Beliefs Institutions Politics

The Rev. Bob Nugent, silenced for his work with gay Catholics, dies at 76


WASHINGTON (RNS) The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Roman Catholic priest who was silenced by the Vatican for his work with gay and lesbian Catholics, died Wednesday (Jan. 1) after a three-month battle with cancer. He was 76.


The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Catholic priest who was silenced by the Vatican for his work with gay and lesbian Catholics, died Wednesday (Jan. 1) after a three-month battle with  cancer. He was 76. Photo courtesy of New Ways Ministry

In many ways, the scrutiny of Nugent’s activism symbolized the Vatican’s approach to all talk of homosexuality under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — what one gay Catholic group called a “witch hunt” — compared with the more tolerant “who am I to judge?” tone set recently by Pope Francis.

Nugent, a member of the Salvatorians religious order, co-founded the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry in 1977 with Sister Jeannine Gramick to build bridges between the gay community and the Catholic Church. Their activities drew repeated condemnation from U.S. Catholic leaders in the 1980s.

“His ministry was more than a welcome,” said Francis DeBernardo, the group’s executive director. “He had the wisdom to know that the real moral problem in the church was not the lives of lesbian and gay people, but the ignorance and fear out of which many church leaders and officials operated.”

Nugent served as a consultant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on its 1997 pastoral document on homosexuality, “Always Our Children.”

But two years later, after the Vatican ruled that Gramick and Nugent’s work was “erroneous and dangerous,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) permanently banned Nugent and Gramick from working with the gay and lesbian community, saying their pro-gay work had “caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the church.”

The pair were cited for refusing to accept church teaching on the “intrinsic evil of homosexual acts,” and Nugent was condemned for questioning “the definitive and unchangeable nature of Catholic doctrine in this area.”

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is obliged to declare for the good of the Catholic faithful that the positions advanced by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination are doctrinally unacceptable because they do not faithfully convey the clear and constant teaching of the Catholic Church in this area,” the decree said.

In 2000, the Vatican issued a second decree, barring Gramick and Nugent from speaking about the 11-year investigation into their work; Nugent agreed to comply, but Gramick did not, saying: “I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression by restricting a basic human right. To me this is a matter of conscience.”

While Nugent largely complied with the order and stayed in the shadows, Gramick continued to work and speak publicly on behalf of gay rights and other progressive causes. She remains listed as a co-founder of New Ways Ministry and now serves as executive co-director of the National Coalition of American Nuns, a small and liberal group of U.S. nuns.

Gramick was by Nugent’s side when he died Wednesday at a hospice wing at a Catholic retirement community in Milwaukee.

In 2010, New Ways Ministry again drew the ire of U.S. Catholic leaders for criticizing the hierarchy’s advocacy against same-sex marriage.

“Like other groups that claim to be Catholic but deny central aspects of Church teaching, New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and that they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States,” said Chicago Cardinal Francis George, then president of the bishops’ conference.



About the author

Kevin Eckstrom

Kevin Eckstrom joined the Religion News Service staff in 2000 and became editor-in-chief in 2006.


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  • What were the positions advanced by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent regarding homosexual acts that upset the hierarchy?

  • That’s a good question, Bill, and we’ve amended the story to spell that out more clearly. Thanks.

  • The oft-quoted comment by Pope Francis . . “who am I to judge” was made in the context of “homosexual clerics”.
    Lest you forget . . “homosexual predation of Catholic youth” was the root cause identified by the National Review Board for Roman Catholic clergy abuse. Board member, Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins, said that “This behavior was homosexual predation on American Catholic youth, yet it’s not being discussed.” YET the pope has said . . “who am I to judge”? –
    Clearly the pope has no problem with “homosexual clerics”and they’re not going anywhere! Therefore it would follow that the abuse will continue as well.
    The current PR initiative being employed by the RC “church” is aimed at consigning the CLERGY ABUSE SCANDAL to history. The tactic, referred to as ‘Switch & Bait’, is intended to deflect attention away from one direction and point it in another. In this case, deflect the medias’ attention away from the ongoing Roman Catholic Clergy Abuse SCANDAL and deflect the attention of the Catholic faithful away from that which lies at the root of it, namely homosexual priests/bishops. This is precisely what Greg Burke, the Vatican’s PR man has done! The media, formerly demonized by Roman Catholic apologists are now being wooed and manipulated by the PR machine of the RC “church” and the Catholic faithful are being played for fools.
    The pope’s identification with the poor, coupled with his humble persona and his relaxed attitude to church doctrine has ingratiated him to many. And while this may be to some (especially RC apologists) a very clever PR initiative, this shameless maneuver to re-invent themselves is not lost on former Catholics like myself!

  • The header to your piece, Mr. Eckstrom, is what raises the hackles of us on the right. The casual reader will assume, I suspect, that the Vatican wanted Nugent and Gramick to have nothing to do with the gay community, which is not the truth nor the reason behind its concerns.

    Making attempts to offer spiritual support to homosexuals need not include taking the position, from the Church’s point of view, that homosexual acts are permissible. The article makes matters clear enough. The header poorly serves the article.

  • That’s a fair point, Duane, and well taken. Headlines are tricky business and more of an art than a science. The theory (and hope) is that the headlines are just a teaser for the main article, and that like you said, a reader will get the full sense of the issue by reading the article, not just the headline.

    But again, a fair point.

  • It would have more accurate to say that Nugent (and Gramick) did something for those they counselled that was genuinely useful, constructive, and authentically Christian, unlike the rest of the Roman church, then and now. Their approach is vain, arrogant, malicious, and wilfully ignorant. What the church is really trying to do is as much damage as it can to homosexual individuals, now that modern secular governments do not permit its traditional homicidal response.

  • JuneAnnette,
    When I read your post you explain yourself exactly the way I do but you express yourself way better and I could. Thank-you!

  • So does that mean that heterosexual priests are free to molest young women? It’s time to put this tired stereotype to bed. Homosexuality has as much to do with sexual predation as heterosexuality does, meaning “not much.”

    That said, is the Church using cutting-edge PR tactics to stop the mass (sorry) exodus of parishioners and $$? Yes. Absolutely.

  • Sometimes headlines are unclear, But I reckon the headline in this case is misleading. Misleading headlines in my opinion, tend to suggest poor journalism.

  • Your article is grossly misleading and portrays a man who rebelled against the Holy Spirit by rebelling against His Holy Church as some sort of hero. He was not any such thing. This man and that crazy “nun” were not looking to save souls from eternal damnation. They were looking only for the temporal happiness of those who looked to them for guidance, or rather, misguidance. Rather than glorify the evil this man stood for, pray that God may have mercy on his soul for I am sure he guided many souls to hell.

  • The absolute worst way to minister to anyone is to minimize their sin or say sin isn’t sin. Those are truly acts of hate.

    However advocating for loving treatment of the person is Christlike.

  • In reply to Mr. Gabrielle Espinosa – While I didn’t know Fr. Nugent, let us remember that when the ruling came down, after the investigation was completed, he complied with the directive of his superiors and the CDF, whereas Sr. Gramick is notorious for not having done so. Fr. Nugent was a priest in good standing at the time of his death, and as an act of charity I would hope you are, as am I, praying for the peaceful repose of his soul.

  • Frank, we call that “enabling” – and as someone who works in the field of addictions counseling, where we see so many truly destructive behaviors – that you’d think ANYONE would agree are destructive – I can tell you that many enablers are not doing what they’re doing out of hate – they may be cowards, they may be damaged themselves, they may be loving-but-ignorant, but I’ve never met one person who set out to deliberately destroy via enabling a person to engage in their self-destructive life-style. Anyway, I don’t think anyone was doing anything deliberately hateful. I wish people could discuss this issue without using such inflammatory language.

  • Do you know Fr. Bob or Sister Jeannie? If you did you would not make such comments. They are two dedicated people who have given many years serving “all” of God’s children. You don’t have to accept the compasionate work they do, but Jesus is pleased. They are walking in Jesus’s shoes, as all of us should. Two of the most kind, giving, and caring pople I know. Do some research before commenting. I know Father was welcomed into Heaven with open arms. I look forward to seeing him when my time comes. Blessings

  • Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

  • Diane . . some stats for you to consider:

    From PAGE 14 of the John Jay Report:
    • The largest group of alleged victims (50.9%) was between the ages of 11 and 14, 27.3% were 15-17, 16% were 8-10 and nearly 6% were under age 7. Overall, 81% of victims were male and 19% female. Male victims tended to be older than female victims.

    ALSO . . In the context of the Roman Catholic Clergy Abuse SCANDAL, Fr. Donald Cozzens, university professor, seminary rector, and experienced counselor of priests and religious wrote:
    1) “When vicars of priests met to learn from one another how we might better minister to the victims of clergy sexual misconduct, we discovered a factor that put priest offenders at variance with the general population of child abusers. As a group, abusers tend to be married men who prey on girls, although many pedophiles abuse both girls and boys.
    Most priest abusers, we concluded, were not pedophiles in the strict sense of the term. They tend to be ephebophiles, adults whose sexual interest focused on post-pubescent teenagers. …. Relatively little attention has been paid to this phenomenon by Church authorities. Perhaps it is feared that it will call attention to the disproportionate number of gay priests.”

    Citation: 1) D. Cozzens, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, pp. 123-124

  • Diane . . more statistics for you to consider:

    The findings of Roderick MacLeish Jr., who examined the full archives of the Archdiocese of Boston during his lawsuit against the Church. MacLeish represented nearly 400 victims of abuse in court, 90 percent of whom were male, and three-quarters post-pubescent.
    Psychiatrist Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons has echoed that.
    “The John Jay report has revealed clearly that the crisis in the Church is not one of pedophilia but of homosexuality. The primary victims have not been children but adolescent males. Fitzgibbons told Catholic News Agency that “every priest whom I treated who was involved with children sexually had previously been involved in adult homosexual relationships.”

  • Lisa I never suggested that they were doing anything out of hate. Frankly there are very few things done in life out of hate. Whats more dangerous then doing anything out of hate is doing hateful things believing its the loving thing to do.

    What I said was enabling sinful behavior is ultimately an act of hate not love. People will argue that they are loving them by accepting their sinful behavior when in reality they are demonstrating hate. They need to wake up to this fact.

    Sorry of I was unclear.

  • Ms Manning, the Church’s criticism of Nugent and Gramick is clear. Ministering to the gay community is one thing, including in that ministry the teaching that there’s nothing wrong with homosexual sex is out of line. Do not let the “warm and fuzzy feelings” you have for compasionate people cloud what should be your judgment about what actually is being said and done.

    Morality is not about “feelings.” Unfortunately, many people simply cannot get beyond these feelings when it comes to making judgments. In fact, they don’t want to “judge” at all–which in itself is a judgment.

  • The idea, always, was to minimize the sinfull behavior of the individual and push the Church to accept their sinfull behavior as a minor transgression, or no transgression at all. The Catholic gay community sees nothing wrong with homosexual (sexual) relations (based upon “love”, of course). They seek an eventual admission from the Church that all sexual relations are equal and permissable. And that the Church’s centuries old biblical teaching is so very obsolete. Bet on it.

  • JuneAnnette your writing is disturbing from a clinician and theologian’s point of view. The NRB did not identify homosexual orientation per se only that pedophilia by mentally ill clergy the preyed on children most frequently were did this on the same sex at the predator. 85% of the homosexual pedophiliacs in fact were heterosexual clergy. Thus, Pope Francis comment about “gay/homosexual” clergy was not about pedophiles or ephobophiles. Your assertion is tragically miss-leading and incorrect. Studies for homosexual and heterosexual clergy in general suggest celibacy is the norm not the acting out as you suggest. Jesus carefully teaches “Woe to those who miss-lead these little ones,” kindly avoid writing about topics that are scientifically inaccurate and miss-leading to others. It is a moral and ethical responsibility of all, much less Roman Catholics. Prayers for you and those who subscribe to inaccurate information.