I heard that Archdiocese of Omaha is naming Fr Edward Flanagan a Servant of God, the first step in opening his cause for beatification. Many people of my generation remember Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of Fr. Flanagan in 1938, showing Fr Flanagan as someone who could see the divine spark in even the most intransigent of delinquent boys.
There is another side to Fr. Flanagan’s story, and one that I hope will also receive some emphasis. After World War II, President Truman asked Fr. Flanagan to tour Europe and Asia to see what could be done for orphaned and neglected children there. He returned to his native country, Ireland, to see the “industrial schools” operated by the Christian Brothers there. He was shocked by what he found – and he spoke out in a way that was utterly uncharacteristic at the time. The Irish Independent reported:
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.”
We know now, with the Ryan report of the Commision to Inquire into Child Abuse, that Fr. Flanagan rightly perceived a system of abuse. One part of that report focuses on the history of children in care from 1948 forward. It shows that Fr. Flanagan’s was not the only voice of outcry against the system. Nonetheless, he had the integrity and courage to speak out so strongly even as he received the homecoming hero’s welcome – and to name the system not only inhumane but also unChristian.