Sex in the (Catholic) City
By Anthony B. Smith
Brian Florence and Loretta Lynn Harper weren’t merely flouting
convention last August 15 when they were caught having—or at least seeming
to have—sex in the vestibule of New York City’s St. Patrick’s
The couple was participating in a competition promoted by the "Opie
and Anthony Show," a popular New York-based shock-jock radio program
that was awarding people points and a prize for having sex in various
public places. After being nabbed, the couple was immediately catapulted
into a larger public contest about religion, radio, and the boundaries of
Initial coverage focused on Greg "Opie" Hughes and Anthony
Cumia, the eponymous DJs who broadcast the sexual high jinks in St. Patrick’s
live on their afternoon radio show. The two had a long history of giving offense,
and even got fired from a Worcester, Massachusetts, radio station in 1998
for announcing on air that the mayor of Boston was dead (April Fool!). But
they always seemed to bounce back.
With its raunchy promotions and tasteless antics, the Opie and Anthony
Show was a ratings smash for its home station, WNEW, and a hit in 17 other
cities, including Boston, Washington, Dallas, and Cleveland. Given the show’s
cash value, many initially expected that the escapade in St. Patrick’s
would provoke only a mild slap on the wrist.
And indeed, initial local coverage treated the story as a prank. The Daily
News headlined, "Oh God! St. Pat’s Sex Stunt." Newsday punned,
"Doing it for Show; Couple charged in sex act in St. Patrick’s."
But then William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil
Rights, veteran of many Catholic battles with the media and cultural
establishment in New York, filed a complaint with the Federal Communications
Commission and asked that WNEW’s license be revoked.
Taking this as a significant threat, Infinity Broadcasting, WNEW’s
owner, suspended Opie and Anthony two days after the controversial
broadcast. The station’s general manager and program director were also
Ominously, FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps stated that if the
allegations proved to be true, the FCC should "consider the strongest
enforcement action possible against this station, up to and including the
revocation of the station’s license." With that, the national media
jumped on the story, with reports from the Washington Post, the Milwaukee
Journal, ABC News, CNBC, and "The O’Reilly Factor" among
Scott Simon, host of NPR’s "Weekend Edition," hoped that
Infinity Broadcast, which owned WNEW "squirmed a little." from the
intense public outrage and FCC investigation. "We shed no tears over
the shock jocks’ comeuppance," opined the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"Sex—or even simulated sex—in a cathedral is disrespectful to
religion, community standards, and perhaps, laws against public
As the story went coast to coast, it was framed as one of violated
taboos. "Just when you think all the lines have been crossed, somebody
comes along and crosses another one," wrote Tim Cuprisin of the Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel. "In the almost-anything-goes world of raunch
radio," declared the Washington Post’s Joel Garreau, "a
pair of shock jocks heard locally has discovered there is a limit: sex
inside Manhattan’s famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral."
Within a week, Opie and Anthony had been fired and the story faded from
the headlines. What was the upshot of this tempest in a pop culture teapot?
WNEW’s ratings plunged and the duo terrible turned out to have
been a key element in the success of Boston’s WBCN as well as other
stations around the country. A number spent the fall adrift, with some even
contemplating switching formats. And, as Lynette Holloway reported in the New
York Times, the Opie and Anthony controversy led some DJs and
radio stations to become more careful about giving offense. How long such
reticence would last was debatable.
But at the end of the day it’s important to recognize that this was not
just a story about two DJs who stepped over the line by encouraging people
to have sex in a church. It was a story about a couple (allegedly) having
sex in what can be considered the very Capitol of Roman Catholicism in
America on a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics.
"Opie and Anthony went further than mere vulgarity, not only by
promoting public behavior that is both criminal and lewd, but promoting it
in a place that is sacred to millions of Americans" a Buffalo News
editorial complained. "The offense is so dishonorable that it begs for
a harsh response."
"Not that an extra dimension was needed to underscore the depravity
of what took place," declared Boston Herald columnist Joe
Fitzgerald, "but it surely wasn’t coincidental that it happened on
Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption."
The time and place were essential to the story line of cultural
boundaries transgressed, holy spaces polluted, the sacred profaned. "If
there was sex in the church, I think Infinity has a right to say, ‘You’re
disgusting, you’re vile, sick human beings and we don’t wish to share
our space with you,’" Eric Muller of Mancow’s Morning Madhouse, a
popular and competing syndicated radio show, piously told the New York
The vehemence of the reaction also indicated that even though the
Catholic church has lost status in the public eye because of the pedophile
priest scandal, it still enjoys huge cultural stature. But significantly, it
was the lay leader of the Catholic League, William Donohue, who voiced the
church’s outrage. New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan made no public comment
about the Opie and Anthony fiasco—something that would have been
unimaginable in the pre-scandal days of Cardinal John O’Connor.
Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Donohue played his cards
astutely. Once the two DJs were fired, he announced that he was dropping his
petition to the FCC to revoke WNEW’s license and said, "This is
closure. It’s over." Altogether, his response in this incident—tempered
in comparison with other fracases he’s been involved in—was very much in
line with public opinion.
In fact, the Opie and Anthony affair served to highlight Donohue’s
growing authority on matters Catholic. Though a vigorous policer of media
slights to the church, he conspicuously declined to criticize journalists
when the pedophile coverage was at its most frenzied and was notably tough
on the hierarchy.
"By stepping into the credibility gap created by Egan and his
hierarchy’s complicity in sexual abuse crimes, the league’s lay
Catholics have taken a piece of the hierarchy’s power," wrote the
Boston Herald’s Margery Eagan. "They’ve also grabbed
a good chunk of its moral authority, too."
It’s hard to predict Donohue’s next move, but reporters might
consider keeping an eye cocked to see if he continues to articulate
sentiments that reflect more than the views of his base of conservative
Catholics. In the moral restructuring of the church, his may be, for better
or worse, the face of things to come.