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Sinéad O'Connor: An Unlikely Prophet for a Scandalized Church

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They say that God has a sense of humor. Some might be surprised, or even amused, by the idea that Sinéad O'Connor is now a powerful voice for renewal in the scandal-hit Catholic Church.

Although she is often imagined to be hostile to Catholicism, she in fact holds a deep affection for the faith:

"I think the essence of Catholicism is beautiful. . . . What I would love to see is for Catholicism to survive this, so that true Catholicism can shine."

In the early 1990s the stark, ethereal beauty of her voice enchanted the world, catapulting her to fame. But she came crashing down after a 1992 performance on "Saturday Night Live" where, in protest against the Catholic Church's handing of child abuse, she tore up a large photo of Pope John Paul II, and threw the pieces at the camera, telling the audience to "fight the real enemy!"

Overnight, she became a hate figure for many Catholics: Her albums were ceremonially crushed by bulldozers, and she was booed off the stage in Madison Square Garden. What then seemed like outrageous claims of a widespread Church cover-up of child abuse have now been borne out by a litany of reports from around the world. A contrite Facebook group, "apologize to Sinéad O'Connor NOW" has even been set up by some who once dismissed her.

Speaking from her home near Dublin, she breaks off occasionally to comfort her kids, taking care of a million small things, like any busy mother of four. She remains very active as a musician, but says her primary occupation is not singer, songwriter or campaigner, but mother. Now 43, she seems more comfortable in her own skin than ever before. She speaks softly, with a wry Dublin wit. After becoming suicidal in hear early 30s, she was belatedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The treatments worked, and she recovered her happiness and her creativity.

In recent years she has released a number of acclaimed albums and has collaborated with artists like U2 and Peter Gabriel. She has also recorded Christian sacred music with the monks at Glenstal Abbey. In 1999 she hit the headlines when she was ordained a priest, Mother Mary Bernadette, in the Latin Tridentine Church, a breakaway Catholic sect.

Sinéad O'Connor has emerged as a respected critic of the Catholic Church's handling of child abuse. Although forthright in her views, she often speaks in a sympathetic register which few would have anticipated.

"The love and curiosity I have about religion come from Catholicism. I am very interested in the idea of the saints; everything about it; I mean, it's beautiful," she said.

When she was growing up in the 1970s, she says, "Ireland was a very religious place; it was a theocracy in fact. I was a lucky person in that I never sponged up anything but the good of Catholicism...My feeling about ordinary priests and nuns is that they're great. I've never met anything but loving priests and nuns. I've been communicating with quite a lot of them lately, and they themselves are very upset about how they have been brought in to disrepute by the behavior of the hierarchy. The poor priests are afraid to walk down the road with a child. It's appalling."

She speaks with warmth and insight into Christianity and the Catholic tradition in which she was raised; for good and, as she also recognizes, for ill.

She knows Ireland's Catholic institutions from the inside: As a troubled 15-year-old girl, she was committed to the Grianán Training Centre for shoplifting and truancy. This was one of the now infamous Magdalene Laundries. She vividly recalls the experience of a 17-year-old friend who became pregnant while at the laundry:

"We all looked after her during the pregnancy, we were all really excited, and the baby was born, a beautiful boy. I always remember him, so white, with black, black hair; a really lovely baby. When she came back with the baby, she was thrilled. She had the cubicle next to mine, and she would poke her head over the top in the morning and would talk about all the plans she had for herself and her son. And then one morning we woke up to hear her screaming. What had happened was, without any warning, the nuns had come to take her baby. They literally tore the baby out of her arms. She was screaming and begging, all the rest of us were screaming and begging. I'll never forget the screams of the woman. And they literally pulled the child out of her arms, and that was that. She never heard anything more about where the child went, what happened, nothing."

Yet she also recalls that one of the nuns in the Grianán centre gave the teenage Sinead O'Connor her first guitar. "I wasn't treated badly in there...[but] I grew up in a very abusive household, where I was abused very severely by my mother. So the whole idea of child abuse is something that I would identify strongly with."

When O'Connor speaks about the church scandals it is with the eloquent anger of a betrayed family member, which is precisely how many Catholics feel in the wake of the revelations of widespread and longstanding sexual and physical abuse of children by clergy. The abuses in Ireland were detailed in government investigations released last year. The revelations of a cover up, in turn, touched off a European-wide cascade of allegations that have threatened to overwhelm Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican.

Her longstanding passion about this issue means that O'Connor is not about to give the pope or the hierarchy a pass: She would like to see "a regime change, so that we get to have a say in who becomes pope," and she would like to see "more transparency, like any other 21st century organization. The attitude shouldn't be 'we work for them;' it should be 'they work for us'."

"The fact is that there are five reports: Boston, Philadelphia [in the United States], Ryan, Ferns and Murphy [in Ireland]. And each of those reports independently of each other have come to the same conclusion: that there was a cover-up. And when you look at how exactly they went about covering up, each diocese behaved in exactly the same way. Now if it hadn't been ordered by 'central command,' there would be differences in how each archdiocese had handled things."

Sinéad O'Connor's father was an attorney: this little-known fact suddenly seems significant as she speaks about the abuse issue, demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of the reports and their ramifications: "Any living clergy who were directly or indirectly involved in the cover-up should be fired...I think it looks very bad that they haven't been fired...I often wonder, if it was their own nieces or nephews, what would they have done?"

In recent weeks she has shared her analysis on CNN's "Larry King Live," "News Hour" on PBS, BBC's "Newsnight," and last March she wrote a powerful op-ed in The Washington Post, where she said that the pope's recent pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland about the crisis was "an insult not only to our intelligence, but to our faith and to our country." She has called on ordinary Irish Catholics to boycott Mass until the Vatican confesses to what she calls the cover-up of child abuse.

During an April appearance on late-night TV in Ireland, she received a rousing reception as she sang Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," dedicated to Pope Benedict.

In Ireland she is generally thought of fondly; as a beloved, if cantankerous, daughter. Yet not everyone here is fan:

"Why are people like Sinéad O'Connor brought out of storage every time the media need a reaction to something a bishop has done?" asked an exasperated Garry O'Sullivan, editor of The Irish Catholic, last March. "Who cares what Sinéad thinks! She's not a Catholic and has no interest in the Church, so she should stick with what she does best, singing. Her anti-Catholic tune is wearisome."

However O'Connor seems uninterested in such tit-for-tat disputations or efforts to write her out of her own religious history. Instead, she prefers to speak out for a Christianity she feels would combine the best of the Catholic faith -- led by the Holy Spirit -- but which would jettison much of what she sees as the accretions of culture and "religion" over the centuries, such as the patriarchal attitudes that look down on women:

"I do think that, to an extent, if women had been more involved in the organization, [the abuse scandal] might not have happened," she said. "Do you remember when John Paul II was close to death and he had just had a tracheotomy? I always remember seeing him on TV...in the window of St Peter's one day doing his blessings, and he had this tube in his throat. Apparently he was having a problem with the tube and he started to fiddle with it. And instead of a person coming to help him, what actually happened is just unbelievable, and it says an awful lot about the organization: a long stick was poked toward him and the stick poked the tube back in to place. Now if women had been there, a woman would have put her arm around him and said 'are you all right?' "

She now regrets having spoken publicly about her 1999 ordination. "To me [becoming a priest] was a Holy Spirit request, and that's all I would say about it. I'd be far more wary about disobeying the Holy Spirit than I would be about disobeying the Vatican." She feels that she is fulfilling her call to ministry through her music: for example, her 2007 album, "Theology," was inspired by the Psalms and other scripture.

Yet even as she is provoking criticism with her often vivid statements -- such as saying Jesus would burn down the Vatican if he returned, and she'd help him -- she also seems at ease channeling the traditions of her childhood religion, and finding the good in them:

"About 10 years ago I went to confession. Because I grew up in abusive circumstances, I had absolutely no self-esteem, so I spent about 10 minutes telling the priest what a terrible, awful person I was, and he stopped me in mid flow: 'Stop it!' he said, 'this is blasphemy: God has made you exactly the way you are and it's a blasphemy for you to criticize yourself and to say that you are a bad person'...I thought that was a very powerful thing to say."

As regards the abuse scandal, she says, "what's happening spiritually is that the Holy Spirit is doing some serious housekeeping. And that means throwing out a lot of stuff, and that's painful for all of us; probably especially for those who are being revealed as criminals. But it is necessary work. So I think that it's a healing thing and a great thing that is happening, even if it's very painful."

She says one of her favorite saints is Joan of Arc, the French heroine who was burned at the stake in the 1400s and was eventually canonized in the 1900s: "How you get to be a saint is you speak out against the church: they murder you, and then centuries later they make you a saint."

Her advice for the Catholic hierarchy is: "go back to Isaiah, which says, 'Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow.' But not until you tell the truth and you wish to be healed."

This article originally appeared on Politics Daily.

A more in depth version is available on The Freeman's Journal.em>

Congratulations to Sinéad on her recent marriage to Steve Cooney!