Remember When: Sinead O’Connor Protested Against The Pope On ‘SNL’

There are times in life when one simple action or sentence can alter the course of one’s life forever. This is exactly what happened to the late singer/songwriter Sinéad O’Connor when she appeared on Saturday Night Live on October 3, 1992 to promote her album Am I Not Your Girl? She performed two songs: “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “War.” It was during the latter that she made her controversial move.

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As she sang an a capella version of “War,” with lyrics tweaked to reference child abuse, she held up an image of Pope John Paul II at the end and ripped it in half. The audience and SNL cast and crew were stunned. There was no applause. The silence was defeaning. She knew that what she had done would strongly shake up some of the people watching, but the fallout was bigger than even she expected.

Years in the Making

Many years later, O’Connor would explain that she suffered years of physical and sexual abuse during childhood at the hands of her mother, a devout Catholic who had that very picture of the Pope on her wall. Her mother—who also had her incarcerated in a Catholic-run institution for many of her teen years—died in a car accident when she was 18 years old. One of the singer’s brothers, novelist Joseph O’Connor, once confirmed in a separate interview that they grew up in an abusive household.

But in 1992, many media and celebrity figures went after O’Connor for, ironically, being hateful and intolerant. No one wanted to ask why she tore up the photo and declared the Pope an enemy of the people. Catholic leaders, the Anti-Defamation League, and the New York Post were among her most vocal critics, along with celebrities like actor Joe Pesci, who said on SNL a couple of weeks later, after having the photo taped back up, that if it was his show he would have smacked her. It was a pathetic declaration that elicited applause from some audience members. The Vatican chose to remain silent. Some fans steamrolled her albums near Rockefeller Center in New York. (An interesting fact: O’Connor’s SNL appearance is not on YouTube, but Pesci’s monologue is.)

Another one of her detractors was Madonna, who proved herself to be a hypocrite. The Material Girl parodied O’Connor’s SNL moment when she went on the show two months later and ripped up a photo of sexual predator Joey Buttafuoco, which felt mocking in tone. She also reportedly denounced O’Connor’s bald-headed look. This is the same singer who enjoyed rankling the prudish Church with projects like her then-new Sex album and Erotica book. It’s been suggested Madonna did not like having the spotlight stolen from her. (And evidently, only she could take on the patriarchy.)

Scandal on the Horizon

What’s important to note is that a decade later the Boston Globe began releasing what turned out to be hundreds of articles on child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Boston. The fallout from that scandal expanded to investigations and revelations in other countries and continues to this very day. In an interview with the CBC News in 2010, O’Connor claimed the Irish Church took out an insurance policy in 1987 to protect themselves from what would be inevitable claims against them. Those charges first emerged in 1994.

But back in 1992, the American public wasn’t ready for that shocking possibility at all. O’Connor did not seem to get tremendous support from within the music industry—likely not helped by the fact that she was a one-hit wonder in America with her massively successful 1990 cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”. One person who was vocal in his support was fellow singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson. When they both performed at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration two weeks later, Kristofferson proudly introduced O’Connor as an “artist whose name has become synonymous with courage and integrity,” and he comforted her when many fans jeered her.

Her career did not have the same mainstream visibility after that, but she actually felt liberated after that moment because she said she was never meant to be a pop star. O’Connor was a musical artist who wanted to follow her own path. And her true fans know her catalog runs a lot deeper than one hit. The singer/songwriter continued to record and tour until the mid-2010s, took a break, and had been staging a comeback around the time of her untimely death at age 56 in 2023. It was a year and a half after her son Shane had committed suicide at age 17. In recent years, fans also learned a lot more about O’Connor’s struggles with mental health problems, including PTSD and bipolar disorder.

O’Connor had a rough time in her career. She generated other friction during her career. At the Performing Arts Center in Saratoga, New York, in 1990, she asked that the customary national anthem intro not be played because that was her choice in any country. Frank Sinatra reportedly took offense to this and purportedly said, “This must be one stupid broad. I’d kick her ass if she were a guy. She must beat her kids to stay in shape.”

When O’Connor won Best Alternative Music Performance at the Grammy Awards in 1991, she boycotted the event because she felt it represented commerce more than art. When Living Colour accepted the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance for “Cult of Personality” that year, lead guitarist Vernon Reid wore a t-shirt bearing a photo of O’Connor.

The singer recounted how, at the time of her breakthrough success, her meeting with Prince at his house in L.A. turned ugly because she claimed because she did not want to be one of his prodigies and seemed unhappy with the success she had with one of his songs. She also thought he had been using a lot of drugs at the time.

She also surprised people in 1999 by being ordained as a priest in the Latin Tridentine Church, an independent Catholic church in Ireland. The Catholic Church may have failed her in her youth, but her faith had remained. In 2018, she converted to Islam.

Getting back to the SNL aftermath, it’s sad to think that someone who had made a statement about something so important was treated so poorly by the public and perhaps some devoutly religious fans. But that shows the strength of the power of denial. It also represents the quandary that many artists and individuals have always faced and taking on The Establishment, especially when people are not ready to hear the message. Another sad fact is even with all that’s come out about the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, there are many more stories that have yet to be told.

O’Connor was brave and daring and true to herself. That came with a price, but she did not regret the path that she took. She wasn’t just making an artistic statement, she was taking a personal stand. And that was a great achievement in itself.

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Photo by Gaye Gerard/Getty Images

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