Reading about the latest massive, horrific child sex abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church, I thought about Sinéad O’Connor, who was the canary in that coalmine, at least for people of a certain age. I wasn’t alone in thinking this:
When was the first time you heard that the Catholic Church was teeming with child abuse? If you're my age, it was Sinead O'Connor on SNL. She was almost universally treated like a crazy person who had said something bizarre and unforgivable. pic.twitter.com/5ZmlNBK8Ex
— Daniel Radosh (@danielradosh) August 16, 2018
He’s referring to O’Connor’s 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live, when she adapted the lyrics of Bob Marley’s “War” to address child abuse and sang about the victory of good over evil. Then she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II, said “Fight the real enemy!” and threw the shredded photo at the camera. From the Wikipedia account of the incident:
Saturday Night Live had no foreknowledge of O’Connor’s plan; during the dress rehearsal, she held up a photo of a refugee child. NBC Vice-President of Late Night Rick Ludwin recalled that when he saw O’Connor’s action, he “literally jumped out of [his] chair.” SNL writer Paula Pell recalled personnel in the control booth discussing the cameras cutting away from the singer. The audience was completely silent, with no booing or applause; executive producer Lorne Michaels recalled that “the air went out the studio”. Michaels ordered that the applause sign not be used.
A nationwide audience saw O’Connor’s live performance, which the New York Daily News’s cover called a “Holy Terror”. NBC received more than 500 calls on Sunday and 400 more on Monday, with all but seven criticising O’Connor; the network received 4,400 calls in total. Contrary to rumour, NBC was not fined by the Federal Communications Commission for O’Connor’s act; the FCC has no regulatory power over such behaviour. NBC did not edit the performance out of the West coast tape-delayed broadcast that night, but reruns of the episode use footage from the dress rehearsal.
As part of SNL’s apology to the audience, during his opening monologue the following week, host Joe Pesci held up the photo, explaining that he had taped it back together—to huge applause. Pesci also said that if it had been his show, “I would have gave her such a smack.”
Go get your shine box, Joe.
When she was a child, O’Connor’s dysfunctional parents fobbed her off on a church-run workhouse for delinquent girls, where she was further abused and exploited. But it wasn’t all bad — a nun there gave O’Connor her first guitar.
Nearly two decades after the pope photo incident, O’Connor appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show in 2010 to talk about the child sex abuse scandal that was roiling the church in North America at the time:
She praised the U.S. media for digging into the church scandals on this continent. She also wrote an op-ed for The Post that year. An excerpt:
Almost 18 years ago, I tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Many people did not understand the protest… I knew my action would cause trouble, but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist. All I regretted was that people assumed I didn’t believe in God. That’s not the case at all. I’m Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation.
In the Maddow interview, O’Connor’s faith that the American media would finally cause the Vatican to be held to account is almost heartbreaking. I’m not even sure which sex scandal occasioned her visit. There have been so many.
Charlie Pierce published a good piece about this today, calling it make or break time for Pope Francis. But Pope Francis allowed Cardinal Law, the notorious overseer of the pedophile protection racket in Boston who sought sanctuary in the Vatican, to live out his final days in splendor at, as Pierce puts it, “the Basilica of Our Lady of the Clean Getaway in Rome.”
The current Pope didn’t take Law in. But he let him stay. That’s a betrayal of faithful Catholics like O’Connor, people the church left haunted and broken, many of whom didn’t survive the abuse. And this afternoon, the Vatican released a mealy-mouthed statement that basically boils down to: “Sad! But before our time.” Translation: They aren’t going to do jackshit.
I have never been a member of the Catholic Church. But my husband’s family are. I found them refreshingly sane on religious matters, compared to the evangelical zealots I grew up among in rural Florida.
I remember the first time I saw a portrait of Pope Francis at a church (wedding, funeral, some occasion like that, or I wouldn’t have been there). Such a pleasant surprise after looking at Ratzinger’s dour, beady-eyed visage.
But maybe O’Connor was right all those years ago. Maybe they all must go and “return the church to the people who believe in God.”