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Father Robert Nugent, embroiled in gay-ministry controversies, dies
Salvatorian Father Robert Nugent
Salvatorian Father Robert Nugent
Catholic News Service

MILWAUKEE — Salvatorian Father Robert Nugent, the co-founder of New Ways Ministry and active for 29 years in ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics, died Jan. 1 of complications from cancer. He was 76.

Father Nugent had been diagnosed with lung cancer in September. He had been in hospice care in Milwaukee, where the Salvatorians have provincial headquarters.

New Ways Ministry was subject to repeated investigations and inquiries at the diocesan, religious-order and Vatican levels, including one ordered in 1994 by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI.

As a result of the investigation, Father Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, then a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, were ordered to stop pastoral ministry to gays, saying they advanced "doctrinally unacceptable" positions "regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination."

After a year of speaking and writing about homosexuality, Father Nugent and Sister Gramick were directed to stop talking about the topic and the Vatican investigation itself. Father Nugent complied, but Sister Gramick ultimately decided to defy the ban and left her order to join the Sisters of Loretto.

Born in Norristown, Pa., in 1937, Father Nugent was ordained in 1965 as a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In 1970, while serving at Stella Maris Parish in Philadelphia, he helped Philadelphia police in stopping two suicide attempts on the Walt Whitman Bridge and became known as the "bridge priest."

In 1971, he left parish ministry to pursue graduate studies at Temple and Villanova universities and work in a skid-row hospice. That year, he saw an article about Sister Gramick's work with gays and lesbians and offered his assistance if she ever needed it.

Father Nugent left the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 1975. His support at a City Council meeting for a Philadelphia gay rights ordinance "didn't sit too well with the archbishop," he said in a 1994 interview with Catholic News Service. He joined the staff of the Quixote Center, a Catholic peace and justice organization being set up in Washington's Maryland suburbs. In 1976, Sister Gramick joined the Quixote Center, and in 1977, they jointly established New Ways Ministry. That same year, Father Nugent formally joined the Salvatorians.

In 1978, the Washington Archdiocese removed Father Nugent's faculties to preach and hear confessions in the archdiocese. In 1979, Father Nugent and Sister Gramick angered archdiocesan authorities by sponsoring a retreat for gay women religious, an action that led to the first Vatican intervention questioning their ministry.

In 1981, their plans for a national symposium on homosexuality and the Catholic Church in Washington led to another conflict with the archdiocese and a second investigation initiated by the Vatican. Then-Archbishop James A. Hickey wrote to all U.S. bishops and religious superiors that New Ways Ministry was "ambiguous" on the issue of homosexual activity.

In 1983, the archbishop asked their superiors to remove them from the archdiocese and from gay ministry. A warning from the Vatican Congregation for Religious followed in 1984, saying they would face disciplinary action if they did not separate themselves from New Ways Ministry. They left but continued to give workshops on gay ministry around the country.

From 1984 to 1987, Father Nugent did chaplaincy and pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. When his faculties expired there in 1987, the new archbishop refused to renew them. He relocated to Baltimore,

In 1985, their religious superiors did a third study of their ministry at the request of the Vatican and for a third time found their work acceptable and in accord with church teachings.

The Paulist Center Community in Boston gave its 1995 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice, named after the Paulists' founder, to Sister Gramick and Father Nugent. "This is the first time we have received an award as a team from a mainstream, nongay organization," Father Nugent said at the award ceremony.

By then, they were under investigation by a Vatican-commissioned trio of U.S. church officials. After their report was submitted, the Vatican ordered the priest and sister to Rome in 1996 to supply more information before issuing its 1999 notification.

New Ways Ministry remains a Catholic-oriented organization, but with no official church recognition or sponsorship. It describes itself as "a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, and reconciliation within the larger Christian and civil communities."

Among Father Nugent's books are 2012's "Thomas Merton and Therese Lentfoehr: The Story of a Friendship"; 2011's "Silence Speaks: Teilhard de Chardin, Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray and Thomas Merton"; 1983's "A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church" and "Building Bridges: "Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church," which he wrote in 1992 with Sister Gramick.

Funeral information was pending.

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