Jan 06

If you just read a few paragraphs of the ‘Conclusions’ in  a particular report, you’ll readily agree with what the Guardian said in an editorial. It said what the report revealed was “the stuff of nightmares.” I am talking of the official report submitted in 2009 by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, appointed by the Irish government. The report, relying on the testimony of nearly 2,000 men and women who attended more than 200 Catholic schools in Ireland from the 1930s until the 1990s, established that thousands of children were subjected to severe physical, emotional and sexual abuse and deliberate neglect.

As a result, the Catholic Church in Ireland has lost thousands of members, and the respect and moral authority it once enjoyed.

This is why you are struck by the fact that there was a priest who discovered years ago that such abuse existed in Irish Catholic institutions and had the courage to publicly condemn it. He called these institutions a “national disgrace.” He blasted Ireland’s ‘reform schools’ as “a scandal, un-Christlike, and wrong.” If only the Church authorities had listened to this prophet, repented and acted to stop the abuse, how many innocent children could have been saved!

Today this prophet is a ‘Servant of God’ who is well on his way to being declared a saint by the Catholic Church. Fr Edward Joseph Flanagan was born in 1886 in Ireland in a hard-working farm family that was deeply religious. At the age of eighteen he emigrated to the U.S., along with his sister. He stayed with his mother’s relatives and studied at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and then joined the seminary for the Archdiocese of New York. Unable to recover fully from pneumonia, he had to leave the seminary. He stayed with his brother, Patrick, who was a priest in Omaha, Nebraska, and his sister nursed him back to health.

When he recovered, he left for Rome and studied at the Gregorian University. But the Roman winter made him sick again and he had to return to Omaha to rest. When he regained his health he went to Innsbruck, Austria, to complete his seminary studies and was ordained a priest there in 1912.  When he returned, he was made an assistant pastor in Omaha and he worked in a few parishes. Struck by the sufferings of various vulnerable groups, he assisted the elderly and homeless orphans and found them places to stay. The plight of homeless, delinquent boys distressed him and in 1917 Flanagan established a home for them near Omaha. He called it the Boys Town.

What attracted the nation’s and soon the world’s attention was the approach Flanagan introduced in dealing with the boys. He realized that almost all of them came from poor, broken families where they suffered abuse or neglect at that tender, critical age. He said, “There’s no such thing as a bad boy.” Realizing the irreparable harm done to boys by the severe punishment and abuse of the reform school model, he insisted on giving the boys care, concern and help and a good education. Soon the Boys Town had its own schools, post office, gymnasium and cottages and chapel. It had no fences to stop the boys from leaving. When asked why, he said, “I am not building a prison. This is a home. You do not wall in members of your own family.”

He prayed the Rosary every day and was the first to go the chapel every morning. Encouraging his wards to pray, he said, “Every boy should pray; how he prays is up to him.”

A film called Boys Town, based on the life of Fr Flanagan, starring Spencer Tracy, released in 1938, made Flanagan and his unique achievement known throughout the world and brought him many awards.  Invited to assess policies and programmes for children, he travelled to several countries, including Ireland.  Stung by his forthright and courageous criticism of what went on in Ireland’s reform schools, government authorities and religious leaders ostracized him and indirectly forced him to leave. But programmes and centres for children, based on his convictions, came up throughout the world.
In May 1948, while he was on a visit to Germany, Flanagan died of a heart attack. His body was brought to the U.S. and buried in Boys Town, Nebraska.  Today, Boys Town provides direct and indirect care to 1.4 million youth and families every year.

Fr. M A Joe Antony SJ, former editor of the New Leader and Jivan, is now a writer and retreat guide. He stays at St Joseph’s College, Trichy, Tamil Nadu, and can be contacted at majoeantony@gmail.com

M A Joe Antony SJ

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