Saturday, July 2, 2005

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — While serving in Iraq last year, young Marine Sgt. Eric Eggink wrote in gratitude to the Rev. Val Peter, president and chief executive of Girls and Boys Town.

“Thanks to the skills I learned at Girls and Boys Town, I’m able to lead others and teach these men how to handle battle,” wrote Sgt. Eggink, who graduated in May 2001 after arriving at the institution in 1997, at age 15.

Now Sgt. Eggink is back safe in Omaha and can’t believe that Father Peter is stepping down as the leader at the campus that was once called Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home.

“It’s his life,” Sgt. Eggink said. “He’s the guy who makes things happen.”

Father Peter’s been making things happen — expanding and diversifying the institution — since he took over in 1985. Under his stewardship, Girls and Boys Town has grown to 19 sites in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

While in the public imagination, Girls and Boys Town is primarily thought of as an orphanage, most of the troubled young people living on its campus have been referred by families or social service agencies.

It also has a national, toll-free crisis and referral hot line for children and parents. Assets include a research hospital in Omaha, a national resource and training center and a publishing arm, Boys Town Press.

While the organization is battling four sex-abuse lawsuits and has occasionally clashed with the local Roman Catholic bishop, its literature says 43,654 children received direct “help, healing and hope” from Girls and Boys Town services last year.

In addition to the task of overseeing the 500-plus children and all the staffers at the Omaha campus, Father Peter has acted as an unofficial pastor to the national parish created by Girls and Boys Town.

Father Peter teaches and preaches moral absolutes and the famed “Boys Town model,” which comes from university research into “behavior-shaping models,” stressing self-discipline and respect.

In one of what the Town’s Web site calls “Father’s Letters,” he says: “Lies decrease the love we have for one another. … They extinguish trust and belief in one another. Lies are morally wrong.”

Father Peter will remain for a year as pastor to the boys, girls and adults who attend services at Dowd Memorial Chapel at Boys Town Village, as the Omaha campus is known. He is relinquishing his duties as president and CEO to the Rev. Steven E. Boes, 46, who was scheduled to take over yesterday.

The national board of trustees’ chairman, former Coca-Cola division President John J. Gillin of Atlanta, describes Father Peter as “electric.”

“When he walks in a room, people know he’s there,” Mr. Gillin said. “But the fun is watching kids when he enters a room. They crowd around him. They love him. He knows their names.”

Father Peter also is unafraid to protect his institution. In 1994, he filed a defamation suit against the American Institute of Philanthropy over an unflattering institute report card.

“We think sometimes you have to restore and preserve your reputation,” Father Peter said in 1996 when the suit was settled.

The national shadow of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy also fell on Girls and Boys Town. Four lawsuits are pending against the institution: three say that sexual abuse occurred in the late 1970s or early 1980s; the other charges abuse in 1997.

Said Town attorney James Martin Davis: “My advice was not to settle any of them because there was nothing there.”

More recently, Father Peter and his board in 2003 risked the ecumenical wrath of his archbishop, Elden Curtiss, over Father Peter’s retirement and whether the search for his replacement would be national.

As it turned out, said Father Peter in April, “The best person for the job was found right here in the diocese,” referring to Father Boes, who had been running the St. Augustine Indian Mission and School in Winnebago, 70 miles north of Omaha.

Father Peter has loved his work at Girls and Boys Town, which was renamed from Boys Town in 2000 by the vote of its residents. “Ever since I was young I’ve loved the chaos of family life — the tears and the pain, the hope and the hugs,” Father Peter said.

So what’s next for the 70-year-old priest?

“Oh,” he said, “I’m gonna help the kids.”

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