Attack on the Pope during the 1984 Toronto Visit
An Early Lesson in Media Censorship
On September 9, 1984, Pope John Paul II landed at Quebec City to start a grueling twelve-day, 15,000km marathon that saw him visit millions from Newfoundland to British Columbia. It was a national event and the first time a Pontiff had set foot in Canada. In Toronto alone, almost a million people attended mass at Downsview airport.
But not everybody loved the head of the Roman Catholic Church – so my friends and I at the Toronto Police Oriental Crime Unit found ourselves working undercover protecting the Pope, along with a thousand other police officers from all over Ontario.
“Everything happened slowly, and then very quickly… I realized we might be too late.”
The danger to Pope John Paul II was real, and everyone on the security detail was nervous. Just three years earlier a Muslim terrorist shot the Pope twice during an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square.
Bulgarian military personnel had been involved in the St. Peter’s attack, so any attempt in Toronto might also be supported with resources from a USSR satellite nation. This was at the height of the Cold War. Martial law was in force in Poland against Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa. The Polish Pope strengthened the resolve of the Poles and weakened the Soviet Block. That made him even more of a target.
We were therefore a serious bunch, suspicious of everything – armed to the max and ready-to-rock at every moment that “il Papa” was anywhere near us.
But it was also a happy time as Canada celebrated. The massive crowds were joyous, loved to touch the Pope and he permitted it. You can imagine our er, ‘delight’ with the Pope’s walking into crowds as he often did even after the assassination attempt.
The University Avenue Attack
Everything happened slowly, and then very quickly.
Thousands lined University Avenue waiting to see John Paul II as waved and blessed the crowd from the slow-moving Popemobile.
I was one of hundreds of undercover police officers along the parade route when one of my team made eye contact and scratched his ear – our signal that he’d seen something. I walked to him and immediately spotted the target.
The man was in his early thirties. There was nothing outstanding about his clothes or appearance, but in this crowd his body language was all wrong and that’s what attracted our attention.
Everyone was smiling and waving at the Popemobile slowly coming towards us about 75 feet away. Our friend looked towards the Pope, but every so often he glanced at the uniformed police on the other side of the street. Then he slowly swiveled his head left and right – looking for undercover officers, for us. He wasn’t smiling.
But he didn’t spot us. We were smiling and waving at the approaching Popemobile even as we signalled for assistance to take him down.
Within a shorter time than it takes to tell, there were five of us within striking distance and we were just about to grab his arms and flash a badge and the Pope was closer and then it all happened so quickly and I realized we might be too late…
Fast as anything he shoved his right hand into his jacket pocket, pulled out a round green object, cocked his arm, and started to throw. Everybody launched themselves at the man’s arm and hand and for an instant I thought he held a grenade – but it was an apple that fell to the ground.
Down we went and he started screaming in a berserk rage “The Pope is Satan! The Pope is Satan!” Then he started biting.
Those of you who have never been a police officer, paramedic, or worked at a hospital probably don’t understand how one person in a frenzy can have the strength and violence to resist or even overpower five or six big men. Doctors have many theories about bipolar behaviour, ‘Intermittent Explosive Disorder’, and the role of various drugs in precipitating rage – but none of that matters in the middle of an attack.
In those days we had no pepper spray or tasers – only physical restraint, fists, and chokeholds – but nothing seemed to work.
Fists flew in both directions as we struggled to gain control. One of the team screamed as the man squeezed his privates. During the melee he bit three of us. When he chomped my forearm I had to punch him twice in the face before he let go. Then I got on top, and hit him hard on the jaw.
I cocked my arm to give him another, but the fight was done – so for the first time in a while I looked up…
And there was Pope John Paul II frowning as he surveyed the chaos, making the sign of the cross – blessing us. By this time some uniform officers were arriving and in an instant the Pope realized who we were.
Still looking at ‘il papa’, I shrugged my shoulders – and saw him smile, wink at me and make the sign of the cross again. Then he was gone as the Popemobile continued on.
And that is how Pope John Paul II smiled, winked, and blessed me in the middle of a fight.
The public never heard about the incident on University Avenue, nor of a handful of similar happenings across Canada. Like the man we arrested, most of the ‘attackers’ were troubled individuals with long histories of mental illness.
At the time it was thought by those in power that there should be nothing in the news to mar the feeling, image and historical record of the Pope’s Canadian visit. So the police said nothing of any incidents, and newspapers printed nothing even if they knew.
At the time I agreed with the non-reporting of incidents during the Papal Tour – but given the rise of government and corporate collaboration to censor, it should have been a caution to me about the power of the news media to deliberately ignore events in order to control and construct narratives.
“No matter how well-intended, censorship always becomes a weapon for those in power.”