Sinead O’Connor and the Pope

Remember back in 1992, when “Saturday Night Live” was funny?  Or, at least, we watched it because there weren’t as many channels and TiVo hadn’t been invented?    You probably remember this, then:

sinead-oconnor-pope

It’s Sinead O’Connor, a bald Irish singer of whom I’d never previously heard, tearing up a picture of Karol Wojtyla, aka Pope John Paul II.  It sparked national outrage and is almost surely the thing for which O’Connor is best known.

I don’t recall my reaction to the incident, although I likely just dismissed it as a tasteless publicity stunt.  But I don’t believe I ever knew what was behind it.   DougJ and Jim Henley remind me, though:  the then-breaking pedophile priest coverup scandal that continues to embroil the Roman Catholic church.

They point us to Salon piece by Jake Tapper on the 10th anniversary of the stunt, titled “Sinéad was right.”

Roughly 10 years ago, Sinéad O’Connor, the shorn, angry, alt-rock balladeer, committed what seemed like career suicide. On “Saturday Night Live” the night of Oct. 3, 1992, O’Connor implored the audience to “fight the real enemy,” whereupon she tore up a photograph of His Holiness Pope John Paul II.

I’ve come to talk to O’Connor today to discuss what almost no one seems to remember: She tore up that picture of the pope to protest pedophilia in the Catholic Church and the complicity of the church hierarchy.

Not that O’Connor didn’t try to make that clear. By singing the Bob Marley song “War” — and changing the line “fight racial injustice” to “fight sexual abuse” — she thought she would be bringng the issue of child sexual abuse to the national consciousness. But however widespread they may have been back in Dublin, revelations that various Catholic dioceses were defending pedophile priests, and shuffling them from parish to parish, were eons away from the American consciousness.

So instead she set off a firestorm of anti-O’Connor protests. Stunned, “SNL” executives didn’t know how to react as the switchboard lit up. Thousands of irate calls poured in. In the NBC control room, the director, Dave Wilson, purposely did not press the “applause” button. Less than two weeks later, O’Connor — whose 1990 Grammy-nominated album “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” with the hit single “Nothing Compares 2 U,” was No. 1 in Billboard for eight weeks — was booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden.

[…]

“I was offended,” said NBC spokesman Curt Block. “The executive producer, Lorne Michaels, likewise was offended and surprised.” Outside Rockefeller Center, a crowd cheered while a 30-ton red and yellow steamroller crushed dozens of her tapes, CDs and LPs. The next week on “SNL,” Joe Pesci said that what O’Connor did was “wrong,” and he held up a retaped photo of the pope, drawing cheers.

Even Madonna didn’t support O’Connor. “I think there’s a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people,” Madonna told Irish radio. “You have to do more than denigrate a symbol.”

But given the child sexual abuse scandal that a decade later engulfs the Catholic Church, one has to look back at the O’Connor scandal in a new light. Yes, shredding a photo of the pope was indubitably offensive, but was it more offensive than what the pope, ultimately, was responsible for supervising at the time: lechery-laden rectories, pedophile-shuffling church leaders? Intriguingly, it’s O’Connor who has the most interesting perspective on it all, in that she seems not at all resentful about the way things went down.

When even Madonna is calling your actions tasteless and offensive, you’ve crossed a line.  But, in hindsight, she had a point.  The church is on its way to making Wojtyla a saint — which he likely deserves for his role in freeing Eastern Europe from the shackles of Communist oppression — while ignoring his role, and that of his successor, in trying to sweep the shameful and systematic abuse of children under the rug.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    Not what I would look for in a saint, but then I am not Catholic.

    Steve

  2. Bill Jempty says:

    I heard a rumor O’Connor was invited to an LPGA tournament where she would tear up a picture of former Commissioner Carolyn Bivens. There would be a lot of cheering.

  3. Franklin says:

    It might be pointed out that Sinead is not some anti-religious person like, say, Richard Dawkins. She never did this in an attempt to bring down Christianity or anything. She herself claims to be Christian, and was allegedly abused as a child (by her divorced mother).

    Interesting story, anyway.

  4. john personna says:

    Nice article. Sinead does come across as kinder and more insightful than the old media image … a little scattered, but not as crazy as we were led to believe. (Maybe SNL contributed to the “hey, we didn’t know she was crazy” narrative, but the old mental patient haircut helped too.)

    And yes, part of the story was the scandal we didn’t quite get (not for another 10-15 years).

  5. It might have helped O’Connor’s cause if she had done something less ambiguous, like maybe saying “The catholic church is covering up the abuse of children” instead of just tearing up a photo.

    PS – The Pamela Anderson ad was bad enough, but the Lindsay Lohan ad is just disgusting. Is this site so hard up for advertisers that you have to stoop to porno ads?

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I remember watching this SNL performacne; I’m still not sure that I was ever aware that she was talking about Catholic priest pedophilia. A song about racial injustice with one line changed, followed by ripping up a picture of the Pope as the real enemy. Not effective communication skills.

  7. Paul Barnes says:

    Mr. Joyner,

    I would actually contend that your last paragraph is hugely inaccurate. First off, Karol Wojtyla should not be made a saint for his opposition to communism, and he is not being made one for those reasons. But that is just a quibble.

    The more egregious error is the accusations of coverup by either Pope*, especially the current one. Regarding the latest revelations of coverup with Benedict…apparently the news organizations are lazy: A helpful site regarding this issue

    *Caveat: John Paul II issues regarding the systemic abuse has two explanations that I find plausible: 1. While under Communism, it was apparently very common for authorities to attempt to discredit political/church leaders with accusations of homosexuality/child abuse, so he was skeptical of credible claims, 2. He could not conceive of even the possibility that someone, especially members of the clergy would commit these acts (so naivety might have played a role in this)

  8. Herb says:

    So I guess Jake Tapper’s saying that Sinead O’Connor could have blown this whole thing open ten years ago if she hadn’t been so esoteric in her message?

  9. James Joyner says:

    The Pamela Anderson ad was bad enough, but the Lindsay Lohan ad is just disgusting. Is this site so hard up for advertisers that you have to stoop to porno ads?

    I actually don’t pay much attention to what BlogAds sales I get. They auto-approve.

    But, actually, these just show up in my Pop Culture posts on the individual archive pages. Those ads are actually sold for our Gone Hollywood property.

  10. Franklin says:

    I remember watching this SNL performacne; I’m still not sure that I was ever aware that she was talking about Catholic priest pedophilia. A song about racial injustice with one line changed, followed by ripping up a picture of the Pope as the real enemy. Not effective communication skills.

    Even if you had understood, would you have believed there was widespread cover-ups within the Catholic Church and that they were being exposed by some pop singer?

  11. just me says:

    It might have helped O’Connor’s cause if she had done something less ambiguous, like maybe saying “The catholic church is covering up the abuse of children” instead of just tearing up a photo.

    I think perhaps her messaging was screwed up. Hitting the talk show/news circuit may have been a good way to get the message out, and maybe had she tried to talk more about it, the photo ripping would have made more sense.

    But I am not sure at the time the message of the cover up would have been well received. I am not sure the US was ready for that message.

  12. Michael says:

    But, actually, these just show up in my Pop Culture posts on the individual archive pages. Those ads are actually sold for our Gone Hollywood property.

    Well they show up on your OTB property, which I like to read during breaks at work. I had intentionally whitelisted OTB in my ad blocker, because I liked your site and didn’t mind seeing some ads if it helped keep it going. But with ads like this, I either have to block ads, or stop reading. Sorry, but I like your content too much to stop reading.

  13. Steve Verdon says:

    When even Madonna is calling your actions tasteless and offensive, you’ve crossed a line. But, in hindsight, she had a point.

    I completely disagree. Stop and consider that the issue her are child rapists, that is what she was so angry about. In retrospect her actions were positively temperate, IMO. If anything like that happened to my child you’d be lucky to find pieces of the offender.

  14. Franklin says:

    But I am not sure at the time the message of the cover up would have been well received. I am not sure the US was ready for that message.

    This is what I’m getting at in the post just before ‘just me”s. She could have spelled it out and she would have got roughly the same response.

    I had read about the incident and her intent several years later, but *still* did not correlate it with the modern controversy until JJ’s post today. It is almost literally unfathomable.

  15. tom p says:

    funny, I don’t even remember S o’Cs stunt… I must have had more important things on my mind.

    2. He could not conceive of even the possibility that someone, especially members of the clergy would commit these acts (so naivety might have played a role in this)

    Paul, my mother, who was raised as a Southern Baptist was unable to conceive of such abuse, especially from the clergy. I and my friends who were raised in the Catholic Church during the 60’s were all too familiar with the various ways child abuse can take… Especially from the clergy. (“Don’t be alone with Father So and So…”) and for my ownself, I was physically abused by a nun for 2 years (she was finally sent to Columbia, last I heard) A beating every day? At least. Usually more than that. Sometimes the same kid. Too often, me. Eventually mob mentallity takes over. Fear? Of what? Sister Kathleen? “What are they gonna do? Put me in her class? I already got her.” People have no concept of the anger I contained from 11 to… 27???

    So, apparently, John Paul, was more naive than a hundred thousand American 10-11 year olds….

    Even if you had understood, would you have believed there was widespread cover-ups within the Catholic Church and that they were being exposed by some pop singer?

    Franklin: refer above. If they had listened to the children, they would have known. As my mother told me years later, “I knew something was wrong, I just didn’t know what.” In her defense, she was naive of the Catholic Church. In my father’s defense… He was out of town… trying to support 6 kids.

    As to it being

    almost literally unfathomable.

    it is all too fathomable. a few million catholic children know.

    But, to turn a screw:

    When even Madonna is calling your actions tasteless and offensive, you’ve crossed a line.

    Does anybody else detect a double standard here? I am all in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of press, but with these freedoms comes responsiblity. When S o’C tore up the picture of the pope, she crossed a line and knew it. She accepted the consequences of the act of desecrating the leader of a major religion.

    But when certain cartoonists insulted the FOUNDER of a major religion (one drew Mohammed wearing a bomb on his head)(and mind you, she tore up the picture of the pope… she never drew Jesus fu**ing a boy up the a**)… NOBODY asked if they had crossed a line (or should I say, “Nobody important” because I was asking) NOBODY asked them to bear the consequences of their actions (and yah, I don’t recall a fatwa being issued against S o’C but if the cartoonists did not know that was a possible consequence, they were STUPID!)

    Ya know, freedom of speech comes with a few consequences and responsibilities, and if you yell “NIGGER” in a north side bar… F*CK your “freedom of speech”… I am gone and you are on your own.