Why Sinéad Was Right

Published on January 30th, 2012 in: Feminism, Issues, Music, Oh No You Didn't, TV |

By Emily Carney

On October 3, 1992, Sinéad O’Connor was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Her first performance of the night was the song “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home” from her album of standards, Am I Not Your Girl? Nothing seemed remotely untoward until her second performance of the night, an a capella version of “War” by Bob Marley. Most of us know what happened at the end of that performance, but in case you missed the show or don’t know anything about Sinéad O’Connor, let me refresh you: She took a picture of then-Pope John Paul II, ripped it in half, and shouted “Fight the real enemy!” The performance was never replayed again. Sinéad was attacked mercilessly by Catholics the world over for her gesture and, to this day, this incident remains one of the most controversial things ever aired on live television in the United States.

sinead rips up pope

Obviously, Sinéad was attacked by Catholics for ripping up the picture of the Pope. However, she was also vilified by her fellow peers in show business to a ridiculous level. The following week’s SNL host—actor Joe Pesci—explained that he had taped together the ripped photo; he then said he would have “smacked” Sinéad. (If you don’t think that’s fucked up, you have problems!) Madonna attempted to lampoon Sinéad’s performance some time later by ripping up a photo of kiddie fiddler Joey Buttafuoco, saying, “Fight the real enemy!” Ironically enough, Madonna had been at odds with the Catholic Church herself for many years, given the iconography behind “Like a Virgin,” “Like a Prayer,” etc. Madonna’s involvement in this controversy reeked of wanting attention, but that’s beside the point.

To understand Sinéad’s anger towards the Catholic Church, it is best to start where she came from. Her childhood was fraught with trauma during the best of times. According to a Washington Post op-ed piece from 2010, her mother (who was Catholic) encouraged her to shoplift, which landed Sinéad in an institution (An Grianán Training Centre) for 18 months. Sinéad’s mother died in 1985 and before that she was frequently abusive towards young Sinéad, which understandably caused her much emotional hardship.

The centre had a church-sponsored relationship with the Vatican; according to Sinéad, students incarcerated there were encouraged to perform a minimum of tasks, limited to typing and math. In Sinéad’s experience, the place was austere and isolating. One nun did the right thing and gave her a guitar, which kick-started her interest in pursuing music. Many similar schools in Ireland were found to have shameful records involving a host of abuses heaped upon minor children, including sexual abuse. It goes without saying that sexual abuse, in any instance, is wholly inappropriate and horrendous.

It’s no secret that current Pope Benedict—and his predecessor, John Paul II—hushed up the countless reported cases of child abuse (including sexual abuse) which occurred across the world, including Ireland. This horrifying cover-up is analogous to the recent Penn State scandal, when former coach Jerry Sandusky was found to have brutally sexually abused many young boys. In the case of Penn State, head coach Joe Paterno—and basically the entire Penn State football mafia—acted in collaboration to hush up the entire awful thing. (I would post the attorney general’s report which lists, in detail, the wrongdoings perpetrated by Sandusky, but the content is so upsetting and traumatizing, I won’t. I digress, but the history of child abuse within the Catholic Church is very similar and beyond shameful.)

After Sinéad’s SNL performance, she was derided as being “crazy.” Her image—shaved head and tattoos—certainly didn’t help prove her case to mainstream America. However, Sinéad’s own words from the aforementioned article in the Post, SHOULD make sense to all believers in God: “[Pope] Benedict criminally misrepresents the God we adore. We all know in our bones that the Holy Spirit is truth. That’s how we can tell that Christ is not with these people who so frequently invoke Him.” Truer, more lucid words have never been spoken.

sinead 2011

Say what you want about Sinéad’s actions—she was right about the Catholic Church. As a believer, she has every right to question the longtime practices and crimes of the church. In 1992, it wasn’t yet known that children were abused in such a gigantic scope across the church. Now we know definitively about the various abuses heaped upon children too young to make sense of what was happening.

Sinéad O’Connor’s controversy needs to be viewed as an opening salvo alerting the world to a host of evils. This was no case of some random celebrity wanting attention; she just wanted the pain to stop, since she experienced it firsthand. She deserves to be viewed as being brave, not reactionary. Personally, I love Sinéad and I hope to see her get back to kicking ass and making awesome music in 2012.

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