Nearly a decade before Pope John Paul II publicly acknowledged sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, Sinead O’Connor took a stand on Saturday Night Live that altered the trajectory of her career.
On Oct. 3, 1992, the singer — whose death at the age of 56 was announced yesterday (July 26) — shocked the world (and reportedly the SNL producers) when she took a bold stand against child abuse committed and covered up by the church.
During O’Connor’s second performance of the episode, she covered Bob Marley‘s “War” — but the controversy came when she sang the lyric, “We have confidence in the victory of good over evil.” Upon singing the word “evil,” she held up a photo of John Paul II to the camera and proceeded to rip it three times. She declared, “Fight the real enemy,” before walking off the stage.
Following the performance, SNL producer Lorne Michaels reportedly ordered that they turn off the “Applause” sign, leaving the room in awkward silence. NBC further banned O’Connor from ever coming back to the late-night sketch comedy show — which would go on to use the historic moment as the butt of Joe Pesci‘s jokes the following week.
“I’ll tell you one thing: She’s very lucky it wasn’t my show. ‘Cause if it was my show, I woulda gave her such a smack,” Pesci said on SNL, later holding up a photo of the Pope taped back together. “I woulda grabbed her by her … eyebrows.”
Amid the worldwide outrage, O’Connor was booed a couple of weeks later when she performed the same song at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, per Time.
Two years before her controversial performance, the Irish musician had the biggest hit of the 1990s when she covered Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The song, as well as its album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” were nominated for four Grammys in 1991 — even though O’Connor, already known for her unapologetic reputation, boycotted the esteemed award show.
During a 2017 episode of Dr. Phil, O’Connor — who was open about the physical and emotional she endured from her mother — reflected on her infamous SNL performance, which she said she had been planning for a “couple weeks” before it happened.
“Interestingly, what people don’t know is that: first of all, we in Ireland knew 10 years before you all did that child abuse was in the Catholic Church. We had evidence,” she said at the time. “And the photo itself had been on my mother’s bedroom wall all my life. I was genuinely very angry with what the Church [was] doing.”
She continued, “By ripping that picture, I risked my career, everything. I could be a billionaire now if I wanted — if I believed in it. But I don’t.”
In 2021, the star, who referred to herself as a “protest singer” in her Rememberings memoir, told the New York Times that she doesn’t regret the moment.
“I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant,” she said. “But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy bitch.”
Decider has reached out to SNL and Michaels for comment on O’Connor’s passing, but did not hear back by time of publication.