Priests meet them in the confessional. Clinical therapist and counselor Peter Kleponis meets them in his office — men who are caught up in the epidemic of viewing pornography.

The Archdiocese of New York in June gave priests a unique opportunity to learn from Kleponis.

One man looked at pornography online on his home computer for more than 10 years, always navigating away and erasing his Internet history when he was done, so that his wife wouldn’t know. One day he forgot to, and the images his wife saw so disgusted her that she left him.

Another man worked hard to reach an executive level at his corporation. The stress of the new position and the privacy of his new office combined to coax him into looking at porn at work. He began to spend more and more time doing it until other managers got suspicious. They discovered what he was doing and fired him.

Evidence of epidemic

Kleponis, who specializes in men’s issues, works with men like that all the time — and he wants to teach priests the right way to handle them.

 “Every day I talk to people who are struggling with this addiction,” said Kleponis, of the Institute for Marital Healing in West Conshohocken, Pa. “I don’t have any clients struggling with drug addiction or alcohol addiction alone. It’s mainly all pornography.”

He told Our Sunday Visitor he talks to priests around the country, and “this is the No. 1 sin they are hearing from men in the confessional.”

It’s no wonder. While reliable statistics on the size of the pornography industry are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence of a massive problem is not.

On July 8, the U.S. House voted to block pornography from government computers after a series of embarrassing incidents in which Securities and Exchange Commission workers were caught spending hours at work looking at pornography. On July 23, the Boston Globe revealed that a child-pornography investigation has exposed offenders in the Pentagon, including the National Security Agency.

As for statistics, the recently released “Pornland” (Beacon Press, $26.95), by Gail Dines, cites market research conducted by Internet providers suggesting that the average age a boy first sees porn is 11; one-third of 13-year-old boys admitted viewing porn; a third of 14- to 16-year-olds had first seen sexual images online when they were 10 or younger.

Kleponis said the reality is even worse. “Any statistics we have are probably gross underestimates of it, because so much of it is unreported. It’s men late at night alone with their computers.”

Confession crackdown

Catholics are paying attention. Kleponis is scheduled to be on EWTN soon to speak about healing from porn and has been booked by several dioceses.

“People are finally saying, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this,’” he said. Those people include bishops.

It all started when the New York archdiocese came looking for help on this issue. Alarmed by the constant mentions of pornography by penitents, priests were clamoring for training. “It was no longer enough to say, ‘You’ve made a great confession. Pray and do better,’” said Kleponis.

He worked with the family life office, the office of Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, the priest personnel office and the safe environment office. He conducted mandatory seminars with archdiocesan clergy.

Now, when one of the priests he trained hears from a penitent in the confessional, he can give him specific advice.

Art Bennett, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., can vouch for Kleponis’ approach. In his previous work as a licensed family therapist, he assisted Bishop Paul S. Loverde on his response to the pornography problem. In 2007, the Arlington diocese launched UnityRestored.com and also provided cards for priests to hand out in the confessionals.

“The thing that was most rewarding was seeing how people went and got help because of it,” Bennett told OSV. “People would come in and say, ‘My confessor gave me this card.’”

Bennett said that when priests hear that this is a real addiction, they are relieved. They can tell people how to seek help.

“It’s my hope that other dioceses will also develop programs for this,” Kleponis told OSV. He pointed out that most child molesters start out as pornography users, making his efforts compatible with efforts to protect children.

Emotional wounds

Both Kleponis and Bennett incorporate the wisdom of a bishop’s 2007 pastoral letter into their works. Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., wrote “Blessed Are the Pure in Heart,” which does not just condemn use of pornography, but reaches out to those who use porn and lists ways for them to become reconciled with the Church. Kleponis offers a DVD study guide of the pastoral letter.

In the document, Bishop Finn writes: “While some would say that the opposite of love is hate, [Pope John Paul II] taught that the opposite of love is use. The idea is that if you do not love someone, you will end up using that person.”

This gets to the heart of why pornography is wrong, he wrote. On the one hand, “One may never use another person as an object for one’s own pleasure.” And ultimately, wrote the bishop, “the only proper response to a person is love.”

Patrick Fagan at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., calls pornography “the quiet family killer.”

Fagan consolidated research about the effects of pornography in a paper in December, citing mainstream research to show that pornography is a real, chemical addiction because of the glandular effect it has on the brain.

Kleponis has seen evidence of that. “I’ve worked with guys who were online at work looking at pornography and lost their jobs,” he told OSV. “The addiction is such that even if they know that corporate big brother is watching, they still do it.”

Fagan found that pornography use has a devastating effect on wives once they find out — psychologically, the same effect as marital infidelity. It was cited in more than half of divorces in one study.

In pornography cases, “the biggest wound is the trust wound,” Kleponis said. “The trust is severely damaged. What also happens is that women talk about all the emotions they feel. They feel hurt, they feel betrayed, the feel like they’ve been lied to. But the biggest emotion they feel is foolish. … They feel like they have been made fools for trusting their husband. They feel like they can’t stay with their husbands without people saying, ‘How she could stay with him?’”

Confessional Advice (sidebar)

The Archdiocese of New York recently provided formal training for priests in how to help those who have ongoing problems with pornography. Here are suggestions of what might be helpful to say to a penitent:

  • Thank God for your strength in coming forward and admitting you have a problem. This is the first step in your journey to recovery.
  • You’re not alone. Thousands of men struggle with compulsive pornography use.
  •  Do you want to be free from this sin? Are you willing to pay the price?
  • Healing and freedom from this sin is possible, but know that you can’t do it alone.
  •  It requires God’s grace, professional help, and support from other men who understand your struggle.
  • Here is a card that will direct you to helpful resources. If you’re serious about overcoming pornography use, I urge you to explore them. (The cards refer penitents to: www.flrl.org/TrueFreedom.htm)
  •  Know that God, the Father of Mercy and Love, will provide the grace to overcome this sin.

Peter Kleponis, who trained archdiocesan priests, also recommends the monitoring software at CovenantEyes.com

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he helps teach students about the harmful effects of pornography.