Today the world sees with increasing clarity just how deep the Catholic Church child abuse epidemic runs. It has been well-documented that priests who abused young boys were in many cases simply moved from parish to parish, endangering greater numbers of children. Thousands of civil lawsuits have been brought against the church over five decades’ worth of abuse cases around the world, including O’Connor’s native Ireland, resulting in settlements totaling billions of dollars.
In 1992, Sinead O’Connor illuminated these issues by ripping up a picture of the Pope on live television, in protest of the rampant chil abuse the Catholic Church was actively covering up. In the weeks that followed, Joe Pesci said he wanted to give her “such a smack”, Frank Sinatra said he wanted to “kick her ass”, and millionaire producer Jonathan King said she “needed a spanking”.
She was 26.
Sinead O’Connor ripping Pope picture – Fight the real enemy
Ten days later, she was scheduled to perform at Madison Square Gardens, as part of a celebration of Bob Dylan. As soon as she got to the microphone, the audience began loudly booing her, seemingly in unison. She talked later about how awful the sound was, and how she thought she was going to be sick.
The organizers tasked Kris Kristofferson with removing O’Connor from the stage. He instead went out and put his arm around her and checked in on her and stayed until she’d steadied herself and was ready to perform. Sinead replaced the Bob Dylan song she was supposed to sing with Bob Marley’s ‘War’, changing some of the lyrics to be about child abuse.
As she came off stage, Kristofferson grabbed her in a bear hug and kissed her cheek. In the video — posted further below — you can see that she pulls away at one point and throws up. He just wraps her back in his arms and holds her tight.
About the incident, he says:
“Sinead had just recently on Saturday Night Live torn up a picture of the Pope, in a gesture that I thought was very misunderstood. And she came out and got booed. They told me to go get her off the stage and I said ‘I’m not about to do that’. I went out and I said ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down’. She said ‘I’m not down’ and she sang. It was very courageous. It just seemed wrong to me, booing that little girl out there. But she’s always had courage.”
People tend to just see and react to the surface, they aren’t bothered to investigate the backstory. Sinead is a very intelligent girl who worked all her life to help the abused, underprivileged and forgotten. Years after her pope picture tearing, it has been proved time and time again the child abuse of thousands over the years who are only now having the courage to come forward. She was trying to tell us that the pope knew and was blaming him for burying it in the name of protecting the church instead of protecting the children.
Many years later Kristofferson wrote a song about the incident:
Kris Kristofferson – Sister Sinead (2009)
It certainly wasn’t the only public outcry against her protest. Days after the concert, a 30-ton steamroller in front of Chrysalis Records’ Rockefeller Center offices crushed an enormous pile of records, cassettes and CDs bearing O’Connor’s name. The event was put together by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizers, which promised to donate $10 to charity for every one of her albums sent in. They received more than 200.
Kristofferson later spoke about his version of the events in an interview on Irish TV, in which he said:
“Sinead had just recently on Saturday Night Live torn up a picture of the Pope, in a gesture that I thought was very misunderstood. And she came out and got booed. They told me to go get her off the stage and I said ‘I’m not about to do that’.
Kris Kristofferson on his special relationship with Sinéad O’Connor
A month after the SNL appearance, she further explained herself in an interview with Time.
“It’s not the man, obviously—it’s the office and the symbol of the organization that he represents,” she said. “In Ireland we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the s— out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorized what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.”
O’Connor went on to connect her own childhood abuse to the Catholic church. “Sexual and physical. Psychological. Spiritual. Emotional. Verbal. I went to school every day covered in bruises, boils, sties and face welts, you name it. Nobody ever said a bloody word or did a thing,” she said. “Naturally I was very angered by the whole thing, and I had to find out why it happened… The thing that helped me most was the 12-step group, the Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. My mother was a Valium addict. What happened to me is a direct result of what happened to my mother and what happened to her in her house and in school.”
This was hard to grasp for Americans, who, in 1992, weren’t as familiar with the abuse of the Catholic church and ensuing cover-ups. But a decade later, in an interview with Salon, O’Connor noted, “It’s very understandable that the American people did not know what I was going on about, but outside of America, people did really know and it was quite supported and I think very well understood.”
Special thanks to Audra Williams for bringing this event back to light and inspiring this article.
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