Fall 2002, Vol. 5, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2002

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Articles in this issue

Our Muslim Neighbors

9/11 On Our Mind

Scandal Without End

After the Globe

Choosing Up Sides in the Middle East

Reading the Koran in Chapel Hill

Faith Based Administration

Amazing Graceland

Sex in the (Catholic) City

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 Cathedral.

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 good taste.

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 suspended.

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 many others.

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 lewdness."

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 Times.

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.

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