Boys Town founder Fr. Flanagan warned Irish Church about abuse in 1940s
As the Vatican prepares to send bishops to Ireland it is worth recalling what the last American priest who investigated a church scandal in Ireland found.
Father Edward Flanagan, founder of “Boys Town” made famous by the Spencer Tracy movie, was a lone voice in condemning Ireland’s industrial schools back in the 1940s –and he was viciously castigated by church and government for doing so.
Fr. Flanagan, from Co. Roscommon, left Ireland in 1904 and was ordained a priest eight years later. In 1917 he was living and working in Omaha, Nebraska, when he hit upon the idea of a "boys town," which offered education and a home for the poor and wayward boys of Omaha.
However, demand for the service was so great that he soon had to find bigger premises. Boys Town, built on a farm 10 miles from Omaha, was the result.
The center was open to all. There were no fences to stop the boys from leaving. Fr. Flanagan said he was “not building a prison." "This is a home," he said. "You do not wall in members of your own family.”
Boys Town eventually became so well-known - and so well-respected - that Hollywood and the U.S. President came calling. Spencer Tracey and Mickey Rooney starred in the 1938 movie "Boys Town," and it made a national hero out of Fr. Flanagan. He was internationally renowned as “the world’s most foremost expert on boys’ training and youth care.”
When World War II ended in 1945, President Harry S. Truman asked Fr. Flanagan to tour Asia and Europe, to see what could be done for the homeless and neglected children in those regions.
Fr. Flanagan decided to return to the land of his birth in 1946 to visit his family, and also to visit the “so-called training schools" run by the Christian Brothers to see if they were "a success or failure.”
The success of the film "Boys Town," meant Fr. Flanagan was treated like a celebrity on his arrival. His visit was noted by the The Irish Independent, which said that Fr. Flanagan had succeeded “against overwhelming odds,” spurred on by the “simple slogan that 'There is no such thing as a bad boy.'”
But Fr. Flanagan was unhappy with what he found in Ireland. He was dismayed at the state of Ireland's reform schools and blasted them as “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong.” And he said the Christian Brothers, founded by Edmund Rice, had lost its way.
Speaking to a large audience at a public lecture in Cork’s Savoy Cinema he said, "You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go into these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it." He called Ireland’s penal institutions "a disgrace to the nation," and later said "I do not believe that a child can be reformed by lock and key and bars, or that fear can ever develop a child’s character."
However, his words fell on stony ground. He wasn't simply ignored. He was taken to pieces by the Irish establishment. The then-Minister for Justice Gerald Bolandsaid in the Dáil that he was “not disposed to take any notice of what Monsignor Flanagan said while he was in this country, because his statements were so exaggerated that I did not think people would attach any importance to them.”
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