Pulling back the veil of secrecy and openly discussing society’s exponentially increased use of pornography is a critical, first step in combating the problem that has led to rampant addiction and to marriage and family problems,
the business development leader of Covenant Eyes told Catholic teachers, catechists and youth ministry leaders March 28 at Notre Dame Seminary.
Ryan Foley of Covenant Eyes, a faith-based, Internet accountability and filtering company based in Michigan, told 600 priests, teachers, principals, catechists, youth ministers and technology directors in two meetings that he hoped over the next five years the Archdiocese of New Orleans could make pornography “a non-sensitive issue,” something everyone could talk about to combat its harmful effects on the family.
Out of the shadows
“That’s got to be the hope for us, that we can come out of the shadows and start talking about this,” Foley said. “The archbishop (Gregory Aymond) is interested in making this a non-sensitive issue. That’s really kept us from talking about this at all. We’ve treated it as a sensitive issue.”
Foley, who will work with the archdiocese to develop a strategic plan to fight pornography use among local Catholics, especially young people, said a 2010 study indicated 47 percent of families identified pornography as a major issue affecting the family. The study also showed 67 percent of children admitted erasing their web browser history “to hide their Internet use.”
“If you’re still thinking that you can look at your children’s Internet history to see what’s going on, that doesn’t work anymore, where everything is anonymous and there are private browsers,” Foley said. “Most kids have the Tor browser, which is essentially a fully anonymous browser that hides everything you do. Shortly, most of the web will be fully encrypted. That’s something that the powers that be, particularly Google, are pushing for.”
Another change from 20 and 30 years ago, Foley said, is the sheer amount of pornographic material available at the push of a button, which means parents can’t mislead themselves by saying, “Well, I made it through, and I saw pornography as a young kid.”
“This is not what they see today,” Foley said.
Foley said the average age of initial exposure to pornography is 11 years old, and girls are increasingly attracted to pornography and have been groomed to treat the “sexting” of nude or semi-nude pictures as harmless fun. Fifty-six percent of divorces point to pornography usage as a major cause. The largest users of pornography are between the ages of 12 and 17.
“Pornography is affecting families,” Foley said. “If you are in marriage counseling today or are working with families or you’re a mother and you have friends, you know this is going on among your peers. It’s important that we fix this so we help fix the family.”
Foley said, even five years ago, the Catholic Church dealt with pornography in three arenas: in annulments as the consequence of pornography use; in marriage counseling; and in the confessional.
“Really, those to me are like downstream problems, like we’re only going to deal with cancer when we have to do the surgery,” Foley said. “We have to figure out a way to get upstream of this problem. That’s the hope here in the archdiocese: What does this look like in early childhood education? What are the conversations that are happening in the home or at school? Downstream, we will never have enough canon lawyers to do annulments, priests to hear confessions and therapists to deal with this issue. We have to take back the lost ground and reteach the ‘Theology of the Body’ to our parents, not just to our kids.”
Very often, parents will hand their child a smart phone and walk away without setting parental restrictions.
“This is a pretty massive injustice,” he said. “These children are exposed through the devices we have given them. There is shock and shame when we find that they didn’t make good decisions. The burden for protecting our children is ours. It’s not the child, who doesn’t have a fully functioning brain.”
Foley said he spoke recently to a young man who had an interest in a vocation to the priesthood but was held back by his high school experiences where members of the football team watched pornographic videos in the locker room on their cell phones.
“And this was a Catholic high school,” Foley said.
A reserved room
At one college where he gave a talk to a Newman Club, he was told that a fraternity on campus had a room reserved to show pornographic films around the clock. “It was a real porn room,” he said. “The opposite to us would be eucharistic adoration. It’s just chilling. I felt this was something so sinister, we had to get back in the game and have zeal for souls and zeal for children.”
While 88 percent of high school students say they have a smart phone, fewer than 5 percent of parents say they set restriction passcodes on the devices, Foley said. Because parents allow their children to keep their phones in their rooms, sleepovers are convenient ways for girls to learn about and participate in sexting, Foley said.
Some simple steps
“Can we just create a campaign to keep phones out of the bedroom?” he said. “Sexting is the new flirting. Parents who take the spiritual formation of their families seriously are successful in passing on their values from one generation to the next.”
That’s why Foley said accountability – from friend to friend – and education are needed in any successful anti-pornography effort.
Whitehouse, who led the committee to evaluate what the archdiocese could do to combat pornography, said it was important to raise the issue first based on the impact of pornography on children.
“The archbishop’s vision was to begin to address the administrators of Catholic schools and the parish schools of religion because our job in those positions is to support parents as the primary educators and catechists of their children,” Whitehouse said. “However, if these parents are coming to administrators for support and the folks who are supposed to support parents don’t have any idea of the incredible prevalence of pornography and the harmful effects, it’s a great disservice to those parents.
“This was, in the archbishop’s mind, the most logical step. It really is a wonderful start.”
Whitehouse said parents are key to the plan’s success.
“We can try to catechize children all day long in the classroom, but if they go home and get a counter example, we’re really in a very difficult spot,” Whitehouse said. “The U.S. bishops have always said and almost lament the fact that it’s such a difficult position that the church has been in that we have not done a good enough job to address the parents of the children as well. In fact, the adult formation really is the axis around which catechesis and formation of children revolves.”
Recognize the importance
Whitehouse said many Catholic school administrators and catechists have expressed excitement about helping the program take off because they understand its importance.
“They’ve told me, ‘Michael, whatever you want me for, you’ve got me,’” Whitehouse said.
In November, another major session will be held for all Catholic school teachers and parish catechists. The committee also plans to roll out initiatives in schools and churches.
“You can appreciate the planning, the deep thought and the prayer that went into this,” said Dr. Thomas Becker, principal of St. Edward the Confessor School in Metairie. “This is the first step in a long plan, and it’s going to take all the resources – all the parents getting involved.”
Need parents’ help
Elvina DiBartolo, principal of Our Lady of Divine Providence School in Metairie, said the success of any plan will be the buy-in from families. Many children are reared by their grandparents or by parents who may not have the same views about pornography’s harmful effects.
“Those family dynamics present a real hurdle to get over – what these children see,” DiBartolo said. “Sometimes they’re seeing it within their own homes, so you have to counter that.”
Barbara Martin, principal of St. Francis Xavier School in Metairie, agreed that parental education would be an important component.
“We try to monitor during the school day what’s going on, but when they get home there’s a real challenge with monitoring the children,” Martin said. “I think the danger (of pornography) is minimized. People don’t understand how serious the problem is.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.