In the days after Sinéad O’Connor’s death, there was an outpouring of praise for the Irish singer. News accounts and op-eds in US and Ireland’s major media noted her courageous and prophetic voice. One lesson from Sinéad’s life and the reactions to her passing is the importance of calling institutions and nations to account for past sins and the benefits that accrue to future generations from such reckonings.
While the many causes for which Sinéad fiercely advocated had a single common denominator – her concern with injustice – she is best remembered for ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on TV while admonishing the audience “to fight the real enemy”. Some saw it as unforgivable. The incident haunted her and for a time derailed her career, but not for her many fans in Ireland.
Ireland, a largely Catholic country, understood Sinéad’s anger. My wife Eileen was deeply attached to her Irish heritage and her Catholic faith. Frequent visitors to the Emerald Isle, we were there in the early 1990s when the newspapers were filled with stories about the Magdalene laundries, the homes to which “delinquent children” and pregnant unwed women were sent and subjected to abuse and forced servitude. Expectant mothers worked until their babies were born and taken from them.
The Irish Press ran photos and interviews with women detailing the abuse they endured and the pain of their loss, and stories of mothers who died in childbirth and babies who perished (6,000 in all) and were interred in mass graves. These reports were compounded by extensive reports of sexual abuse by the clergy.
At age 14, Sinéad had been sentenced to 18 months in a Magdalene laundry and knew first-hand the indignity of incarceration. As Irish media and political leaders would not let the matter rest, many Catholics came to share her rage. The Catholic Church in Ireland was held accountable for its past and continues to be humbled by this reckoning.
While Sinéad’s legacy of demanding accountability for past injustices was being honoured, one could not help contrasting it with recent US news stories showing American politicians and US Catholic bishops refusing to acknowledge, and seeking to erase, their country’s and church’s past.
For example, Republican governors and other elected officials in Florida, Texas, and Virginia are demanding changes in the way America’s deplorable history of slavery and racism is taught in schools. Attempting to “whitewash” slavery, it’s being portrayed as a time when some blacks learned skills that benefited them post-slavery. Eliminated are a detailed accounting of the horrors of Jim Crow segregation and the mass lynchings that killed thousands. They want a guilt-free past with no accountability.
Nor is sexual abuse a stranger to the US Catholic Church (or, for that matter, US Protestant denominations or Jewish institutions). Shocking stories of widespread abuse continue to be reported, in dribs and drabs, and soon forgotten, as religious leaders sweep accusations away to “protect their institutions”. Or they change the subject by asserting that the “real problems” are abortion or gay marriage.
While Ireland and its church have been forced to come to terms with the past, America and its institutions have never fully come to terms with their sins and are moving in the opposite direction.
The only nation to use nuclear weapons, America did so without telling the Japanese about the long-term impact of radiation on civilians. Dropping millions of tonnes of bombs on Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq, we made victims of millions of innocents. And in the last decade, we used gross forms of torture to extract information from prisoners and justified it with shockingly detailed “legal memos” written by Bush administration officials.
Despite this sordid history, we maintain our claims of innocence and our right to be the standard-bearers of virtue. This sense of impunity arises from never being forced to reckon with our past, as the Irish and the Irish Catholic Church were forced to do.
This, then, is the lesson from Sinéad O’Connor’s life and death: the importance of calling nations and institutions to accept responsibility for their pasts, and the humility and the possibility of changed behaviour that can accompany this acknowledgment.