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Created: May 6, 2005
Latest Update: May 6, 2005
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FEATURE: XXX masters of duplicity preach purity in the pulpit while hiding prurient practices at the computer screen | by Mark Bergin
CAUTION: This story concerns the graphic topic of pornography.
Jody Burgin drawls with melodious deliberation, littering conversations with first-name references as if every stranger were an old friend. "Hey John," he might say in a first meeting. "Let me tell you something."
Folks find Mr. Burgin's accessible personality easy to trust, his counsel easy to revere, his authenticity easy to believe. For 20 years, churchgoers first in Birmingham, Ala., and then Cincinnati, Ohio, trusted, revered, and believed the impeccable reputation Mr. Burgin built from his pulpit. But beneath the thick varnish of smooth oration and doctrinally sound sermons, this conservative pastor secretly harbored a monster. "I was a master of duplicity," he said.
Six years ago, the shadow-dwelling beast got out; Mr. Burgin was addicted to internet pornography. For the entirety of his ministry and even before, Mr. Burgin tumbled silently through a cycle of shame, repentance, and broken vows. Seasons of apparent victory collapsed in times of stress, when the comfort of habit proved too difficult to resist. Despite a guilt-ridden conscience, Mr. Burgin often preached on sexual purity, slogging through such sermons undetected. "I compartmentalized it in my mind," he said. "I rationalized. I minimized. I would stop while preaching and teaching on it."
Mr. Burgin's exposure came during a spell of particularly high internet activity. A series of stress-filled events—his father died, his eldest son left for college, and he relocated to a new church—drove him to new levels of daring. He left undone the practiced ritual of covering his tracks, failing to delete his computer's history and temporary internet files. "I got sloppy, and I got caught," he said. Mr. Burgin's wife of 25 years did the catching and unlocked the cage of her husband's secret monster by releasing printouts of his activity to various church leaders. She then chose divorce, taking the couple's young daughter with her. His ministry and family lost, his reputation soiled, Mr. Burgin turned to the church for help and found little. "Churches didn't know how to handle me," he said.
A Barna Research Group study released in November 2003 found four out of five born-again Christians believe pornography to be morally unacceptable. The Bible likens lust to adultery and fornication, both expressly forbidden. Nevertheless, Mr. Burgin's disaster is far from unique:
• A 2003 survey from Internet Filter Review reported that 47 percent of Christians admit pornography is a major problem in their homes.
• An internet survey conducted by Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in 2002 found 30 percent of 6,000 pastors had viewed internet porn in the last 30 days.
• A Christianity Today Leadership Survey in 2001 reported 37 percent of pastors have viewed internet porn.
• Family Safe Media reports 53 percent of men belonging to the Christian organization Promise Keepers visit porn sites every week.
• One in seven calls to Focus on the Family's Pastoral Care Hotline is related to internet pornography.
• Today's Christian Woman in 2003 found that one in six women, including Christians, struggles with pornography addiction.
Intense availability has largely contributed to such numbers. Even a decade ago, social and religious stigmas limited sex-video rentals or porn-magazine purchases. The internet's offer of complete anonymity and instant accessibility has changed everything. It has also tapped a previously unreachable market: children.
A 2002 study by the London School of Economics found nine of 10 children between ages 8 and 16 had viewed internet pornography. The report found most of those cases to be unintentional. Recovered porn addict Mark Laaser testified of such unintentional discoveries before Congress five years ago, reporting that one 8-year-old girl's internet search for "Cinderella" produced an image-laden, pornographic adaptation of the innocent fairy tale. "I would consider that to be a form of sexual assault," he told Congress.
Federal laws meant to curb such assaults have thus far proved futile. The Communications Decency Act of 1996, which prohibited pornographers from knowingly transmitting indecent messages to minors, fell in 1997 after a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds of First Amendment free-speech rights. In 1998, the Child Online Protection Act sought more modest regulations, forcing all commercial distributors of cyber-porn to block minors by requiring credit-card numbers.
Again, the act lasted only one year, as the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals declared it unconstitutional in 1999. In May 2002, the Supreme Court determined the reason for that ruling insufficient and sent the issue back to the 3rd Circuit Court for reexamination. The court once again struck down the act as unconstitutional, and this time, upon Supreme Court review last June, the ruling stood.
Only the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000 remains in effect, though not for lack of challenge. This skimpy provision requires that public libraries employ internet filters on public computers. No legislation has succeeded in limiting the rights of pornographers in any way.
What then to do? Mr. Burgin, now free for five years from porn use, has developed and marketed Dynamic Living for Men (DLM), a multimedia curriculum that promotes integrity-forming habits. Mr. Laaser, porn-free for 18 years, serves as executive director for Faithful and True Ministries, leading support groups and work shops for recovering addicts. Other organizations are springing up across the nation as well. Harvest USA operates centers in Philadelphia and Chattanooga, Tenn., running classes and producing literature aimed to help couples recover from the effects of pornography. Christians for Sexual Integrity in Excelsior, Minn., emphasizes personal counseling sessions via telephone, e-mail, or in person. Pure Life Ministries in Dry Ridge, Ky., offers a more extreme 6-12 month live-in program where men escape all internet temptations and participate in intensive prayer.
The websites of these and many other similar organizations boast numerous testimonials of changed lives, but the problem seems only to grow larger. As more Christian homes broaden their bandwidth to high-speed connections and put computers in multiple bedrooms, the opportunity for private online viewing increases—and supply follows demand.
Numbering roughly 4.2 million, pornographic websites account for 12 percent of all websites. Attached to those sites are around 372 million pornographic pages, amply serving some 68 million daily pornographic search engine requests.
The magnitude of this crisis has pushed some Christians to more creative and perhaps even desperate measures. Gen-X pastors Mike Foster and Craig Gross run a website called XXXchurch.com where issues of pornography are discussed with striking candor, openness, and humor. Mr. Foster and Mr. Gross drew national attention for setting up a booth at a Las Vegas Adult Expo in January 2003. They promoted their website, handed out Bibles, and collected names for a prayer list.
The stunt earned them an interview with Penthouse, in which they decried the failure of more traditional church efforts to effect any broad change and spoke of their desire to work alongside the porn industry to get people thinking and talking about issues otherwise left in the dark.
Such risqué tactics have earned Mr. Foster and Mr. Gross considerable criticism from Christians. But many conservative ministries, including Focus on the Family, eye XXXchurch.com with growing interest, suspecting that so pervasive a problem may call for such radical solutions. XXXchurch.com lists personal testimonies similar to those on other sites, and its national media appeal has publicized the use of internet filters and accountability software.
Such products as Bsafe Online and Integrity Online promise to block offensive content for internet users. Other programs track web browsing and deliver regular e-mail updates to an accountability partner of choice. XXXchurch.com offers free downloads of such deterrents. While helpful, Mr. Burgin says these security measures alone cannot solve internet addiction: "Until a man's core needs are met, he'll go over, under, and around any boundaries."
So what are those core needs? Mr. Burgin's addiction was not accompanied by the stereotypical environmental factors. He and his wife maintained a regular, even vibrant, sex life. His job as a pastor was fulfilling work to which he felt called. But Mr. Burgin says he lacked closeness to God and other men. Those were his core needs.
For women with cyber-porn addictions, the symptoms are often different. Most prefer sexual chat rooms or sexually explicit stories to viewing illicit images. But despite that dissimilarity, the antidote of spiritual and social intimacy is similar.
"The church is the most equipped organization on earth to deal with this issue," Mr. Burgin said. "The biggest problem is getting pastors to take it on." Some pastors fail to address the problem because they are uncomfortable with it or ignorant of its prevalence. Others focus all efforts on producing an immediate emotion-filled moment of deliverance. "I believe in deliverance, but that can come in many forms," Mr. Laaser said. "To think God is going to just zap part of your brain so you're only attracted to your wife from that moment on is not realistic."
The consensus among experienced porn fighters is that quick fixes offer no widespread solutions. "Just bringing conviction in a Sunday sermon most of the time is not sufficient," Mr. Burgin said. "The man in the pew who looks like he just walked off the 18th green on top of his game and won't admit his problem, the church can't help him. The breakthrough point for every man is honesty."
Mr. Laaser warns that any church lacking honest confessions of internet pornography addiction has a problem on its hands. Whether an open and exposed mess or a hidden and destructive beast, the problem exists in every church. No news is bad news. Mr. Laaser does not exaggerate the desperate level of this epidemic. He recalls receiving his first ministerial referral from an optometrist. Taking literally the biblical injunction to cut off sin-causing body parts, a man had plucked out his eyes only to find his sin remained. —•