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Porn again

Feature | XXX masters of duplicity preach purity in the pulpit while hiding prurient practices at the computer screen

Issue: "The fewer and the proud," April 23, 2005

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.

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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.

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