A lone voice for the lost children

"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."

The words of Fr Edward Flanagan, founder of Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, in the US and made famous by a 1938 Hollywood movie starring Spencer Tracey.

It was part of a speech he gave at the Savoy cinema in Cork in 1946 when he called Ireland’s penal institutions “a disgrace to the nation”. Addressing the large audience at a public lecture 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.”

A lone voice at the time in condemning Ireland’s industrial schools, he was castigated by the Irish Catholic Church and the government for speaking out.

Fr Flanagan was used to verbal brickbats, though, having suffered many during the years he built up an institution of care for homeless boys that later became a template for youth services worldwide.

He cared for more than 5,000 boys in his lifetime and tens of thousands more boys and girls have been nurtured since his death as a result of his work.

Steven Wolf, president of the Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion, has no doubt that Fr Flanagan is a saint. “Simply founding Boys Town is not worthy of sainthood,” he says.

“There were hundreds of orphanages, jails, and youth detention centres in the early 1900s in America and thousands more around the world. What is unique is that Fr Flanagan did not set up another warehouse for displaced, abused and troubled children.

“Instead he set up a home where love, care, respect, and mercy were freely given to provide the type of environment that gives everyone a chance to be a productive citizen and an individual of outstanding character. That seems like common sense now, but it was completely contrary to the culture and conventional wisdom in his time.”

The social norm in his day was that poor, abandoned, and wayward children were losers and not deserving of care, love, or respect. They were punished with physical and verbal abuse, hard labour, and public scorn.

“Fr Flanagan understood that children will turn out just as rotten adults as they are treated as kids,” says Mr Wolf. “Treat them like losers, cursed, shamed and scorned individuals and that’s likely how they will interact in society. What Fr Flanagan did in his time was revolutionary in childcare.”

When Fr Flanagan declared there is “no such thing as a bad boy”, he was mocked and ridiculed by the US media, the community, judges, and government officials.

He was soon to learn that another aspect of his caring would get him into more serious trouble. Fr Flanagan was — in the best sense of the word — colour-blind. He was decades ahead of the civil rights movement in the US as he took in children of every race, creed, and colour. There was no segregation in Boys Town.

As Mr Wolf puts it: “The primary reason that Boys Town exists in Nebraska where it is today, is because the community of Omaha... couldn’t stand the thought or the sight of these ‘disregarded’ children of every race and religion living together as one family under God.

“It mortified and angered people and they wanted to either shut him down completely or run him out of town. They accomplished the latter when he moved to Overlook Farm in 1921 [present day Boys Town]. Even there, he was threatened to have the place burned to the ground if he didn’t send away the black and Hispanic kids, along with the Jews and mixing Catholic and Protestant children together. He received direct threats from the Ku Klux Klan to discontinue his work.”

Despite the overwhelming pressure, he refused to give up. He ultimately changed not just hearts and minds about these children but also the laws and public policies affecting youth care and juvenile detention practices across the US and throughout the world.

He was a councillor to American presidents such as Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and other world leaders. He inspired more than 80 additional Boys Towns around the world. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Truman asked Fr Flanagan to tour Asia and Europe, to see what could be done for the homeless, abandoned, and neglected children. General Douglas McArthur asked him to visit Japan, Korea, and the Philippines to help with war orphans. The system that still exists today for youth care in Japan was established by Fr Flanagan’s recommendations.

He gave his last breath doing roughly the same thing in Austria and Germany in 1948 at Truman’s request. More than 1m boys went through the youth care programme he helped to establish in Germany.

His last visit to Ireland in 1946 created a firestorm when he openly condemned the youth facilities run by the Christian Brothers and the government.

The response, says Mr Wolf, was that the government and the Christian Brothers circled their wagons and began a very public attack on Fr Flanagan’s character and motivations, strongly suggesting he never return to his beloved homeland.

“What we know from his writings to family members was that he was committed to return to Ireland and bring his mission work home, and his plan was to take an extended leave from Boys Town and return to Ireland in 1949 to shut down every borstal there. It was a wish that died with him while working to save Germany’s children.”

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