Twenty one years ago, in a time long before it was common knowledge, a now-devoutly religious musician discovered that the Catholic Church had become what essentially amounted to the largest and best funded pedophile ring on the planet, shielded by the good-natured willingness of communities to give the benefit of the doubt to those they saw as authority figures and a hierarchy filled with men who were more concerned about protecting reputation than saving children.
Rapists were shifted from town to town, city to city, with no mention of their undisclosed molestation to parents who allowed their innocent sons and daughters to be around these monsters. Horrific cases like this one were happening all over the country as most people were oblivious to the evil occurring in their own households. A lifelong Catholic friend of mine had family that was personally involved; her father’s close friend growing up kept trying to tell him that the priest they all revered was preying on the members of their class. He was told to shut up; called a liar. Only later, when proof surfaced, did everyone apologize to him, decades after the fact. It took a very public arrest, and some high profile newspaper articles detailing a string of victims, for people to finally face the truth. By then it was too late.
Distressed of it and the on-going racism which now seems like a memory, the musician decided to try and draw attention to the problem. If people only knew about it, and looked into it, they could force change. Faced with evidence, they would hold these child abusers accountable and demand apologizes for the victims and trials for the offenders. Good people had to go to war. Good people had to stop it.
[mainbodyad]This musician, who has used a significant portion of the money she earned in her life to support religious causes and ministry, appeared on national television, held up a picture of the man who had the power to stop it but hadn’t – the Pope – and ripped it up as she said, “Fight the real enemy”. She changed the lyrics of one of her songs, styled in the same melodic tradition as early Church music, to call out the on-going protection of child rapists, as well as the racism that had also plagued the institution. A stunned studio audience, who had been sheltered in an age before the Internet and at a time when authority was much more respected, sat in silence.
You can watch the recording of it here.
Instead of asking if there were truth in her allegations and calling for the leading journalists in America to investigate, Sinead O’Connor was banned from appearing on the show again and her career effectively ended. The next week, when Joe Peschi opened on the SNL stage, he had the audacity to apologize for what had happened, and alluded to the fact that he would have “smack”[ed] her had he been there. She became a social pariah; persona non grata throughout much of North America and Europe.
She Was Right, and America Did Nothing
Twenty years later, a majority of American society now realizes she was right. As we sat in stupor, four and five year olds were led into back rooms and had their innocence stolen. Everything she had been saying, everything she had been trying to stop, continued. Until one day, the nation’s journalists woke up. The story began. And the depth of the crimes became one of the most important scandals in modern history. There were also inquests into widespread racism against minorities in the European arm of the Church on the same scope and scale as those designed to root out the pedophiles.
She was right about it all. Good people sat by and did nothing while it happened.
Despite this, to this day, a small minority of people still loathe Sinead O’Connor, saying that her desperate attempt to get attention with a song, and piece of paper and ink, was somehow a step too far, even given the gravity of the crimes she was trying to bring to justice.
What if it had stopped your kid from being harmed? Would it have been too much, then? Or not enough.
Critics of that now-infamous performance talk about O’Connors battle with bipolar disorder, or her politics, or her personal life. None of that matters. The answer to the question, “Was she right about this?”, is unwaveringly clear: Yes. In fact, in the decade following her performance, the Boston Globe says that Archdiocese of Boston, by itself, settled approximately seventy (70) allegations of child molestation against priests on the condition that the victims keep the fact secret, so as to hide the truth from the community! This reaction is common because of a mental model that Charlie Munger dubbed “the Serpico effect” … people who benefit from the status quo of an institution will discredit or kill those who threaten that institution, even if it is for the sake of good or to enact reforms.
To Remain Silent In the Face of Evil Is To Side with Evil
Take some time in the next few months to think about this story. If you ever find yourself in a position where you discover that something evil is happening, and you have the power to stop it or at least attempt to slow its progress, are you willing to do so?
What will you sacrifice?
Your good fortune?
For me the answer is easy. It was posed in the form of a question a long time ago in a desert on the other side of the world: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
[mainbodyad]To remain silent in the face of oppression is, as the saying goes, to speak in support of the oppressor. Staying silent takes no courage. Whether you wash your metaphorical hands like a modern day Pontius Pilot, or whether you feign ignorance, if it is in your power to stop an on-going wrong, and you don’t, you are just as culpable. It’s true for murder, it’s true for theft, it’s true for child abuse, and it’s true for slander.
To quote one of America’s leading comedians and social commentators: If you don’t stick by your values when they are being tested, they are not values. They are hobbies.
Do the right thing. Let the chips fall where they may. Accept the consequences. The cost, while heavy, is far cheaper than the alternative.
And now, for the sake of nostalgia, enjoy one of O’Connor’s most famous songs before the controversy ended her career in the United States. It was composed by Prince.