As the Catholic Church in Ireland struggles to overcome its clergy abuse scandal, it’s important to note that more than six decades ago, an American Irish-born priest noted for his care of children bravely spoke out against the abuses. Unfortunately, few listened to him. 

In 1946 Father Edward J. Flanagan left Boys Town, his internationally renowned home for abandoned and wayward boys, for a trip to Ireland, his homeland. It was not a sentimental journey; it was a tour of inspection. Father Flanagan had heard reports that Irish children were being abused and mistreated in the country’s orphanages and reformatories, and he wanted to see the extent of the problem. 

Not that reformatories in the United States at the time were any better. Father Flanagan knew from personal experience that such institutions were little more than crime schools where the older boys corrupted the younger ones. A judge who handled juvenile cases once admitted to Father Flanagan that he knew how bad the reformatories were and the corrosive effect they had on the boys sent there, but he had no other place to send them.  

An alternative home 

That changed in 1917 when Father Flanagan, with the approval of his superior, Archbishop Jeremiah Harty of Omaha, Neb., opened a home for abandoned and troubled boys. Assisted by several School Sisters of Notre Dame and a group of laywomen volunteers, the priest introduced a new method of caring for boys most members of American society regarded as beyond help: All the boys were given the kind of love, attention and patience they would have received from devoted parents. There was no corporal punishment, and boys who made improvement in their conduct were praised and rewarded. 

Omaha’s juvenile court sent so many boys to the home that Father Flanagan needed larger facilities. Around 1920 he bought a 160-acre farm outside Omaha and moved his boys there. He named the place Boys Town. 

Time and again, in private conversations and before large audiences, in fundraising letters and during interviews with the press, Father Flanagan emphasized that he was not operating a reformatory. There were no walls around Boys Town, not even a fence. There were no bars on the windows. “I am not building a prison,” he said. “This is a home. You do not wall in members of your own family.”  

In Omaha he had tried to create a family environment for the boys, now he established a community. And it worked. In 1931 Time magazine reported that of the thousands of boys who came to Boys Town, not one later took up a life of crime. 

Celebrity treatment

One reason for Father Flanagan’s journey to Ireland in 1946 was to propose to Frank Fahy, speaker of the Irish Parliament, and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin that they establish an Irish Boys Town. 

In every Irish city and town he visited, Father Flanagan was treated like a celebrity — which, in fact, he was. His reputation as an innovator in the care of children no one wanted had gotten the attention of the press and eventually of Hollywood. In 1938, MGM released the film “Boys Town,” starring Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan. 

Large crowds turned out to greet this famous Irish priest, and he often took these opportunities to expose the abuses in Irish institutions. Father Flanagan described the case of a 15-year-old boy who had been flogged with a leather whip at the Glin Industrial School. “Flogging and other forms of physical punishment wound the sense of dignity which attaches to the self,” he said. “The result of such negative treatment is that the boy comes to look upon society as his enemy. His urge is to fight back, not to reform.” 

In Dublin the priest declared that fear of punishment would never correct the character of a wayward child, and he denounced the brutal methods used against children in Ireland’s reform schools as “a disgrace to the nation” and “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong.” He stated candidly that in his opinion, the cruel mistreatment of children by the Christian Brothers, who operated many of what he described as “so-called training schools,” indicated that the Brothers had lost their moral bearings. 

Speaking before a packed house in Cork’s Savoy Theatre, Father Flanagan told his audience bluntly: “You are the people who permit your children and the children of your communities to go to these institutions of punishment. You can do something about it, first, by keeping your children away from these institutions.” The crowd burst into loud applause, but elsewhere in Ireland Father Flanagan’s criticism stung. 

In the Irish Parliament, Gerald Boland, minister of justice, denounced Father Flanagan’s “offensive and intemperate language” regarding the reformatories and orphanages of Ireland. “These schools are under the management of religious orders, who are self-effacing people, and who do not require any commendation from me,” Boland said. Then, in a mocking tone that parodied one of the priest’s favorite maxims, Boland added, “Father Flanagan is a bad boy.”  

Guilt to go around 

Back in the United States, Father Flanagan continued his criticism of the Irish system: “What you need over there is to have someone shake you loose from your smugness and satisfaction and set an example by punishing those who are guilty of cruelty, ignorance and neglect of their duties in high places. ... 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.” 

Ordinary Irishmen and Irishwomen waded into the controversy, writing letters to Irish newspapers to defend Father Flanagan or defend the Irish reformatories. A reader of the Times Pictorial who signed himself P. O’Reilly wrote, “Through original sin children are naturally vicious little savages, and it needs a rigorous discipline with fear as a wholesome deterrent to mould them into decent citizens.” Another reader wrote in to censure O’Reilly as a “particularly disgusting type of prig.” 

Within a few months the turmoil stirred up by Father Flanagan settled down and was forgotten. Speaker Fahy and Archbishop McQuaid made no effort to open a Boys Town in Ireland. There was no reform of the Irish reformatories. 

Father Flanagan was an Irishman and a priest. He was acclaimed around the world for his success in reclaiming juvenile delinquents. If he could not shake the conscience of the Church in Ireland, of the Irish government, of the Irish press, of the Irish people, who could? 

The Catholic Church in Ireland is responsible for the scandal of the reform schools and orphanages. Catholic religious orders operated the institutions, and Catholic clergy and religious were the abusers. But as Father Flanagan learned during his visit to Ireland in 1946, there were plenty of people in the Irish government and among the Irish public who endorsed and approved of these brutal methods. In the case of the Irish scandal, there is plenty of guilt to go around. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Cardlinks series and of “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” (Harvard University Press, $14.95).

Boys Town Today (sidebar)

Boys Town — now known as Girls and Boys Town — is still in operation. It serves 400,000 children in a dozen homes across the United States, the largest being the original Boys Town outside Omaha. The staff of these homes continue to care for orphaned and neglected children, as well as children who have been sexually abused or are emotionally or mentally unstable. 

Girls and Boys Town is not a Catholic institution; it is nonsectarian. However, the director of Girls and Boys Town is always a Catholic priest, in tribute to the memory of Father Edward Flanagan.