Sinead O’Connor Was Owed An Apology

Saturday Night Live Sinead O'Connor
Image via NBC.

Part of the allure of live television is the fact that something unscripted could happen and there is no way to stop it from going out over the air. With a nearly five decade history and over 900 shows, Saturday Night Live certainly has its fair share of live television “incidents” – from cast members breaking into giggle fits in the middle of a sketch to unplanned moments with musical acts like Elvis Costello famously stopping his band the Attractions mid-song in order to launch into a completely different (and unvetted by NBC’s censors) number or Ashlee Simpson’s infamous 2004 lip sync revelation. And of course, the show has a long history of performers accidentally saying “fuck” live on the air.

But perhaps the most famous non-scripted moment in the show’s history came at the end of it’s October 3 1992 installment when, at the end of her second song performance of the evening, singer Sinead O’Connor held up a picture of current Pope John Paul II and ripped it to shreds.

It was an act meant to call attention to sexual abuse that was being perpetrated within the Catholic Church. And it was an act whose purpose was ultimately ignored.

The Show

Sinead O'Connor Saturday Night Live
Image Via NBC

Hosting that week’s episode of Saturday Night Live was actor Tim Robbins – no stranger to progressive political causes – who was on the show to promote his upcoming political satire film Bob Roberts. In fact, he even appeared as his Roberts character, a Pennsylvania US Senate candidate who co-opts the conventions of 1960s protest music to spread conservatism, in a sketch about book burning.

But that was far from the only politically or potentially controversially-tinged material presented that evening. The episode featured a cold open with Dana Carvey as independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, a sketch in which Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin travel forward in time to the present day to fix the budget only to be peppered with questions from the press about them being slave owners, and most notably in another sketch, writer/performer Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character talking about being beaten by his father. (In the New York City market at least, an anti-child abuse Public Service Announcement played in the commercial block after that last sketch.)

However, it was the second of O’Connor’s two performances that evening that would stir up controversy.

War

Saturday Night Live Sinead Oconnor
Image Via NBC

For her second number of the episode, O’Connor stood on an empty stage, a stark contrast to her first song, “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home,” earlier in the evening when she was backed by a full orchestra. A table to her left contained a number of lit candles. At first, with a very slight tremble in her voice that quickly disappeared, she began an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” –

“Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and one race inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war.”

It was a powerful performance of a powerful song. One that not only addressed racism but classism, poverty, and, most especially, child abuse.

And then comes the final line of the song – “We know we will win. We have confidence in the victory of good over evil.” As she hits the word “evil,” O’Connor held up a photo of the Pope and after a moment, ripped it into shreds. Intoning “Fight the real enemy,” she flung the pieces towards the camera.

As the studio remains silent, O’Connor blew out the candles next to her. She then moved to leave the stage and the show cut to a commercial.

The Aftermath

The silence that echoed through Saturday Night Live‘s Studio 8H was deafening. In the control room, SNL director Dave Wilson reportedly had ordered the Applause sign to not be lit as was normal at the conclusion of a musical performance. SNL writer Paula Pell stated that she was in the control room at the time and that there was some discussion in the moment as to whether they should be cutting away or not.

But SNL maestro Lorne Michaels couldn’t have been too upset in the moment though. The performance went out unaltered on the tape-delayed west coast feed later that evening. However, it would be for later reruns that the dress rehearsal version of O’Connor’s performance – in which she just held up a picture of small refugee child – would be substituted in.

(Don’t go looking for the performance on streaming. The version available on Peacock omits both of O’Connor’s performances from that evening as if to flush the fact that she even performed on the episode down the pop culture memory hole.)

In the following days, NBC reportedly received somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,400 calls, most negative, over O’Connor’s performance. The following week on Saturday Night Live, guest host Joe Pesci stated in his monologue that he would have given her “a smack” had he been in the studio the previous week.

However, the moment was not as universally despised as legend would seem to have it today. In director Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary look at O’Connor, Nothing Compares, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna recalled watching the moment with friends. “We were all applauding and cheering and we’re like ‘Feminist performance art on TV! When does that ever happen?'”

Two weeks after her Saturday Night Live performance, O’Connor was scheduled to take part in a tribute concert to Bob Dylan in New York’s Madison Square Garden. While footage from the concert shows the crowd in equal measures booing and cheering her. Unfortunately, it seemed as if O’Connor could only hear the boos. Fellow performer Kris Kristofferson came out on stage as O’Connor stood there and advised her to not “let the bastards get you down.” So instead of performing the planned song “I Believe in You,” O’Connor launched into another a cappella rendition of “War,” before leaving the stage.

This was not the first instance of O’Connor’s activism and principled stances had been met with criticism and threats of violence. Two years earlier, the singer, who was a staunch opponent of the United States’ then-current war in Kuwait, refused to perform at New Jersey’s Garden State Arts Center if the facility insisted on playing the National Anthem before her show. Famously, Frank Sinatra, (alleged) associate of known mobsters and at the time (allegedly) a practicing Roman Catholic, was reported to have said, “This must be one stupid broad. I’d kick her ass if she were a guy.” But this was the most intense. In a 2021 interview, O’Connor would describe life after her SNL appearance as “very traumatizing,” adding “It was open season on treating me like a crazy bitch.”

She Was Right

O’Connor’s stance against any kind of child abuse stems from her own upbringing in a strongly Catholic Irish household where she states her mother often physically abused her. Women were still considered second class citizens at the time and a teenage O’Connor had no recourse for help. She only got of that house when she was sent to a reform school following a shop-lifting conviction. The school was next to one of Ireland’s infamous Magdalene laundries, where O’Connor saw how women were discarded by their families for such “crimes” ranging from being flirtatious to getting pregnant outside of marriage. (It didn’t matter if it was through consensual sex or if the woman had been raped. Pregnancy was always the woman’s fault.) It was here where she saw the women of Ireland as abused as she had been by the same patriarchal system.

Most important, though, is the fact that the specific picture she shredded was the one that had been hanging in her mother’s home. It was the actual, tangible face of the system that allowed her mother to so brazenly abuse her. And it was the system that she was singing about, the system she declared war against And by tearing it to pieces, she was breaking the cycle of abuse that she had been a part of in her own home and she was crying out to stop the abuse that was happening across the world.

But for all the hatred and bile that was spat at O’Connor, she was right. And society failed O’Connor by not heeding what she was saying.

Sexual abuse was rampant in the Catholic Church, officials in the Church were complicit in covering it up and people were more than happy to look the other way or dismiss specific instances as one-off aberrations. And nothing was being done to insure that it would never happen again.

According to a 2016 New Yorker article, by 1992 the US Catholic Church had already paid out more than $400 million to settle hundreds of molestation cases, with victims being forced into signing non-disclosure agreements as a condition of receiving compensation. Journalist Jason Berry had just published his bombshell book Lead Us Not Into Temptation, but the idea that sexual abuse and its coverup were as rampant in the Church as it was still had not become a reality for most people. It would be nine years before Pope John Paul II would even acknowledge that there was a problem. It would be almost ten years before the scandal would really explode courtesy of the reporting of the Boston Globe‘s Spotlight magazine team and others. By 2006, the Church will have spent $2.6 billion settling sexual-abuse cases.

It is, of course, impossible to calculate what the impact would have been if people had heeded her criticisms in 1992. Most likely hundreds, if not thousands of children who became victims of abuse, sexual and otherwise, over the next few decades could have been spared the horrors that they were subject to. But even if just one child had been saved from abuse, it would have been worth it. But society decided it was better to mock her and adopt tough-guy posturing rather than face a harsh reality.

And for that, we as a society owed Sinead O’Connor, and all the children who were abused after her warnings, an apology and amends that we can never fully give.

Nothing Compares
Image via Showtime
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About Rich Drees 7220 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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