On Oct. 3, 1992, Sinead O’Connor turned her Saturday Night Live performance into a fierce political statement. Eyes ablaze, voice quaking with rage, O’Connor ripped apart a photograph of Pope John Paul II, after replacing a lyric from Bob Marley’s “War” with the words child abuse. A few weeks later, she revealed that she was abused as a child. She was still widely condemned—and her career took a significant blow. In 2010, O’Connor offered an explanation: “I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist.”
Today, entertainers often speak out about their personal experiences; back then, it was less common. As an Irishwoman, O’Connor was aware of the danger of criticizing a powerful entity like the church. She took that risk in order to publicly demand justice for children who were sexually abused by members of the clergy. Nine years after her performance, Pope John Paul II acknowledged and apologized for the church’s long history of sexual abuse. In recent years, O’Connor has been vocal about her mental-health struggles, once again laying herself bare for the world. She remains an example of the power of provoking necessary, if unpopular, conversations—and the courage it takes to do so. —Olivia Wilde
Wilde is a director and actor
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.
Editor’s Note, March 11
The original version of this story stated that Sinead O’Connor revealed in October 1992 that she had suffered abuse “at the hands of the Catholic Church.” This story has been updated to remove that phrase. In a letter in October 1992, O’Connor wrote, “My story is the story of countless millions of children whose families and nations were torn apart for money in the name of Jesus Christ.” In 2010, O’Connor wrote about her experiences as a teenager at An Grianán Training Centre, which she described as a church sponsored “Magdalene” laundry. In a letter to TIME sent March 6, O’Connor said, “My abusers weren’t clergy.”
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