Fight the real enemy

Sinéad was right

There were few places I went as a college student in 1989 that didn’t have Sinéad O’Connor as a soundtrack.

Her debut album, The Lion and The Cobra, had just been released a few months before. Songs like “Mandinka” and “Put Your (Hands On Me)” were a great mix of alternative, hip-hop and dance music, and more than a few of us exorcised our romantic demons with “Troy” playing in the background.

Sinéad became a household name after the enormous success of her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, with her classic take on the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U.” If she wasn’t getting attention for her phenomenal music, she was getting attention for her appearance – her shaved head, a big middle finger to an industry that wanted female artists to be tarty and marketable.

Sinéad’s career continued, with ups and downs. She maintained a high profile in the States – until October 3, 1992, when she appeared on Saturday Night Live. On that program, after singing her version of Bob Marley’s “War,” she did the unthinkable – she ripped a picture of Pope John Paul II while looking at the camera and asking the audience to “fight the real enemy.”

The reaction was immediate and ferociously negative. Thousands of people attended rallies where copies of Sinéad’s albums were burned. Her career was burned, too, and her popularity in the United States took a permanent hit.

At the time, very little was made of the reason that Sinéad gave the press for her actions: she was protesting the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse that had happened in the church. Children had been abused by priests.

It was, perhaps, a relatively new concept in the media, a new concept to readers and viewers. We hadn’t heard much about the events she was speaking about at that time. Her actions were remembered, but the more complex reasons behind them were not. She was often vilified as being anti-religion and anti-Catholic, when in fact her faith was so deep she eventually became ordained as a priest (in an offshoot of the Church).

The great irony of all of this is, of course, that the abuse scandal that Sinéad reacted to (in Ireland) was only the tip of the iceberg. The Catholic Church has clearly had issues with abuse – and its subsequent handling of such abuse – and it wasn’t limited to one country or even one continent. Or one decade, since the problem seems to have resurfaced time and again.

Sinéad may have been impetuous, or impertinent. She may have even been guilty of a grand, ineloquent gesture.

But there’s no denying it: Sinéad was right.

Her career as originally conceived and launched in the States is no more, though she’s released dozens of albums since. I still love her music, and her voice is even better with age. She’s been recognized for her work and is still active in matters of faith.

I just wish that somehow, Sinéad could be more fully acknowledged for what she did and said – and what she risked to say about a people and a community that she loved.

EPILOGUE: After decades of secrecy, Pope Benedict issued what is an astonishing apology just this past week for the abuses that have been committed by priests. It’s long in coming – perhaps too long for some victims – but it’s a very real beginning to healing and making the Church a stronger community.

The idea for this post has been growing in my mind for a few months, since the latest round of revelations in the States regarding the abuse scandals in the Church.

I came to this idea on my own, but after Googling this topic, I’m both glad – and sad – to see that I’m hardly the first person to say “Sinéad was right.” There’s about a dozen or so Google hits that say similar things, including an excellent piece by now-ABC reporter Jake Tapper that was published on – you can check it out here.