Does the Catholic Church Owe Sinead O’Connor an Apology?
It was one of the most famous career self-immolations in entertainment history.
On October 3, 1992, singer Sinead O’Connor went on Saturday Night Live. And tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II.
O’Connor, who’d had a huge hit in 1990 with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” had just performed an a cappella cover of Bob Marley‘s “War.” O’Connor changed some of these lyrics to represent the plight of abused youth. When she was done, O’Connor held up the photo. “We have confidence in good over evil,” she sang. Then she tore up the picture and tossed the pieces at the camera. “Fight the real enemy,” she said.
Nobody Knew Why
The public was baffled, outraged. Her career quickly tanked. Yet in the light of current scandals involving the Catholic Church, we need to ask ourselves: What was she really saying? And why?
In the wake of the recent revelations about widespread sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, and the cover-up of the abuse by bishops and cardinals, O’Connor’s story, and her struggle, take on new relevance. Tearing up the picture of John Paul II on national television was a mistake. To be sure. But we ought to look back now at the anguish behind the act.
The Magdalene Laundries
O’Connor was just 14 in 1980 when she was sent to the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity laundry, in Dublin, after she was labeled a “problem child.” Our Lady of Charity was a “Magdalene Laundry,” one of the notorious workhouses run by Catholic religious orders in Ireland which have since been shut down. O’Connor once told an interviewer: “We were girls in there, not women, just children really. And the girls in there cried every day.”
She went on:
It was a prison. We didn’t see our families, we were locked in, cut off from life, deprived of a normal childhood. We were told we were there because we were bad people. Some of the girls had been raped at home and not believed. … One girl was in because she had a bad hip and her family didn’t know what to do with her.
O’Connor was in the facility for 18 months.
Perhaps seeking closure, on the eve of the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, the singer has asked for an official certificate of excommunication from the church.
Trauma Has Consequences
More than 25 years have passed since O’Connor’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. Thanks to advances in science and the plight of modern soldiers with PTSD, we now understand much more about what happens when a person suffers trauma from abuse. It can leave him ashamed of his own appearance. Terrified of intimacy. Bedeviled — and thrilled — by the adrenaline that once made coping with the impossible … possible.
In light of her story, O’Connor doesn’t seem like an egotistic pop star who had a bad night on television. Or a bigot. Instead, she appears as a woman whose youthful trauma mapped out her subsequent choices. A beautiful woman, O’Connor shaved off all of her hair and wore military clothes and boots.
While she is known for the Prince-written smash “Nothing Compares 2 U,” O’Connor’s own songs reveal a person struggling with terrible pain while reaching for holiness.
Like O’Connor, I was born in the 1960s, was raised Catholic, and spent most of my life under the papacy of John Paul II. There our roads diverge. Most of my teachers, many of them priests and nuns, were true followers of Christ. They modeled the best kind of behavior and were inspirational in their adherence to the liberation of the gospels. Some others? Authoritarian bullies or creepy sex deviants who never should have been allowed near kids.
John Paul II was a genuine moral giant. When he went to Poland in 1979 and delivered the first blow in the chain of events that would end the Cold War, we saw the Catholic Church at it best and most spiritually potent. But while John Paul was confronting evil behind the Iron Curtain, in Ireland and America, the devil was hard at work in Catholic churches and seminaries. Sinead O’Connor was just ahead of her time in seeing it and saying it.