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:
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.