Fight the real enemy!
The Pope, sexual abuse, censorship, and Sinéad O'Connor

In the spring of 2002 American news headlines were filled with reports of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Like an unchecked wildfire, thousands of cases involving hundreds of priests touched upon every corner of the nation. To the always insular American public these stories came as a horrible shock; yet in the previous decade rampant sexual abuse within the church had been revealed in numerous other countries.

During the 1990's the Catholic Church was forced to face the same pandemic in Ireland, the Philippines, and Africa. But since Americans pay little attention to the rest of the world, these foreign crises might as well have taken place on Alpha Centauri.

And during the 90's - when not avoiding the issue altogether - Americans were shooting the messenger; take the case of Sinead O'Connor.

On October 3, 1992 Sinéad O'Connor was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live. That night Sinéad Selassified herself, singing a beautiful a capella version of Bob Marley's War. But as the song ended, Sinéad deviated from rehearsal as she held up a picture of the pope, tore it in half, and shouted, "Fight the real enemy!!"

Whether you think the pope is the saintliest person in the world or the embodiment of evil, you have to acknowledge O'Connor's success as an artist; she pushed a red-hot button, and not without cause. Sacrilegious as this may sound to some, the pope and his church are not above criticism. What's more troubling, a pop song or the Vatican's views on women's rights? What's more offensive, O'Connor's actions or the killing that goes on in her native Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, ostensibly in the name of God?

I tuned in MTV this weekend to see Madonna's "controversial" new video, and I yawned at her increasingly tiresome efforts to use sex as a marketing tool. I tuned in Saturday Night Live to catch some comedy and music and was jolted out of my normal TV-watching haze by a bald Irish woman tearing up a picture of the pope. Live from New York, it was television at its finest.

Richard Roper, 1992 - Chicago Sun-Times

Reactions were predictable and immediate. NBC's switchboards were flooded with thousands of calls. Television and radio pundits lambasted Sinéad. With rare exceptions, journalists did too. Surprisingly, few even knew what she was protesting. They didn't care. Like sharks sensing blood they were simply in a feeding frenzy with Sinéad as their target.

Ten years ago, long before priest-related sexual abuse was the issue du jour, Sinéad O'Connor was protesting child sexual abuse within the church and the church's attempts to sweep it all under the rug. For this she was pilloried, ridiculed, and her career virtually destroyed.

In 1998, after the scandal within the church had already broken in Ireland, but before it became frontpage news in America, Sinéad had this to say:

There are still people who don't understand why I ripped up the Pope's picture, who saw it as a vicious attack on an old man who had had assassination attempts made on his life. But obviously it wasn't a personal attack on the man. It was an attack on the church in general and for its policy of silence on the abuses that were taking place, particularly in Ireland.

I do feel vindicated by all the information that has come out in the last few years concerning child abuse within the church and how the church tried to cover it up, especially in Ireland. With some people you can never win them over, and I respect those who think it was a terrible thing. But it was something I felt I had to do, and I don't regret doing it.

Sinéad shouldn't have any regrets. She was right. Americans should regret that they were unwilling to hear her warning. Countless hundreds, perhaps thousands, more children had to be abused in the intervening years before we finally took notice.

Long ago politicians learned that life is a whole lot easier if you tell the public what they want to hear. Yes, we can all have a free lunch. We can raise spending, cut taxes, and *still* balance the budget. Yeah, right. In America, it's OK to tell the truth as long as the public already agrees with "the truth" - anything else and you're dead meat.

To add insult to injury, not only was Sinéad castigated for her stance, the people at NBC would like you to believe it never happened. The show was never allowed to be rerun - until, until ... until Comedy Central bought the rights. But if you watch Sinéad's appearance on the Comedy Central version you'll never see her tear up a picture of the pope. Instead you'll see her hold up a picture of a small child - all fuzzy and warm. The footage they show is actually from the show's rehearsal - not the actual live performance.

While Sinéad O'Connor now languishes in relative artistic obscurity, not everyone has forgotten. In June 2002, in one of the last columns he wrote before his untimely death, Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White remembered. As the head of the music industry's principle trade publication he used his column, Music to My Ears, to laud Sinéad O'Connor for being ahead of everyone else; for being right when so many were unwilling to listen.

It will be self deceiving and a waste of time to advocate dialogue with those who are not ready to listen, because it is obvious that the freedom of millions is not a commodity subject to bargaining. - from Haile Selassie's 1968 United Nations speech that became the basis for Bob Marley's War