprecedented suspension of Masses and the closing of churches to the public, and issued a wealth of precautions as parishes and schools transitioned to new ways of bringing liturgies, ministries and education into the homes of the people.
“For Catholics, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our life in Christ, strengthening us to remain firm in our faith as we journey through this life. Making this difficult decision to temporarily suspend Masses and close our churches was not made lightly,” Bishop Gainer said. “Rather, this decision has been made after careful discussions and considerable reflection on the advice being provided from healthcare professionals. I deeply care for all those members of my flock. As chief shepherd, it is my duty to see to their spiritual health, and now in these challenging times, also to their physical welfare.”
The reinstatement of the obligation to return to Mass on August 15, 2021, was a welcome and joyful occasion for the faithful, and “a moment to thank God anew for the great gift of the Holy Mass and the Real Presence of Jesus in His Holy Body and Blood as well as for the joy of gathering together as a believing community of faith,” the bishop expressed.
The pandemic posed uncharted waters for the Diocese’s Catholic schools as well. But under the leadership of Bishop Gainer and Secretary for Education Daniel Breen, our schools hit the ground running with remote learning just days after the March 13, 2020, stay-at-home orders, and their ability to safely return to in-person learning in the fall were a testament to leadership at the Diocesan and school levels.
“During Covid, Bishop Gainer provided a steady hand, helping us sort through all the challenges in the schools. He saw the need for us to have a consistent approach to COVID mitigation efforts and was always generous with me in providing the time and guidance I needed in order to help the schools,” said Breen.
“For Bishop Gainer’s leadership team to come up with some universal guidelines for all of our schools was exceptionally helpful for those of us in leadership positions. Without that, we would each have had to create those on our own,” said Katie Seufert, principal of York Catholic Middle and High School. “The pressures we were receiving from all sides of the spectrum regarding whether to stay open or to close, whether to wear masks or not have masks, were enormous. For the Diocese to say, ‘We’re going to make this decision for all of you’ was huge because it allowed us to focus on the logistics of coordinating the effort as opposed to creating all of the guidelines while trying to make it all happen. I was exceptionally grateful to the Diocese for doing that.”
“It was absolutely the most challenging historical experience that any of our Catholic school students have ever seen in their lives,” she said of the pandemic. “Closing our schools entirely could have been exponentially detrimental for our students, not only academically but for their overall wellbeing because socialization is such a huge component of their development.”
Jeff Hughes, principal of Resurrection Catholic School in Lancaster, said he was grateful for the Diocese’s decision to re-open the schools in the fall because “it indicated that we could take the lead in Central Pennsylvania.”
“That’s not to say it wasn’t hard. Leadership worked at the re-opening plan, teachers worked exceptionally hard at following protocols, even the students got used to staying six-feet apart from one another,” Hughes said. “As a result, our parents took notice, and our enrollment grew from 103 to nearly 120 that year, and we’ve continued to see growth, and I truly believe it’s because we remained open. That’s all based on the bishop’s leadership.”
The frustrations, anger, uncertainty and challenges brought on by the Grand Jury Report, the reorganization process and the COVID-19 pandemic were unprecedented, but the Diocese met them head-on and with grace, under the leadership of Bishop Gainer.
Reflecting on these challenges, he said in an interview in late May that through them all, his effort was “to keep our Church on course, to keep the focus on Christ, to remain hope-filled and to not abandon the mission that we’re about in sanctifying, shepherding and teaching.”
“I hope that as we handled each of these crises, we continued the course of what we needed to be doing, and that is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and to show love for our neighbors through our charitable outreach work. I would hope that would be an actual achievement – nothing that I’ve done personally – that we could all together continue to keep our focus and continue to make progress in the direction the Lord wants us to travel, despite those extraordinary challenges of the last nine years.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness