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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Silence was their downfall


t was not Richard Nixon but Robert McNamara who came to mind, watching Cardinal Bernard F. Law take his awkward leave of Boston on Monday.

They were two of Harvard's best and brightest, scaling the heights of their respective careers a decade apart only to fall back to earth under the crushing weight of their own intellectual arrogance and moral confusion.

''We were wrong, terribly wrong,'' the former defense secretary acknowledged in ''In Retrospect,'' the 1995 memoir that broke his silence about Vietnam, but accepted neither fault nor guilt for the folly that was the war in Indochina.

''I truly believe that we made an error, not of values and intentions, but of judgment and capabilities,'' he wrote, even as he admitted staying silent rather than changing course after concluding that the war could not be won.

Is it possible for a man to render value-neutral a policy that leaves 58,000 Americans and more than 3 million Indochinese dead?

One would have liked to ask the cardinal something similar at what amounted to a photo opportunity at the chancery Monday afternoon. ''Judgments were made regarding the assignment of John Geoghan which, in retrospect, were tragically incorrect,'' Law said in January when the storm that has swept him out of Boston first broke, when his coddling of a serial predator was thought to be an anomaly rather than the common management practice we now know it to have been.

Is it possible for a man to be rendered blind to the suffering of raped and molested children by an institutional reverence for the church?

This scandal has changed the relationship between the church and its people in much the way that Vietnam changed the relationship between the government and the governed. Deference is no longer automatically conferred on those who presume to lead.

McNamara was mystified by the raw anger that his memoir and its ambiguous apology elicited from the veterans he encountered as he peddled his book across the country. ''Read the book,'' McNamara answered sharply when one asked during a forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government why his friends had to die. ''Shut up,'' McNamara shouted when the man persisted.

If Law feels that kind of anger toward those who have been clamoring for answers for months outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, he has kept it in check during his public appearances. On Monday, he even thanked the press corps for its ''courtesy during these years.''

Still, there is an emotional detachment about the cardinal's expressions of sympathy for the victims of sexual abuse by priests that is reminiscent of the former defense secretary's clinical assessment of the fate of soldiers he sent to die in a war he no longer thought could be won. The futility of the war, McNamara wrote in one of the book's few direct references to the dead, does not ''nullify their efforts or their loss.''

The speculation has already begun about what the future holds for Law, after the vacation and the time spent in monastic reflection, that is. An advisory role in Rome seems reasonable, or a diplomatic posting to Latin America, something that makes maximum use of the cardinal's gifts, say local academics.

More penitential positions, serving the poor in the slums of Peru, or ministering to abused children in a psychiatric hospital, say, seem more appropriate than they seem likely.

Some men manage to retain status even as they fall from grace. For his part, McNamara rejected appeals that he donate proceeds of his memoir to veterans' groups. He chose, instead, to fund symposiums to promote US-Vietnamese relations, forums for the next generation of the best and the brightest to learn from his experience.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 12/18/2002.
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