The Rev. Robert Nugent dies at 76; priest who supported gays, lesbians

Father Robert Nugent in 1999 with letters of support in the background. He and Sister Jeannine Gramick were banned by the Vatican from their ministry to gays and lesbians.
Father Robert Nugent in 1999 with letters of support in the background. He and Sister Jeannine Gramick were banned by the Vatican from their ministry to gays and lesbians. (Elizabeth Malby, Baltimore Sun)
Tribune Newspapers

The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Roman Catholic priest whose support of gays and lesbians in the church brought the Vatican's censure, ending his public role as an advocate for reconciling church doctrines with the realities of gay life, died Wednesday in Milwaukee. He was 76.

The cause was cancer, said Sister Jeannine Gramick, the nun with whom he founded New Ways Ministry in 1977 to educate the church about gay and lesbian Catholics and advocate for their acceptance.


For more than two decades, Rev. Nugent traveled the country with Sister Gramick to counsel gay Catholics, give workshops for Catholic clergy and lay people, and write books on gays in the church. But their Maryland-based organization quickly brought challenges from American Catholic authorities and the church hierarchy in Rome.

In 1984, Archbishop James A. Hickey of Washington ordered Rev. Nugent and Sister Gramick out of the diocese and forced their resignations from New Ways Ministry.

They continued to speak and write about gays in the church, however, spurring the creation of a commission headed by Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit to examine whether Rev. Nugent and Sister Gramick were undermining church teachings on homosexuality.

That investigation was transferred in 1995 to the powerful Vatican office headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the conservative prelate who would become Pope Benedict XVI. His office concluded in 1999 that the American priest and nun had shown "ambiguities and errors" in their public statements about church doctrine regarding homosexuality. They were ordered to end their ministry and barred from holding office within their religious orders.

Rev. Nugent, who had said he thought of himself as "a typical Irish Catholic priest," accepted the silencing.

Sister Gramick said Rev. Nugent prayed the Vatican would one day recognize the value of their ministry. Although that has not happened, he told her he was glad he would die under the papacy of Pope Francis, who has expressed a more welcoming stance toward gays in the church. "I think that gave Bob great consolation," Sister Gramick said.

Some in the gay community criticized him for staying in the church that so harshly rebuked him, but Rev. Nugent saw it differently.

"In order to have an effect on the house," he told a college group in 2000, "you must live in it."

He was a longtime associate of the parish of St. John the Baptist Church in New Freedom, Pa., just north of the Baltimore County community of Freeland.

Born in Norristown, Pa., in 1937, Nugent attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He earned master's degrees in library science at Villanova University and in theology from Yale Divinity School.

A longtime cigar smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after retiring in June and moved to a healthcare facility in Milwaukee.

He is survived by a sister, nieces and nephews.

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