Twenty years ago today, during a Saturday Night Live performance, Sinéad O’Connor ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II. There was an immediate outcry from critics, journalists, and, a week later, SNL host and noted theologian, Joe Pesci. O’Connor’s career never recovered. When she attempted to perform Bob Marley’s “War” at a Bob Dylan concert, she was booed off the stage. Now, twenty years on, Michael Agresta takes a fresh look at the event.Agresta listened to what O’Connor had to say: she added some fresh lyrics to “War” about child abuse as one of the Catholic Church’s sins. This isn’t news today, but it was then. In fact, most people (including me, I have to admit) missed the allusion altogether and thought O’Connor was protesting abortion/contraception policies or something. But O’Connor, when anyone bothered to ask, was quite clear about what angered her:
In Ireland we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorized what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.
The Time magazine interviewer didn’t really grasp what O’Connor was saying, so she tried to explain by giving some personal history. She said she had been subjected to every kind of abuse:
Sexual and physical. Psychological. Spiritual. Emotional. Verbal. I went to school every day covered in bruises, boils, sties and face welts, you name it. Nobody ever said a bloody word or did a thing. Naturally I was very angered by the whole thing… [Time interview, November 9, 1992, behind a pay wall, unfortunately.]
Her mother, said O’Connor, was a Valium addict, a product of Catholic schools. Later, when O’Connor went to an Adult Children of Alcoholics-type group, she got a handle on her situation. The photo of the Pope that she tore up? That had belonged to her mother: “The photo itself had been on my mother’s bedroom wall since the day the fucker was enthroned in 1978.”
O’Connor herself was incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry, an Irish institution for wayward girls, at the age of 15. The Magdalenes have been criticized by the UN Committee Against Torture and one Magdalene being sold by nuns trying to make up stock market losses turned out to have twenty-two unregistered anonymous corpses buried out back.
After Pope Benedict apologized in 2010 for the Irish abuse cover-up, O’Connor criticized him for calling the cover-up “well-intentioned” and called for a boycott of the Church. She told Rachel Maddow that she is a believer who wants to free the Church from those who have brought it into disrepute. And in the Los Angeles Times:
I’m passionately in love and always have been with what I call the Holy Spirit, which I believe the Catholic Church have held hostage and still do hold hostage. I think God needs to be rescued from them. They are not representing Christian values and Christian attitudes. If they were truly Christian, they would’ve confessed ages ago, and we wouldn’t be having to batter the door down and try to get blood from a stone.
Sometimes angry people are dismissed when they do or say things other people find disturbing. Often these angry people are absolved over time. Sinéad O’Connor paid a price for expressing her anger and for telling truths that people weren’t ready to hear. She is a brave woman who has finally been awarded some of the respect that she has earned.