The Redemption of Sinead O’Connor
By Michael Agresta Oct 3 2012
Twenty years ago today, Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live—and the media largely misunderstood why. Is America finally ready to hear her out?
In the weeks and months after Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on live television, commentators in the media sought to explain the motives of her protest. Very few, however, made use of the traditional tools of journalism: interviews, research, and textual analysis. Instead, most commentators seem to have consulted their own imaginations….
Also inexplicably ignored were O’Connor’s own words, in an interview published in Time a month after her SNL appearance:
It’s not the man, obviously—it’s the office and the symbol of the organization that he represents… In Ireland we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorized what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.
Her interviewer seemed confused by the connection O’Connor was making between the Catholic Church and child abuse, so O’Connor opened up about her own history of abuse:
Sexual and physical. Psychological. Spiritual. Emotional. Verbal. I went to school every day covered in bruises, boils, sties and face welts, you name it. Nobody ever said a bloody word or did a thing. Naturally I was very angered by the whole thing, and I had to find out why it happened… The thing that helped me most was the 12-step group, the Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. My mother was a Valium addict. What happened to me is a direct result of what happened to my mother and what happened to her in her house and in school.
The interviewer remained skeptical of O’Connor’s characterization of Irish schools as playgrounds and training grounds for child abusers, and the interview moved on to different topics.
By now, the history of sexual and physical abuse in the Irish Catholic school system is familiar. As late as 2007, the Church controlled 93% of the schools in Ireland, giving most children no hope of escaping the often-sadistic system. As in America, serial child molesters like Brendan Smyth were shuttled from parish to parish and school to school to keep a step ahead of police and complaining parents. The culture of permissiveness towards abuse affected all communities, but probably the worst off were poor, orphaned, and troublemaking children sent to residential reformatory and industrial schools. To read the 2009 Ryan Report covering crimes carried out against children in these settings is to court a special sort of nausea—the kind that comes from bearing witness to an organized effort to deny the dignity of individual life and make the bodies of the powerless available to service the needs of the powerful. In this case, the powerless were disadvantaged minor teenagers and children.
Sexual abuse in several industrial schools was described as a “chronic problem.” Clergy whose behavior drew complaints from parents of day-school students were transferred to industrial schools where their abuses drew less attention. Some schools seem, on the evidence, to have been more labor camps than institutions of learning. At one notorious industrial school in Dublin, each child was required to string 60 rosaries each weekday and 90 on Saturdays. Students who did not reach their quotas were beaten….