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, Nugent traveled the country with 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 Nugent and 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 Nugent and 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.
Nugent, who said he thought of himself as “a typical Irish Catholic priest,” accepted the silencing.
“He was really persecuted for the role he took,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the national advocacy group for gay Catholics, DignityUSA.
“He believed strongly in a bridge-building ministry and felt church officials would learn so much if they would only listen and be open to the lives and stories of gay and lesbian people,” she said. “He was a pivotal figure in our work.”