I’ll have to admit that while I knew about Sinead O’Connor tearing up a photo of the Pope – I did not understand the real significance. It’s been 20 years. Since then I have found out about the Magdalene Laundries and a lot of other information.
This article from the Atlantic explains what went mostly unsaid / not discussed:
(Snip)…Almost entirely overlooked in the controversy was the text of O’Connor’s protest—a Bob Marley song, “War,” with lyrics taken from a speech by Haile Selassie. O’Connor had replaced out-of-date lyrics about apartheid African regimes with the phrase “child abuse, yeah,” repeated twice with spine-stiffening venom.
Also inexplicably ignored were O’Connor’s own words, in an interview published in Time a month after herSNL 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.
“The sheer scale and longevity of the torment inflected on defenceless children—over 800 known abusers in over 200 Catholic institutions during a period of 35 years—should alone make it clear that it was not accidental or opportunistic but systematic,” the Irish Times wrote upon reviewing the Ryan Report. “Abuse was not a failure of the system. It was the system.”
At age 15, Sinead O’Connor was caught shoplifting and was sent to an institution much like those investigated in the Commission Report, a Magdalene laundry full of teenage girls who had been judged too promiscuous or uncooperative for civil society. “We worked in the basement, washing priests’ clothes in sinks with cold water and bars of soap,” O’Connor has written of her experience. “We studied math and typing. We had limited contact with our families. We earned no wages. One of the nuns, at least, was kind to me and gave me my first guitar.” On the grounds of one Dublin Magdalene laundry, a mass grave was uncovered which included 22 unidentified bodies. These institutions have since caught the eye of the United Nations Committee against Torture.
After 18 months, with the help of her father, O’Connor escaped from this brutal system. Very quickly, her voice carried her to stardom. Her former captors were the “enemy” O’Connor spoke of when, as a 25-year-old with a once-in-a-lifetime live television audience, she tore the picture of the Pope and exhorted her viewers to “fight” him. The picture she tore, in fact, had belonged to her abusive mother, then already dead. “The photo itself had been on my mother’s bedroom wall since the day the fucker was enthroned in 1978,” she told the Irish magazine Hot Press in 2010.