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Dissenter won't quit

CAMBRIDGE -- His name jumps out among the signatures on the declaration of religious support for same-sex marriages in Massachusetts.

Of the hundreds of clergy from more than a score of religious denominations in the Commonwealth to endorse the fundamental human right of gay people to marry, only the Rev. Robert E. Nee is a Roman Catholic priest.

He is neither brave nor crazy, he says; neither is he unmindful of the retribution being meted out these days to dissidents by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley: The pastor in Westborough chastised for calling efforts to overturn gay marriage an ''attack" on his homosexual parishioners. The popular, progressive pastor in Newton ousted on trumped-up charges of mismanagement.

In the last two years, Father Nee has seen open-minded colleagues stripped of their churches, placed on unwanted sabbaticals, and forced into premature retirements.

None of it will quash dissent, he says. ''Every member of the clergy and the laity has a right and a responsibility to speak the truth as we know it," he says of his decision to break so publicly with the hierarchy, which is urging all Catholics to support a ballot initiative that would define civil marriage as the union of a man and a woman. In many churches, the petition drive is being promoted during Mass. (The Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, meanwhile, has collected 2,400 signatures from Roman Catholics on an alternative statement in support of marriage equity.)

''The church is a human organization and, like any human organization, its investment in the status quo is a political reality," Father Nee says. ''In the history of the church, when has dissent ever been welcome?"

The 60-year-old priest, a native of Jamaica Plain and a product of Boston's parochial schools, is spending this semester at Harvard Divinity School. His sabbatical from his post as chaplain at Children's Hospital is entirely voluntary, he is quick to note. He is studying gender and moral theology, sitting in on classes in comparative religions to deepen his understanding of how different traditions cope with illness and death.

While he is at Harvard he hopes to interest sociologists in examining the fallout for the 58 Boston-area priests who called on Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign in 2002 for his failure of leadership during the clergy sexual-abuse crisis. Law resigned 10 days later, but he has moved on to a comfortable berth in Rome. Many of the priests who signed that letter have been removed from their parishes, though the archdiocese denies that reprisals played any role in those personnel changes. ''We have a support group for priests," says Father Nee, who also signed the letter seeking Law's removal. ''The Boston Priest Forum is not dead yet."

His 21 years in parish work in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston make Father Nee acutely aware of the grief that the abuse crisis and subsequent church closings have caused individual Catholics. So, too, is he sensitive to the pain being inflicted by the Catholic Church's campaign against gay marriage on families headed by same-sex couples.

''When we were children, there was a sense that if Father or Sister said something then it must be true. Well, we all mature. We were able to say [in response to the pre-Vatican II ban on attendance at Protestant church services], 'I am going to that wedding no matter what Monsignor Kelly says.' Now, many of us need to say, 'I am not going to deny the dignity and the civil rights of gay people.' "

Sitting on his deck on Cape Cod last summer, listening to his neighbors' children playing with their same-sex parents, he bristled at the claim that the embrace of a loving family was damaging these boys and girls. ''There is no evidence to support that view," he says, ''but the only science that gets acknowledged by the church is the science that was available to Augustine. It is terribly sad to think of the pain these children will suffer if the church prevails. It is not hard to object to that."

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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