IN 1992, AFTER Sinéad O’Connor ripped apart a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in protest of the Catholic church ignoring child abuse, Frank Sinatra called her “one stupid broad” and said he would “kick her ass if she were a guy.” The following week’s SNL host, Joe Pesci, who was in full GoodFellas mode, pasted the photo back together and said if he’d been on her episode, “I woulda gave her such a smack.” He held up the back of his hand to the audience’s audible delight. Even Madonna, who was trying to shock the world at the time with her Sex book and Erotica album, criticized O’Connor for “ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.”
But for abuse survivors within the church, seeing O’Connor, who died Wednesday at age 56, was a revelation that night.
“A lot of us had to grow up with that photo of John Paul,” says Peter Isely, who is a survivor of a priest’s sexual assault and is a cofounding member of the organization Ending Clergy Abuse. “Kids were raped and sexually assaulted in rectories and churches with that photo in the room, looking down upon us in complete silence.”
“It was monumental for survivors to hear a person they love — an artist, a musician — publicly [decry abuse] so loudly and on such a public stage with such rebellion,” says Michael McDonnell, another survivor who is Interim Executive Director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). “It was powerful. Truly, I believe it gave individuals the courage and strength to start digesting the abuse that they had suffered.”
In the years prior to appearing on SNL, as O’Connor became a global star with hits like “Mandinka” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” she described her own childhood as brutal. She was the third of four children born to John and Marie O’Connor, a working-class Catholic couple from Dublin. Marie physically abused Sinéad and sent her daughter to Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries — Catholic-run reform schools for “fallen women” — after Sinéad was expelled from Catholic school and arrested for shoplifting. “Between the family situation and the Catholicism, I developed a real capacity for guilt,” O’Connor told Rolling Stone in 1990.
Marie died in a car wreck in 1985, two years before the release of O’Connor’s first album, but her abuse stayed with her daughter. It was Marie’s personal picture of the pope that O’Connor shredded onstage.
At SNL, O’Connor covered Bob Marley’s song “War” a cappella, looking directly into the camera. But where Marley decried “the ignoble and unhappy regime that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa,” O’Connor sang “the ignoble and unhappy regime which holds all of us through child abuse, yeah, child abuse.” Toward the end, she called out, “Children, children, fight!” before pulling out the pope’s picture during a lyric about feeling confident “in the victory of good over evil.” After throwing the pieces on the floor, she spoke the words, “Fight the real enemy.” Nobody clapped.
“Imagine you’ve been sexually assaulted or abused by a priest, and you see this happening in front of you — how do you think you’d feel?” Isely says. “It had a bigger impact than we know, in people’s personal and private lives, because most survivors don’t come forward. It challenged survivors’ silence, too. It challenged them not to be afraid.”
“I remember it vividly,” McDonnell says. “As someone who had not disclosed to anyone about the abuse that I had suffered, it was shocking because I still very much thought that any bad word against the Catholic church or display of anger against them was a sin. It took years for me to really digest and understand the full impact of what she did that night.”
Publicist Elaine Schock, who repped O’Connor during her SNL performance, remembers the singer confiding in her the reason for the protest. “Her mother had horribly abused her, and she never could get over that,” Schock says. “And she blamed the church for that, and rightly so. In Ireland [when she was growing up], the church would tell her to be a better child, and her mother would just do horrible things to her. And there were instances that would happen where she would see a child being abused by the parents when she was taking her oldest child, Jake, to school, and it would just floor her. Things would trigger her. Her childhood would trigger her.”
O’Connor later recalled her SNL turning point in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings. “[I’d] been pissed off for a few weeks because [I’d] been reading The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (a contrarian, blasphemous history of the early church) but also finding brief articles buried in the back pages of Irish newspapers about children who have been ravaged by priests but whose stories are not believed by the police or bishops their parents report it to,” she wrote. “So [I’d] been thinking even more of destroying my mother’s photo of JP2.”
Despite subsequent hits, the fallout after the performance had a chilling effect on O’Connor’s career. (She never attained another pop hit or gold record in the U.S..) When she made an appearance at Bob Dylan’s star-studded 30th anniversary concert a couple of weeks after SNL, the Madison Square Garden audience booed her. Only Kris Kristofferson, who’d introduced her, supported her. “Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison … not one of them said anything about Sinéad or her protest,” Schock recalls. “Nobody stood up for her. Not one person except for Kris Kristofferson. That went on for years. And then decades later, only recently, people have been saying, ‘Sinéad was right.’ Well, it’s a little too late.”
Survivors of abuse, however, saw the SNL appearance as the act of a prophet. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, some had attempted to shine a light on the way the Catholic church handled abuse. Months after O’Connor’s SNL appearance, Pope John Paul II addressed the issue of child molestation within the Catholic church for the first time — though a 2002 Boston Globe exposé revealed that church officials protected abusers during John Paul II’s papacy, which ended with his death in 2005.
“To me, she was a pioneer, and she has kept me in the fight,” Debra Bashwinger, a victim of abuse who is also SNAP exec McDonnell’s life partner, says. “I was one of those abused and we heard her call to expose the systematic oppression and abuse of children.”
“[O’Connor] spoke out at a time when public opinion wasn’t squarely in the camp of survivors,” Sarah Pearson, an Ending Clergy Abuse member, says. “Today, it’s much easier to acknowledge [the abuse] and say something … but for her to do that at a time when there would be real consequences for what she had done, it was really brave.”
Even after O’Connor became a media pariah, she continued her efforts to expose malfeasance in the church. Attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented hundreds of plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Catholic church alleging sexual abuse from the Eighties to the present, says O’Connor reached out to him in the early Nineties, after her SNL appearance. “She called me, and said, ‘Jeff, I have been following you, and I’m calling you because I want you to sue the Vatican,'” Anderson says. “And I said, ‘Sinéad, ‘I have been trying.’ She said, ‘Jeff, you need to. Do you know what [the church] has done to my country and to my people?’ She was giving so much voice to people from a place of such deep vulnerability.”
O’Connor continued to speak out against the church in interviews, though she later apologized for how she conducted her protest on SNL. “I’m sorry I [ripped up the photo], it was a disrespectful thing to do,” she told the BBC in 1999. “I have never even met the pope. I am sure he is a lovely man. It was more an expression of frustration.” But regardless of how she felt about it in hindsight, especially after the backlash, survivors also felt her exasperation.
“To look to her and what ripping the photo meant to survivors,” Pearson says, “we appreciate her and the solidarity she demonstrated with the community of people around the world who have been harmed by the Catholic church.”
“The reaction [after SNL] pretty much was, ‘Let’s attack the messenger,'” Isely says. “Where was all the rage about these priests that were raping Catholic children? Where was the rage about the bishop that covered it up? Where were the demands of John Paul? Where was the anger and rage ? It’s directed at her.”
Isely and Pearson say abuse within the Catholic church continues to be a problem, even though the 2015 movie Spotlight, a dramatization of the Boston Globe investigation that won the Oscar for Best Picture, reignited the issue within the media.
“This type of [abuse] is still going on,” Pearson says. “As a group, we’re wondering today, ‘Who is going to take a stand for survivors? Who would be brave in the same way as Sinéad?’ We need that right now, more than ever.”