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photo of Joseph Moakley
on the passing of John Joseph Moakley

I believe that there is one reason why Congressman Joseph Moakley suggested that I have the privilege of speaking this evening. Joe frequently and publicly said that of all the accomplishments that were his in over 40 years of public service, his proudest was in bringing to light the truth about the atrocious murders of six Jesuit priest-educators and their housekeepers at the University of Central America in El Salvador. It was that thin but sharp ray of light that was the beginning of the return of peace and justice to that troubled land. As one who stood on the ground in El Salvador during Joe's work there, I would like to re-create, as much as I can 10 years later, the circumstances that made what he did so important to the world.

The persons murdered were Jesuit priests and two women who worked for them. People the world over, if they know of the existence of Jesuits, think of us as educators. But Jesuit education, especially at the University of Central America, has never pursued knowledge merely for its own sake, but always as a cultural force to bring about greater equality among people, as an instrument to improve the condition of the human family, to ease the oppression that comes from poverty and, at times, even the oppression of political leaders who use well-trained armies to enforce their domination.

Such was the case in El Salvador in the 1980s. As Ignatio Ellacuria, the murdered Jesuit president of the University of Central America expressed it: "The reality of El Salvador, the reality of the Third World, that is, the reality of most of this world . . . is fundamentally characterized by the . . . predominance of falsehood over truth, injustice over justice, oppression over freedom, poverty over abundance, in sum, of evil over good. . . . That is the reality with which we live . . . and we ask ourselves what to do about it in a university way. We answer . . . 'We must transform it, do all we can to ensure that . . . freedom [predominates] over oppression, justice over injustice, truth over falsehood, and love over hatred.' If a university does not decide to make this commitment, we do not understand what validity it has as a university. Much less as a Christian-inspired university."

It was because of this message that at one o'clock in the morning of November 16, 1989, a battalion of troops entered the campus of the Jesuit university in El Salvador, roused the Jesuit president and five of his brother professors from their sleep, forced them onto a little plot of grassy land behind their simple residence, and then dispatched them on the spot. The troops proceeded to shoot up the surrounding buildings with machine guns to make the murders look as though they had been perpetrated by guerrilla forces.

It all appears so clear-cut and transparent today. But when it happened, the Military High Command issued a statement declaring that it had been guerrillas who were responsible for the murders. American Embassy officials, whose government had trained in the United States some of the trigger- men who committed those murders, also pointed the finger of blame not at the military but at the guerrillas.

In January of 1990, the U.S. Speaker of the House appointed Congressman Moakley to an extraordinary, select committee to investigate the crimes in El Salvador. In some ways, that appointment changed Joe Moakley's life forever.

Faith was not something that Joe wore on his sleeve or that made people uncomfortable, yet it was a perspective that he brought to everything he did in public and private life. It was a lifelong perspective on himself and on the people around him; he saw the inviolable dignity of every human person and felt the irresistible call of those in need. Faith made him unswerving when the powerful served themselves at the expense of the weak.

The measure of Joe Moakley's faith and of his courage in carrying out his charge is the measure of the forces that opposed him--not a few ruthless individuals, but the U.S.-trained military establishment of a sovereign nation that could enforce silence on witnesses as effectively as it had committed murder. Perhaps most difficult of all, Joe also faced the embarrassing efforts of some colleagues in his own government to set false trails away from the guilty and to withhold keys to the truth.

There is no doubt that the authoritative voice of one man and his courage to use it ultimately broke the dam of silence and kindled hope that peace and justice could again be realities. Within a year of Joe's appointment, criminal investigations in El Salvador were raised to the level of full trials. Two military officers were convicted for their part in the crime. Within another year, peace accords were signed at the United Nations between the government and its warring opponents. And although the individuals suspected of ultimately ordering the murders were never tried, and men who confessed to killing the University Jesuits were exonerated for acting under orders, the system of government- organized oppression and murder had been broken.

What made this accomplishment the greatest of Joe's public life? It was the straight-line continuity with what he had done all his life. It simply played out on a world stage Joe's lifelong faith in the inviolable dignity of every human being, his sense of justice and fairness, and the unswerving courage he had always shown on behalf of those who were weak and in need. That was what Joe had demonstrated for 40 years in South Boston and in the halls of Congress, and most of all, it was what he believed when he heard the Gospel message in his parish church, "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."

J. Donald Monan, SJ

J. Donald Monan, SJ, is the chancellor of Boston College and was the University's president from 1972 until 1996. These reflections were drawn from a homily that he delivered on May 31, 2001, at a State House vigil. Congressman Moakley (D-Massachusetts) served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 29 years, until his death on May 28 at the age of 74.

Photo: Congressman Moakley, left, in El Salvador with U.S. ambassador William Walker, right, during the Congressional investigation into the murders of six Jesuit priests. Photo courtesy Joseph Moakley's congressional office

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