PREACHERS AND PORN

Alone in his study at a church in suburban Dallas, Pastor Bernie Anderson toiled on his sermon. Searching for the proper message for his Seventh-Day Adventist flock, the preacher turned to the computer. He clicked on sites for theological essays, stories of Christian history, Hebrew translations. On the wall was a symbol of his mission: a portrait of Jesus bearing the cross. But temptation beckons all, even the man who stands behind the pulpit. Fingers trembling, he clicked on another site. The key word: sex. "It was very raunchy stuff, but I couldn't stop," says Anderson, an earnest and soft-spoken man. He was racked with guilt. "You feel like, 'I'm a pastor. I'm not supposed to have this problem'."

As a pastor with a weakness for porn, he is scarcely an oddity. Some 40 percent of clergy have acknowledged visiting sexually explicit Web sites, according to a 2000 survey conducted by Christianity Today and Leadership magazines. The results surprised some pastors, says Eric Reed, the managing editor of Leadership, a magazine aimed at Protestant clergy. "They said, 'Wow, I'm surprised the numbers are so low'." After hearing from so many pastors battling obsession with porn, the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family launched a Web site offering help: pureintimacy.org. Treatment groups like Stone Gate Resources, based in Larkspur, Colo., offer help with intensive counseling at residential retreats.

Pastors watching racy videos is a far cry from the scandals of the Roman Catholic Church, the hundreds of documented cases of priests preying on minors. These clergymen tend to be looking for escapist sexual thrills in an anonymous cyberworld. They are, after all, no less human than their followers in the pews. But a religious leader can scarcely browse the local erotic book store or visit a gentlemen's club--or even share sexual fantasies with friends--without risking career ruin. "They're surrounded by people, but they're lonely all the time," says Doug Boudinot, a former Presbyterian minister who left the church after his own struggles with porn and now counsels pastors overwhelmed by an appetite for lurid images. "So they start looking for connection and intimacy."

At the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Desoto, Texas, no one suspected that Anderson, 36, was secretly spending hours looking at porn. Married and the father of three young children, he is an unwavering believer in the literal word of the Bible. A devoted churchman, he never misses a meeting or slacks on a sermon. When a troubled soul needs a patient ear, he always makes time. "He's such a tremendous preacher," says Christine Bullion, 50, a church secretary. "He gives his best, his all." But he felt like a hypocrite. "I was cold inside, empty," he says. He tried to stop, but soon the images would flicker again, just steps from the church sanctuary. After one porn binge, he decided he could no longer live with himself. He called a fellow pastor and confessed: "I'm a pastor addicted to porn." The response startled him. "You're not alone."

In October, Anderson enrolled in a five-day residential treatment program, where ministers gathered in groups to talk about the problem. Reminded by counselors of God's grace, he learned to forgive himself, and says he has stayed clean. "It's made me a better pastor," he says. "I don't have to hide anymore. I don't feel the pressure to be perfect. I'm just Bernie. Pastor Bernie." Just Bernie--how sweet the sound.

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