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January 10, 2023

October 3, 1992: Sinead O’connor Shocked the World by Ripping Up a Photo of Pope John Paul II

On October 3, 1992, Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor was scheduled to appear, performing an a cappella performance of Bob Marley’s “War.” During the dress rehearsal of the episode, O’Connor held up a photo of a Balkan child as a protest of child abuse in war before bowing and leaving the stage, which the episode’s director Dave Wilson described as a “very tender moment.” During the live show, she changed the “War” lyric “fight racial injustice” to πfight child abuse” as a protest against the then still relatively unknown cases of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. She presented a photo of Pope John Paul II while singing the word “evil,” before tearing the image into pieces and saying “Fight the real enemy!”

NBC had no foreknowledge of O’Connor’s plan, and Wilson purposely failed to use the “applause” button, leaving the audience to sit in silence. Tim Robbins, who was the host for that episode and was raised as a devout Catholic, refused to acknowledge O’Connor at the end of the show. NBC received thousands of irate calls in the aftermath of the incident, and protests against O’Connor occurred outside of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where a steamroller crushed dozens of her tapes, CDs, and LPs. In the following weeks on SNL, Catholic guests Joe Pesci and Madonna both voiced their opposition to O’Connor. The show also aired several sketches mocking O’Connor. She has not appeared on Saturday Night Live since.

The incident occurred a full nine years before John Paul II, in a 2001 apology, acknowledged that the sexual abuse within the Church was “a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ,” followed in 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI apologizing and meeting with victims, speaking of his “shame” at the evil of abuse, calling for perpetrators to be brought to justice, and denouncing mishandling by church authorities.

“People say that tearing up the picture somehow derailed my career. And I feel the opposite of that,” she said in an interview on CBC Radio’s Q. “In fact, having a number one record derailed my career.”

In the pop world, O’Connor felt like she couldn’t be herself. She said she spent more time having her picture taken than doing what she really loved, performing live and making music. “I found the world of pop stars quite imprisoning. It’s a bit like being the Queen of England or the President of Ireland. You can’t actually express an opinion about anything.”

For O’Connor, freedom of speech is at the heart of her artistry. “I'm an Irish artist, and we have a history of causing riots in the streets with songs and plays,” she said. “You know, back in the old days, you couldn’t put an Irish play on without there being a riot in the street after, or, you know, mounted police on horses outside the gigs in London. Our job as Irish artists [is] to cause riots in the streets.”




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