While promoting her third album, Am I Not Your Girl?, O’Connor appeared as the musical guest on an October 1992 episode hosted by Tim Robbins. She was originally scheduled to perform two tracks from her new album, but the day before the show aired, she got permission to replace “Scarlet Ribbons” with an a cappella cover of Bob Marley‘s “War.”
O’Connor intended her “War” performance as a protest of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. “We know we will win,” she sang while staring into the camera. “We have confidence in the victory of good over evil.” As she sang the word “evil,” she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II. Before throwing the pieces on the ground, she encouraged the audience to “fight the real enemy.”
The incident drew immediate backlash from viewers and critics, including SNL, which banned her from ever performing on the show again. The following week, host Joe Pesci mocked O’Connor during his monologue, holding up what he claimed was the taped-together pope photo that O’Connor had ripped.
“She’s very lucky it wasn’t my show. ’Cause if it was my show, I woulda gave her such a smack,” Pesci, now 80, told the audience before adding in a dig about O’Connor’s shaved head. “I woulda grabbed her by her … eyebrows.”
Despite the criticism, O’Connor later said she had no regrets about the controversial performance even though it more or less killed her career. “I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career, and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track,” she wrote in her 2021 memoir, Rememberings.
While promoting the book, O’Connor told The New York Times that becoming a pop star felt “like being in a type of prison.” She had become globally famous in the early 1990s thanks to her hit cover of Prince‘s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and being invited on SNL was just one manifestation of her success.
“I’m not sorry I did it. It was brilliant,” she told the newspaper in May 2021. “But it was very traumatizing. It was open season on treating me like a crazy bitch.”
Nearly 10 years after SNL, O’Connor was somewhat vindicated. In 2001, John Paul II apologized for sexual abuse of children by priests in an email sent to churches around the world. “Sexual abuse within the Church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “The synod fathers wished to apologize unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment caused to them.”
In 2014, the United Nations condemned the Roman Catholic Church for its handling of clerical sex abuse cases. “The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators,” read a report by a UN committee.
O’Connor’s family confirmed her death on Wednesday, July 26. “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved Sinéad,” they told RTE in a statement. “Her family and friends are devastated and have requested privacy at this very difficult time.” She was 56.
London’s Metropolitan Police later confirmed that authorities do not suspect foul play. Officers responded to “reports of an unresponsive woman at a residential address” in the English city, where O’Connor was “pronounced dead at the scene.” The police notified O’Connor’s family after she was found, according to a statement obtained by CNN. “The death is not being treated as suspicious,” the statement continued.