Sin

Ten years after ripping up a photo of the pope to protest sexual abuse in the Catholic Church -- and destroying her career -- Siniad O'Connor returns to talk about her new album of Irish folk, her kids and why she sympathizes with America.


Jake Tapper
October 12, 2002 11:55PM (UTC)

Roughly 10 years ago, Sinéad O'Connor, the shorn, angry, alt-rock balladeer, committed what seemed like career suicide. On "Saturday Night Live" the night of Oct. 3, 1992, O'Connor implored the audience to "fight the real enemy," whereupon she tore up a photograph of His Holiness Pope John Paul II.

I've come to talk to O'Connor today to discuss what almost no one seems to remember: She tore up that picture of the pope to protest pedophilia in the Catholic Church and the complicity of the church hierarchy.

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Not that O'Connor didn't try to make that clear. By singing the Bob Marley song "War" -- and changing the line "fight racial injustice" to "fight sexual abuse" -- she thought she would be bringng the issue of child sexual abuse to the national consciousness. But however widespread they may have been back in Dublin, revelations that various Catholic dioceses were defending pedophile priests, and shuffling them from parish to parish, were eons away from the American consciousness.

So instead she set off a firestorm of anti-O'Connor protests. Stunned, "SNL" executives didn't know how to react as the switchboard lit up. Thousands of irate calls poured in. In the NBC control room, the director, Dave Wilson, purposely did not press the "applause" button. Less than two weeks later, O'Connor -- whose 1990 Grammy-nominated album "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," with the hit single "Nothing Compares 2 U," was No. 1 in Billboard for eight weeks -- was booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden.

Days later, she stormed back to Europe. "I'm not writing any more fucking songs and I'm not singing any more fucking songs," she said at the time.

"I was offended," said NBC spokesman Curt Block. "The executive producer, Lorne Michaels, likewise was offended and surprised." Outside Rockefeller Center, a crowd cheered while a 30-ton red and yellow steamroller crushed dozens of her tapes, CDs and LPs. The next week on "SNL," Joe Pesci said that what O'Connor did was "wrong," and he held up a retaped photo of the pope, drawing cheers.

Even Madonna didn't support O'Connor. "I think there's a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people," Madonna told Irish radio. "You have to do more than denigrate a symbol."

But given the child sexual abuse scandal that a decade later engulfs the Catholic Church, one has to look back at the O'Connor scandal in a new light. Yes, shredding a photo of the pope was indubitably offensive, but was it more offensive than what the pope, ultimately, was responsible for supervising at the time: lechery-laden rectories, pedophile-shuffling church leaders? Intriguingly, it's O'Connor who has the most interesting perspective on it all, in that she seems not at all resentful about the way things went down.

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"It's very understandable that the American people did not know what I was going on about," O'Connor says about the 1992 brouhaha. "But outside of America, people did really know and it was quite supported and I think very well understood."

She says she doesn't "necessarily feel I have a right to feel vindicated or not vindicated." If she had to pinpoint an emotion, she says, "I guess I feel sad for the American people that they have to suffer such a shock."

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In an extensive interview, O'Connor expresses a variety of surprising opinions -- waxing understanding about the U.S. government's "war on terrorism" while remaining a pacifist, maternal if bemused about her son's questionable taste in music, and concerned about the health and treatment of the man whose photograph she so infamously tore up 10 years ago. She is sitting here with me in this midtown Manhattan hotel suite, looking rather earth mother-y, to promote her new album, "Sean-Nós Nua," a collection of Irish folk songs.

O'Connor, who is 35 and now has short black hair, is an intriguing combination of bold opinions and a disarmingly humble mien. She says that she had no idea that the pedophilia scandals that had been erupting in Ireland throughout the 1980s were also going down in the U.S.

"The scale on which it's happened in America is really awful," she says. Flabbergasted by the sheer number of American priests presently accused of molesting boys from their parishes, O'Connor says that the size of the scandal doesn't jibe with her sense of American justice. "You wouldn't think -- as a person outside of America -- that anyone could get away with this shit in America for so long," she says. "Nobody really gets away with anything. I saw a clamp on a car the other day -- it was a 'deadbeat dad' clamp. You get away with jack in this country."

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Ten years ago, certainly, O'Connor got away with jack. Even if a reexamination of what happened that night -- as relayed by John Zonars, "SNL's" music coordinator, in the recent book "Live From New York" by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller -- seems to betray at least some degree of subterfuge by the singer, whose childhood victimization at the hands of her mother made the issue of child abuse her cause.

That night, while the rest of the show's executives were worried about host Tim Robbins' plans to wear an anti-General Electric T-shirt, protesting GE's pollution of the Hudson River, O'Connor's manager at the time asked Zonars, "When something goes wrong on the air, do you use the dress rehearsal performance?"

Zonars replied that, "It's been known to happen for the West Coast, but for the live show, obviously it's live. It goes out live, I think as far as like the Central time zone."

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That's when O'Connor's manager informed Zonars that the singer wanted to change her second song to Marley's "War." "And there's a very special thing she wants to do since 'War' is essentially about child abuse," he said. "At the end of the song she wants to hold up a photo of a child and make a statement about child abuse, OK?" Zonars agreed, even getting a photo of a child for her and telling the director, "He's got to zoom in on her and get a close-up of her with this photo."

That's what she did during dress rehearsal. "It was a very tender moment," Dave Wilson, the director, said. But it was not what happened live from New York. "I think everybody felt they had been railroaded," Wilson said in "Live From New York." "I was angry. I made sure that nobody pushed the applause button."

"Lorne was the only one that didn't seem like completely out of his mind," Zonars told the authors. Then the big issue became whether O'Connor would be permitted onstage at the end of the show for the traditional farewell. "Lorne decided that she should, which is a decision that he got fucked for afterwards but I'm sure would stand by today."

"I don't think she understood the scale of what she was doing," Michaels told the authors. "It was martyrdom. We didn't quite get what it was."

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Like any martyr, however, O'Connor says that she had no choice in the matter. God came to her when she was an abused child and saved her. "I felt that I was having a relationship with what I would call the Holy Spirit," she says to me. "My feeling all my life was that thing did come and help me through some very difficult times and my intention was always to help it, then. And when I got older I got the chance. The thing is, if that spirit asked me to do something, then I had a lot more to fear by not doing that thing than I had by doing it and dealing with the consequences of what people think."

As afraid as she may have been to stage her protest, it would have been "massively disloyal for me not to do it. You can't let fear stop you. That's one of the things you learn from people like Jesus, or the Martin Luther Kings or any of those people. You can't let fear stop you from being honest."

In any case, after the fall, she returned to Ireland and began a decade that included music ("Universal Mother" in 1994 and "Faith and Courage" in 2000) and some acting (most notably as the Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan's "The Butcher Boy"). There were lots of personal projects, too, including some intense therapy, experimentation with lesbianism, and motherhood -- Jake, 15, with her first husband, musician John Reynolds, and Roisin, 6, from a relationship with Irish Times political columnist John Waters. She is currently three months into her second marriage with journalist Nick Sommerlad.

Also, O'Connor found a way to embrace the Catholicism about which she has always been so conflicted. Born in 1966 on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, O'Connor has long had a difficult relationship with her mother church (as have so many other Catholics these days). It has also evolved quite a bit. In 1992, O'Connor told the British magazine Vox that she believed that the Catholic Church "want(s) children to be abused -- that's why they want to ban abortion, because unless we're being abused we don't have any power, we don't reach out to them." A decade later, she sounds more forgiving.

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This may be not only because of her age and experience, but because in April 1999, O'Connor was ordained as a priest known as Mother Bernadette Maria of the Order of Mater Dei by renegade bishop Michael Cox of the Latin Tridentine Church. She is hesitant to discuss this, however. "I guess I feel nervous talking about the priesthood in the context of promoting records," she says. "In the context of promoting records it feels disrespectful."

Plus, she says conspiratorially, "I have to be careful. I don't want to end up under a bridge with concrete shoes on. In London, some bloke who was trying to bring up nefarious doings in the Vatican ended up with concrete shoes on under London Bridge. I prefer my Vivienne Westwood shoes."

While she continues to take on entrenched power, O'Connor does so now with a bit more nuance -- not only with a kind of acceptance of less lofty values, but a reluctance to judge. It's hard to discern if it's the priest side of her talking, or the mother, or perhaps an artist who's sick of controversy. But it seems sincere. She says she understands why NBC never airs her controversial episode in reruns. "Well now, that's understandable, isn't it?" she asks. "They would get in shitloads of trouble."

Being that she was trying to bring attention to an issue that, had we listened, could have spared countless young Catholic kids the horrors of abuse, doesn't she think anyone owes her any sort of apology?

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"No," she says. "Not at all. People have got to be themselves. I respect anybody who stands up for what they believe in."

But what if what they stand up for is not believing in anything other than money? I ask.

"They're entitled to do that, quite frankly," she says. "It's free will."

She voices similar sentiments when discussing "Sean-Nós Nua," a decidedly noncommercial venture. She's wanted to make this album for more than a decade, she says, but her label at the time wouldn't let her. "Quite rightly, if the record company is giving you huge advances they want you to sell your soul to a certain extent creatively to make their money back," she says.

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Her current label, Vanguard, provides her with "more creative freedom to do the kind of records I really want to do," she says. And though she doesn't anticipate another "Nothing Compares 2 U"-type pop ballad hit, it has helped her achieve her current freedom. "I've made enough money that I don't really have to make records for the sake of having a hit," she says.

She'd like to do a country record, and a religious record. "I've got an idea for a long time of a record of opera songs but not sung in opera style, but made more modern. So you do songs like 'Come Back to Sorrento,' but with an electric guitar and just sing them in a normal voice, make those kinds of songs accessible to, you know, normal people -- not people who can pay 200 quid for a ticket."

With two kids at home, she'd like to do something for them as well. "Disney songs appeal to me hugely," she says. "I don't know whether I would appeal to Disney."

There doesn't seem to be a lot she wouldn't do for her kids. In July, she took her son, Jake, to see the hardcore rap festival "Gathering of the Juggalos" -- the discussion of which makes O'Connor sound hilariously like the typical soccer mom.

"There's this band called Insane Clown Posse," she describes. "I had to go see them." She corrects herself, as Jake wouldn't actually let her accompany him. "He didn't want to watch it with his mother," she says. "So I brought a friend in and we sat in the Holiday Inn while they went to see Insane Clown Posse."

Wow, I say. Insane Clown Posse is not quite Lilith Fair. (Sample lyrics: "When I was locked up you fucked something like 34 guys. But I let that slide, 'cause your ass is big and your titties is fat. I wanted to fuck that. But fuck that!") Are you familiar with their music? I ask.

"Well, I guess my son wouldn't like me to get too familiar with it," she says. "But I hear it in the house. It's very stressful. I don't like it."

Being something of a rebel yourself, is it weird to disapprove of your son's musical tastes?

"Yeah, it's weird to realize how old one is," she laughs. "When you start saying, 'Turn that shit down, I'm getting stressed out, it's hurting my third eye.'" But there's something oddly reassuring about capturing herself in such a maternal moment, she allows. "I actually seem to enjoy hearing myself saying that kind of stuff."

That said, Jake's love of ICP is a tad disconcerting. "It's weird seeing your kid who's like twice the size of you putting on white face paint and walking around the house," she says. "He went through this awful phase with -- what's that band called? Slipknot? It was awful, he was going around in a boiler suit and a gas mask. I'd be out with the baby in the buggy and he'd be wandering around Dublin in a fucking gas mask. So Insane Clown Posse is like Disney compared to Slipknot."

While the limited understanding she expresses for networks like NBC and labels like Atlantic may not extend to the Vatican, she seems to have nothing but concern about the pope and his health.

One of the songs from her new album, "Paddy's Lament," addresses the question of a society's obligations to its most vulnerable. And that's relevant to His Holiness, she says.

"I see the pope as being someone who's very vulnerable. He's a very old man," she says. "I feel it's not right to be dragging him around the world when he's obviously sick. If that was my father or grandfather I wouldn't be dragging him around the world making him apologize for things that he didn't necessarily do, making him sit there when he's obviously physically unable to do this stuff. To me there's almost something sinister about it. It's not very caring."

People might be surprised to hear her talk that way about the pope, I say. "Ripping up the picture was more about the office than the man," she says. "I don't have a particular problem with him as a man or what he's done as pope."

Perhaps even more surprising is O'Connor's take on Sept. 11 and its aftermath. "Paddy's Lament" tells the story of an old Irishman who comes to the United States to flee wars in his homeland only to be conscripted by Lincoln to fight with the Union Army in the Civil War. "What I love about this song is that it's a very powerful antiwar song," she says, "but he doesn't make any judgments of anyone. He understands the humanity of people wanting to fight back but he just expresses concern for his safety."

The song reflects both her pacifist idealism while acknowledging that people don't only fight wars for nefarious reasons. "What war does, sometimes, is it takes your priorities and throws them right out the window," she says. "An old man should never be stuck in the middle of a battlefield. The people who are affected most by war obviously are very young people and very old people."

In "Paddy's Lament," I say, Paddy is being conscripted in the Union Army to fight slavery, which certainly one could argue is a just cause. "Exactly," O'Connor responds. "But then his thing is that Ireland has always been a neutral country -- we wouldn't take sides one way or another. In a war, we'd just be antiwar. So I think that's what he's talking about, he didn't make a choice to be in an army at all, he came to America thinking he was going to make his fortune." That war is ever declared, she says, "shows a lack of consideration for those who are vulnerable in society. Generally wars are over money, really, and it should never be that some old person should be lost in the middle of a battlefield, metaphorically speaking, or literally over oil or money."

But what of our "war on terrorism"? I ask.

She smiles. She likes Paddy, she repeats, because of his refusal to judge those going to war. "I think he understands quite clearly, as I do, the humanity of wanting to fight back and protect your people," she says. "If someone hurt someone in my family I would probably want to fight back as well. I'd probably have to have 10 large people sitting on top of me to stop me."

That O'Connor's anger has subsided shouldn't lead anyone to conclude that she no longer maintains a lot of squishy lefty idealism. "Obviously, I think it's completely inexcusable what happened here on Sept. 11," she says. But, she maintains, it has to be asked why the Sept. 11 terrorists value life so little. "Because the lives that they have led has given them to believe that they are worth nothing and life is worth nothing," she says. "At the end of the day, maybe the better way to sort it all out would be to give these people something of what they need so that they can feel that life is worth more than they obviously feel it is."

The conversation is heading into the typical places of liberal thought, I think, where extremist Islam isn't even mentioned, much less blamed. But by the same token, as an Irishwoman, O'Connor has a more benign view of the U.S. than many of her European counterparts, since she sees the U.S. as a teacher of peace.

"The war that was in my country until I was 33 or so years of age has now ceased because of America coming to our country and teaching us the language of peace," she says. Bombing Afghanistan or Iraq leads her to worry that "if the teacher hasn't learned the lessons how can it pass them on to anyone else? I understand entirely why people would want to fight back. But I don't think it actually achieves anything. It doesn't bring back your lost people."

Being Irish has also led O'Connor resolutely into pacifism. "Very small kids are terrified by the talk of war," she says. "It's very frightening. And even for me as a little girl watching TV about what was happening in Belfast, it really affects your life as a little kid. So I think war itself is a form of terrorism on people who are innocent, that, for example, little kids halfway across the world have to listen to.

"But one other point I want to make," she says. "When you're a singer people are always asking you what you think about all kinds of things in the world -- politics or religion. And then if you say what you think, people make a big thing out of it. At the end of the day, I often wonder why anyone should give a damn what I think."

That said, would she have done anything differently 10 years ago with the wisdom she now has? Would she have changed anything about her actions on "SNL" on Oct. 3, 1992?

"Hell, no," she says. Roisin, her adorable 6-year-old, runs in and hugs her. The interview is over.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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