“I know when the idea of a boys’ home grew in my mind, I never thought of anything remarkable about taking in all of the races and all of the creeds. To me, they are all God’s children. They are my brothers. They are children of God. I must protect them to the best of my ability.”—Fr. Edward Flanagan (1886-1948), on Boys Town, quoted in Hugh Reilly and Kevin Warneke, Father Flanagan of Boys Town: A Man of Vision (2008)
Wednesday marked 130 years since the birth, in County Roscommon, Ireland, of Fr. Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, which offers education and a home for the poor and wayward boys of Omaha. During his lifetime, he was celebrated for his non-punitive treatment of at-risk youth at the orphanage, typified by his famous statement, “There is no such thing as a bad boy.'”
With the passage of time, it’s easy to see that hundreds of thousands of these youths would have been better off if even more attention had been paid to this astute, compassionate cleric.
His mission was actually inspired by his humanitarian work with homeless and jobless men in 1916. As he listened to them, he was struck by a common theme in their lives: their lack of an intact, stable, loving family. He determined that he would do all he could to ensure future children would not suffer a similar fate.
Fr. Flanagan’s work at Boys Town attracted widespread notice, including from Hollywood. The 1938 film Boys Town earned Spencer Tracy, in the role of Fr. Flanagan, his second consecutive Best Actor Oscar.
Having earned an Oscar nomination two years before for playing a priest in San Francisco, the actor was not eager to wear the collar again onscreen. Additionally, he was nervous about playing a person who was still alive--something he had never done before.
According to James Curtis’ biography Spencer Tracy, once the actor decided to take on the role, he sat down for a face-to-face meeting with his subject. “I knew he was studying me…as searchingly as I studied him,” Flanagan recalled, astonished how the actor took in “the way I sat in the chair, the way I talked, the way I pushed the hair back from my forehead.”
The stocky American Tracy did not physically resemble the tall, bespectacled priest with the slight Irish brogue. But his intense preparation and a charm to match his subject’s enabled him to pull off one of his most acclaimed performances.
Fr. Flanagan used the additional publicity brought by the film to travel around the world to promote his vision of treatment of youths. Eventually, he traveled to 31 states and to twelve countries in Asia and in Europe. (He was, in fact, in postwar Germany when he died unexpectedly in 1948.) It is estimated that nearly 90 programs across the globe are directly inspired by his example.
The Irish native, however, was keenly disappointed by his reception back home. When he finally returned to Ireland in 1946, 42 years after coming to America, he visited prisons and industrial schools for youth. He minced no words about the shortcomings of what he saw and heard, calling the reform schools “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong.”
The Irish government reacted furiously to his sharp criticism, according to an article on the Web site Irish Central by John Fay. Minister for Justice Gerald Boland said 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.”
“I wonder what God's judgment will be with reference to those who hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their God-given stewardship of little children," Flanagan worried when he returned to the U.S.
The extent of that failure was revealed six decades after his prescient warning. In 2009, after a nine-year study, Ireland’s Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse concluded that molestation and rape were "endemic" in boys' facilities, that girls were subject to their own systematic humiliation and degradation, and that government inspectors failed to stop the Dickensian horrors in the church-run reform schools.
“Long after I’m forgotten, Father Flanagan will go down as one of the great humanitarians of the century,” Spencer Tracy predicted. He was wrong about the first part of that sentence, but right about the second: advocates in Omaha are now promoting the cause of Fr. Flanagan's canonization.