Father Val Peter, Boys Town’s leader for 20 years, dies

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Father Val Peter is seen in this undated photo. He was executive director of Boys Town from 1985 to 2005. Father Peter died June 30 at age 85. CNS photo/courtesy Boys Town

BOYS TOWN, Neb. (CNS) — Father Val Peter, who was executive director of Boys Town from 1985 to 2005, died June 30 at age 85. No cause of death was given.

During his 20-year tenure leading Boys Town, Father Peter renovated much of the Boys Town campus, installed Boys Town campuses in major cities throughout the United States and increased the number of girls served by Boys Town.

He also utilized the latest research in child development to give the children under his care a better chance at a more productive future.

By 1994, Boys Town was caring for 20,000 boys and girls in 16 metropolitan areas. “We combine scientific technologies with enormous compassion,” Father Peter said at the time. Rather than the dormitories and mess halls of old, for instance, Boys Town’s children all lived with families.

A decade later, that number had more than doubled to 43,654 children at 19 sites in 15 states and in the District of Columbia. More than 500,000 children and families were helped through Boys Town’s national hotline and nearly 1 million more were served through outreach and professional programs.

In a 1993 interview with the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Father Peter said the nature of youth problems had changed since Boys Town’s founding in 1917.

“The toughest children to help get better are Americans,” he said. ”The evils are far more subtle, the drugs are far more seductive. There’s too much of everything material and not enough of anything spiritual.”

In the interview, Father Peter presaged Pope Francis by two decades when he said, “We’re involved in a great war, and Boys Town is a field hospital in that struggle.”

In 2002, he became an early clergy advocate for the defrocking of priests who abused minors and the resignation of superiors who covered up the abuse.

“Perpetrators must lose their license to practice. Negligent supervisors must remove themselves or be removed,” he said. When children have been abused “the children come first,” he added. “Not sometimes,” he said, “not in some places, but always and everywhere.”

In a 1992 column in the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Father Peter said safe sex was “the same thing” as “safe promiscuity.” “What man, if his son asks him for bread, would give him a stone?” he asked, borrowing the biblical allegory. “The adults of America are being asked by their children for something that is nourishing and lasting and we are giving them condoms.”

Civilization, Father Peter said, is “a very fragile and precious achievement” and democracy “even … more fragile and precious.” He added, “The rule or law ‘sex belongs in marriage’ is one of the building blocks of civilization. It is just as important, if not more so, than the rule ‘thou shalt not steal.’ Both rules make living together possible and worthwhile.”

At a 1991 conference in Boys Town, Father Peter told participants that compassion is important but by itself isn’t adequate.

“The world is filled with people who want to help our kids,” Father Peter said, “and the kids get worse. What we need is competence. We need people who know what they’re about. That takes discipline, sacrifice and learning. Compassion without this is sheer sentimentality.”

A decade later, after a White House meeting with President George W. Bush about the administration’s impending initiative to give faith-based organizations a better shot at federal funding, Father Peter said he felt his concerns about faith-based initiatives were heard and understood by the administration.

He added he went into the meeting wanting to be sure the initiative required quality programs, with good, demonstrable outcomes and accountability. “Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of pious do-gooders,” he said.

Born Valentine Peter in Omaha in 1934, he was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha in 1959. Last year, he marked 60 years as a priest.

Father Peter’s brother was Father Carl Peter, one of the leading U.S. post-Vatican II theologians, who spent 27 years teaching at The Catholic University of America, Washington, and died in 1991 at age 59. Father Carl Peter wrote some 125 scholarly monographs, articles and books.

In 2004, a year before Father Val Peter turned 70, the typical retirement age for priests in the archdiocese, Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss, then Omaha’s archbishop, resigned as chairman of Boys Town’s board of directors in an apparent dispute over bylaws changes governing the Boys Town board and executive director. The archbishop said he could not guarantee he would supply future priests to Boys Town. The executive director of Boys Town had always been an Omaha archdiocesan priest, including its founder, Father Edward Flanagan.

The dispute was resolved in 2005, when Father Peter retired and succeeded by another archdiocesan priest, Father Steven E. Boes, who continues to run Boys Town today. In retirement, Father Peter remained as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish on the Boys Town campus.

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