NEW YORK - A Roman Catholic watchdog group is protesting a student art exhibition that includes vulgar depictions of religious symbols including a crucifix and rosary.

"I have the sneaking suspicion that these paintings made the cut precisely because they were an assault on Catholic sensibilities," Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, said in a statement yesterday.

The works on display at The Cooper Union art school in Manhattan's East Village include paintings, sculpture, graphic design and video installations chosen by the faculty. The exhibit runs until June 10.

The target of the protest is a series of paintings by Felipe Baeza. One of them depicts a man with his pants down and a crucifix in his rectum. A Latin caption reads, "The day I became a Catholic." Another painting shows rosaries with male genitalia and a third, a man with a halo and erection.

Donahue said the public "should expect more from the art faculty at a distinguished institution of higher education."

In a statement, Cooper Union responded that the art show ending the academic year is curated by faculty of the schools of architecture, engineering and art. "Hundreds of student works are shown annually without censorship - a tradition at the school since its founding by Peter Cooper 150 years ago." *