The complaint filed Nov. 13 in the Spanish High Court against the former president of El Salvador and 14 former members of the Salvadoran military charging complicity in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests is a reminder that good deeds by members of Congress may bear fruit even decades after those members are gone.
Those charges might well never have been filed had it not been for a self-described “bread and butter politician,” U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley, who represented South Boston from 1973 until his death in 2001.
Moakley had rarely paid much attention to foreign affairs, much less El Salvador, until learning of the attack on the priests. “Taking care of the everyday local problems of my constituents in the greater Boston area is what has always been important to me,” he reflected later.
But that was to change as a result of the events that took place in the early hours of Nov. 16, 1989. Days earlier, the guerrilla force FLMN had gained control of areas around San Salvador. In response, the Salvadoran General Staff determined to strike back at the rebels and their supporters, including many they suspected to be at the University of Central America.
Among the prime targets was Father Ignacio Ellacuria Bescoetxea who, along with his fellow Jesuits, maintained residence at the university. Ellacuria had been an outspoken critic of the government though he had tried to mediate a ceasefire.
Salvadoran soldiers made their way to the UCA Pastoral Center. Ordering Ellacuria and his colleagues to lie face down in the garden, they proceeded to execute them, also killing another priest and the housekeeper and her daughter.
“No other event has affected my life as the Jesuit murders have,” a disturbed Moakley said. Asked by Speaker Tom Foley to undertake a congressional investigation into the incident, Moakley tapped his then-senior aide, now U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Worcester), to lead the effort. The Moakley Commission report tied the military directly to the crime and contributed to the beginning of the peace process in El Salvador.
But despite Moakley and McGovern’s courageous work and a trial in 1991 of 10 defendants, only two military officers ever served prison time and those two shortly received amnesty. The complaint in the Spanish High Court by the Center for Justice and Accountability, the Association for Human Rights in Spain and at least two of the priests’ relatives holds the promise of rectifying that injustice.
There will always be tension between those who believe societies cannot ever fully be restored to stability until the perpetrators of past human rights violations pay the price for their crimes and those who argue that it is best to “let sleeping dogs lie.” Ultimately it is the victims who have the right to decide how comfortably to let those dogs sleep.
Moakley never realized that his work might help spur a new legal doctrine that has the potential to curb human rights abuses far beyond El Salvador. His care for the victims of the war in El Salvador arose from the same spirit that defined his service to his own constituents: giving the little guy a break; seeing that justice is done not just for those of great power and wealth but for those of great determination and faith. That commitment is now paying global dividends. Not a bad thing to remember as we contemplate a new Congress and administration.