The Passion of Saint Sinéad

By Alexander Quaresma

"How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?"
-Bob Marley

On October 3, 1992 Irish singer Sinéad Marie Bernadette O'Connor stood before a live New York television audience on "Saturday Night Live." She would go on to sing an acapella version of Bob Marley's "War." Marley's political anthem is a song about crimes against humanity emanating from racist ideology. Sinéad had something else in mind for this rendition of the song, however.

She began her performance essentially sticking to the original Bob Marley lyrics. Midway through the song, however, Sinéad began to alter some of the words. Rather than singing about Angola, Mozambique and South Africa she sings "child abuse," followed by a tortured cry. She did this twice. "Child abuse? Wait... what?"

With all of the courage that a martyr might muster while being fed alive to lions Sinéad would go on to hold up a photo of Pope John Paul II upon singing the originally written lyric "evil," only to tear the photo to shreds. "Fight the real enemy" she declared with disdain to end her performance. The silence from the studio audience as "SNL" transitioned to commercial was deafening. Twenty-five years later that incident remains one of the bravest things I've ever seen anyone do on live television.

The backlash Sinéad faced as a direct result of her actions was swift and harsh. Madonna, of all people, was critical of her performance. The following week "SNL" guest host Joe Pesci "joked" about how if she had done what she did the week before on his show he'd have smacked her; a quip to which the audience jubilantly applauded. One week after that Sinéad was booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute show held at Madison Square Garden. After all, how dare this bald Irish woman criticize the Catholic Church and the revered symbol of the Christian faith - as well as an anti-communist champion - like Pope John Paul II? What nerve! What exactly was she criticizing anyway?

"Child abuse, yea'hah! Child abuse, yea'hah!"

It was 1992, a relatively socially conservative time in America. Reagan's VP was still the president at this time. Prior to this the notion that the priesthood in the Catholic Church would engage in sexually abusing children was simply unfathomable. 

In response to the backlash, O'Connor would pen an open letter explaining her actions that same month. It's a short and rather jarring letter. Yet even after O'Connor wrote it some people still couldn't quite put what it was she was saying together. Why would they? Nobody had ever spoken out about this kind of thing before - therefore whatever it is she seemed to be intimating couldn't be the cause. "It must be some weird publicity stunt."


In her letter she refers to herself as an "abused child" throughout, while at the same time criticizing the Catholic Church's history when it came to both herself as an individual and to Ireland as a whole. But the gist of that letter, in spite of it flying completely over most people's heads at the time, was that there is a very serious problem with sexual abuse when it comes to children within the institution of the Church. It was the first time anyone of her stature and public profile had openly touched this issue; so, like previously slumbering sleepers in the dark, who instantly grow angry at any single person who forces their eyes to deal with a light that he or she has switched on as they try to remain asleep, most everyone spewed their venom in the direction of Sinéad O'Connor. And many have continued to do so for twenty-five years now.

Sinéad O'Connor sacrificed a long and lucrative career in order to take a stand and make a statement that nobody else would. Whether or not in 1992 she knew she'd be sacrificing her career - and perhaps even her sanity - in doing so is irrelevant. The fact remains that the next twenty-five years of her life were never the same after her "SNL" appearance. 

As it turned out Sinéad O'Connor wasn't making things up as some sort of sensational publicity stunt as some more or less assumed. What O'Connor had done was tore the lid off of a very ugly and perverted component underlying the entirety of Western civilization itself. Though it took awhile for the stench of what she had shown her light on to truly be realized - namely that of the proclivity for those in authority to sexually abuse the weakest and most vulnerable members of our varying social paradigms, children - ultimately Sinéad's actions were vindicated by truth. And what bastion of Western civilization has held more sway over more people over the long enduring centuries than the Catholic Church itself?

There had always been those who would come forward, particularly in Ireland, as abuse victims. The Brendan Smyth case is a prime example of that. His arrest occurred before O'Connor's "SNL" performance. So I don't mean to paint a picture that Sinéad's actions were what spurred on all of those who would have otherwise remained silent. But in the years that followed O'Connor's outburst on live television, little by little more and more people would come forward to tell their stories. And it reached a point in the world as if floodgates had been opened. Did these people who'd come forward after O'Connor's song find the courage to do so after the fact? I couldn't say nor would I presume to speak for anyone who did. Odds are, probably not. But what cannot be denied is O'Connor's actions blazed a trail through the daunting jungle that constituted the zeitgeist of the entire Western world when she did what she did. So once people did start coming forward in the years to follow, the memory of what it was that Sinéad did that October night rang like a mournful bell once tolled long ago in the misty haze of yesteryear.

In October of 2002, Ireland's RTÉ news magazine "Prime Time" would broadcast an exposé the sexual abuse of children by the priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin. Some of these victims, we'd learn, had even lodged formal complaints against the offenders at the time, all of which were ignored by the Church and the Gardaí. It was this program in particular which led to the outrage of Ireland's populace which led to a number of formal investigations by the Republic of Ireland's government into what it was that "Prime Time" had uncovered. It is also interesting to note that the episode aired in October of 2002, ten years after O'Connor's song. Was this a coincidence? Again, perhaps not. But the tolling of the bell rung by Sinéad could probably be heard in the back of everyone's mind just the same.

In 2004 alone - it later came out - the Vatican would be forced to defrockeight hundred and forty-eight priests who raped or molested children. In the meantime another 2,572 out of the 3,400 cases had to be punished for "lesser" crimes.

In 2009 the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), which had been set up by the Irish government as a means to investigate the extent of abuse during the years of 1936 to the present in schools run by the Catholic Church, would release its findings. CICA's report would in fact be entirely consistent with everything O'Connor expressed as being a motivation for her actions on "SNL" seventeen years earlier. The report would state that it had been demonstrated beyond a doubt that, yes, indeed, children were abused over the years their investigation was tasked to look into. And that, yes, Church officials would not only condone but even encourage the ritual abuse of these children.

That same year the Irish government would also release the Murphy Report, detailing the findings of the Irish government's investigation into alleged sexual abuse scandals involving the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin. The report would conclude that sexual child abuse was covered up from January 1975 to May 2004. The cherry on top of the findings in the Murphy Report was that some of the abuse would occur inside Dublin's St. Mary's Cathedral itself, the seat of Dublin's Archbishopric since as far back as 1825.

The Catholic Church as we know it in 2017 has been around for a long time. It goes back much farther than 1936 and it held sway over far more than just the Irish isle. Just try to imagine the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children made to suffer abuse at its hands over the long centuries. So ingrained was the systematic sexual abuse of children within the confines of Church secrecy that the Murphy Report would even reveal that some bishops and other Church officials didn't even regard the sexual abuse of children as a crime. Try to let that sink in.

In 2013 Benedict XVI would resign his post as Archbishop of Rome. In doing so he became the first pope to give up his post since 1415. On paper the official reason for Benedict XVI's resignation was a "lack of strength" due to age. The real reason, however, was all of the growing scandals blazing across the Western world involving the abuse of children and the Catholic Church which he had intimate involvement with and knowledge of.

Attorney Ulrich Weber was charged with investigating two hundred and thirty-one claims of sexual child abuse by boys involved with the Bavarian Regensburg boys' choir over multiple decades. Director of this choir during the years of 1964 through to 1994 was Georg Ratzinger, brother to Archbishop of Munich and future Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger. According to Weber's investigation it was a boarding school director, one Johann Meier, who was responsible for most of the abuse detailed over those thirty years. Claims of Meier's abuse were made as early (or as late, depending on your point of view) as 1987, yet no actions were ever taken against him by Georg or Bishop John Ratzinger.

Later, before ascending to his eventual position as pope, Ratzinger would be put in charge by John Paul II himself with the handling of many scandals rocking the Vatican coming out of both Ireland and the United States. The now Cardinal Ratzinger would use his authority not to bring the guilty to justice, but rather to shield them from it.

The torrent of cases of sexual abuse flooded the media and Vatican dockets over the years just after Pope John Paul II's death. What could be documented of the new pope's history was bad enough. What was perhaps just as bad if not worse was what was still left to question. After a scandal-ridden eight years the new pope was forced to resign. It should also be added that in Pope Benedict's final full two years as pope three hundred and eighty-four priests would be defrocked.

In 2015 the motion picture Spotlight would be produced. It was all about "The Boston Globe's" 2001-03 investigation team who would go on to uncover the horrific and systematic sexual abuse of children in the Boston area by Catholic priests. That film would go on to win an Academy Award as the best feature picture of that year.

Essentially, regardless of what happened or why, what this all boils down to is one thing: Sinéad O'Connor was right.

It should be also be noted that the world was not completely left in the dark to sexual child abuse emanating out of the Catholic Church prior Sinéad O'Connor's "SNL" performance. Indeed there were other voices speaking of such horrors. In fact, that same year, New Orleans-based journalist Jason Berry's Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children would become one of the earliest, if not first, books to touch upon this subject. So there certainly were others in 1992.

According to a piece published by the "New Yorker," American Catholic dioceses would shell out over four hundred million dollars in 1992 alone, all as part of abuse non-disclosure settlements. What that one fact alone reveals is that there were many many people who knew what was going on; even in 1992. It was a brave and heroic undertaking for someone like Jason Berry to write his book. That cannot be overlooked. That said, however, in 1992 nobody really knew who Jason Berry was outside of Louisiana. As important as his book was it barely caused a ripple across the calm surface of Westren weltanschauung. Sinéad O'Connor on the other hand was a massive name in the music recording industry at that time, someone who also had a whole lot to lose. And she put it all on the line to speak out in a very public forum about a massive injustice which was still going on after centuries, CENTURIES, of no action being taken by anyone in a position to stop the abuse.

I want to go back to her "SNL" performance of "War." Though the song was written by Bob Marley, much of the lyrics were taken from a speech made by Ethiopia's Haile Selassie I to the UN General Assembly on October 4, 1963. It is therefore interesting to note that though the "SNL" episode is officially listed as having aired on October 3, the fact is O'Connor actually performed the song after midnight, in which case it would have been October 4. So in the same city, and twenty-nine years to the day, that Emperor Haile Selassie's impassioned speech was given, Sinéad O'Connor gave new life to some very wise words delivered to the world. Why? Well, she told us in her open letter written in late October 1992, "Child abuse is the highest manifestation of evil." Racism is an evil far more tangible and easily processed. Sexual child abuse on the other hand is harder to come to grips with and discuss. I am in agreement with Sinéad's sentiments that it is fact the highest form of evil. To take the words of Emperor Selassie I, which were made into a song by the great Bob Marley, and then sing them as a means of supporting the victims of such evil was nothing short of brilliant and courageous, both, on her part.

With all of this said, it is with great sadness that I must bear witness to the dire straits Sinéad O'Connor is now in. The video she posted to Facebook is absolutely heartbreaking. Might Sinéad O'Connor be suffering from mental illness in 2017 had she never done what she did on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992? Perhaps. However, I don't think one can gloss over the years of vile hatred and disdain she's had to endure over the past twenty-five years as a direct result of her desire to speak out for those who had been victimized who had no voice of their own. Might Sinéad O'Connor's current situation also be the result of the abuse she had to endure in the years prior to her ever becoming a famous songstress that she told us about in 1992 as well? Absolutely.

I cannot help but feel that these years have taken their toll and eroded the sanity of a very beautiful and sensitive soul who most assuredly deserved a better fate than what our sick and schizophrenic society has handed her. Sinéad O'Connor is an international treasure. Though I do not follow the tenets of any organized religion, in my eyes at least, what Sinéad O'Connor did and had to suffer through as a result amounts to nothing short of the very definition of "saint." While I don't expect the Catholic Church to ever beatify Sinéad in the years going forward, I shall always regard her as a saint nonetheless. If nothing else Sinéad's action were that of a prophetess, carrying the lamp shining the light of truth upon a dark and malevolent evil in the world that had almost magically gone disregarded for a long time.

O'Connor wrote in her letter, "I had to have it acknowledged what was done to me so that I could forgive and be free." While Sinéad has forgiven, it is unfortunate that she has not ever been set free. In fact, she's had to endure a neverending passion of biblical proportions. I hope she gets the help she desperately needs and has been crying out for for a long time now. The world owes her that much in the least.