KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It took some investigating, but the culprit responsible for exposing a handful of third-graders to pornography at a Catholic parish in the Archdiocese of Kansas City was discovered: an 8-year-old boy.
The boy, who comes from a Catholic family, was not only showing his friends how to find pornography, but also telling them how to erase the Internet history so they wouldn’t get caught.
Various companies are trying to prevent such disturbing incidents.
"People are not aware that so many young children from good Catholic homes are being exposed to Internet pornography," warns Sam Meier, consultant for My House, an educational resource and support ministry in the Archdiocese of Kansas City. "A recent survey from Psychologies Magazine of 14- to 16-year-old students indicated that nearly one-third of the students had viewed pornography when they were 10 years old or younger."
The case of the local 8-year-old has motivated priests and parents in an archdiocese that is already leading the nation in its response to the pornography epidemic.
The My House initiative debuted in the parishes of the archdiocese nearly a decade ago. In 2006-2007, some 90% of the parishes of the archdiocese showed a 12-minute video during Mass. This was followed with a resource manual and other information, as well as study sessions on theology of the body, men’s accountability groups and conferences on sexual integrity.
The ministry continued to branch out and expand its role in the archdiocese. Today, it’s half dedicated to providing resources and education and half directed to healing and support for those struggling with pornography use and addiction. The My House initiative also sponsors a national conference each year, featuring national leaders in research, treatment and education.
"This ministry is a comprehensive diocesan approach to protecting families and marriages from pornography," Meier explained. "Archbishop [Joseph] Naumann sent the program resources to all U.S. bishops, and bishops and/or staff from 61 dioceses have sent encouraging letters and/or contacted our archdiocese for further information about the program. Five dioceses have signed licensing agreements to adapt the program. The program website and print resources are currently being updated, and a planning team is developing a new video for our parishes."
Meier emphasized that protecting families from pornography has to be the first priority, and he noted that Catholic parents want practical information on how to do so.
"The biggest antidotes to pornography for our children and teens are age-appropriate Catholic resources about chastity and theology of the body," he insisted. The counselor said he’s hoping to see encouragement in the official statement on pornography that the U.S. bishops are preparing. When the bishops voted in November to prepare an official statement on pornography, they spoke of a document that would "educate and shine light on the mercy and freedom that is found in Christ" and would offer "healing and hope to those who have been wounded."
"I think the majority of the focus should be put on protecting children, because that is the most urgent need," Meier added.
Meier’s outlook is affirmed by Ryan Foley, vice president of business development of Covenant Eyes, a company that produces Internet accountability and filtering software.
"This is the problem we have in the Church," said Foley. "We deal with pornography in three areas: confession, annulments and therapy. Well, that’s all on the back end of this problem. We need to get ahead of it, and part of that is we need to promote accountability and filtering in the family at a very young age, not when someone has a problem.
"Those people [with an already-existing problem] naturally come to the product, seeking sobriety, healing and restoration. ... But I want to get ahead of it."
Foley founded Covenant Eyes when he began looking for a way to protect his own growing children from pornography. Now, educating fellow Catholic parents is his mission.
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., is a supporter of the technology and recommended it to all his fellow bishops at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops assembly in November. He has asked Father Sean Kilcawley to help him use Covenant Eyes and other ministries to confront the pornography problem in his diocese.
Father Kilcawley describes Covenant Eyes as the "ideal tool for parents to monitor their children before they encounter pornography online."
Covenant Eyes operates on all Web-ready devices to filter content, blocking inappropriate sites based on age, and to generate a report for parents (or in the case of adults who struggle with porn, their "accountability partners") that lists all the online sites a user has visited. The report flags sites that might have displayed pornographic content, and the software can be set to block certain times of the day and to create custom "block and allow" lists for specific users.
"The reports generated by Covenant Eyes can help parents to identify immediately when there may be an accidental exposure to pornography in the life of their child, so that they can have a conversation with their children to help them to process what they saw and make sure that it comes into the open," Father Kilcawley explained.
"A common story I hear from adults who struggle with pornography addiction is that there was some early exposure, coupled with the fact that their parents never talked to them about human sexuality," the priest noted. "The weekly report from Covenant Eyes can also serve as a tool for parents as they notice their children manifesting their curiosity online. If a father notices that his 12-year-old son is spending a lot of time on the Sports Illustrated website looking at models, it would signal that now is the time to have a talk about his son’s curiosity."
Father Kilcawley said parents receive the tool with an outpouring of gratitude. "They feel overwhelmed by technology, and their kids are more knowledgeable than they are," he said.
He added that kids also welcome the idea. "When I talked to a group of high-school students about how I was going to start encouraging their parents to monitor them with Covenant Eyes, they did not react negatively. Some even expressed signs of relief."
But Foley admits that, in some respects, societal attitudes need to change. He pointed out that when a 6- or 7-year-old is running around the neighborhood, the child’s parents want to know where he is, who he’s with and what he’s doing. "That level of interest doesn’t seem to be there for the Internet," he said of the cultural atmosphere. "So we don’t know where they are and who they’re meeting on the Internet. For some reason, we’re not translating our values and our concern for our kids when it comes to the Internet."
Foley confuted the idea that a parent or child might feel what they do online is private. "No. It’s not at all. We have to get away from that. It’s not private to Google or Yahoo. Trust me: What you do online is not private. Your parents might not know about it, but people know about it. People are building a whole profile on you and serving you the next thing you want based on the things you visit.
"Is it private where you go in the neighborhood? Shouldn’t I know who you’re visiting? Isn’t that fair game? Why is it not in the Internet? Parents have to stop being afraid."
Covenant Eyes suggests starting with a "culture of accountability," even with very young kids.
"Accountability is good for everybody," Foley argued. "That’s why we promote, ‘Don’t wait.’ Get accountability when your kids are on Disney.com or ABCmouse, and let them know: ‘Hey, I saw you were on ABCmouse today. What did you learn?’ Start building in the idea that Mommy and Daddy know where you are, so that as they grow it’s always been part of the culture that they grew up in."
Helping Addicts Break Free
While those working to fight the pornography epidemic repeatedly stress the importance of education and prevention, the Church is also reaching out to those struggling to break free from pornography use or suffering from addiction.
A leading ministry in this field has just received the imprimatur from Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., where the ministry is based. It’s called RECLAiM, and it is a science-based Catholic online recovery program, offering practical approaches on how to retrain affected brains.
"We have to realize that although sexual sins are part spiritual warfare, pornography addiction isn’t mainly a moral problem, but a brain problem," explained the ministry’s co-founder, Jeannie Hannemann. "There are neurochemicals involved that can change the structure of the brain. There are also brain processes that focus on procreation, and when ‘hijacked’ with pornography and masturbation [they] cause subconscious behavior to take over. ‘Trying harder’ doesn’t work; a person needs to learn the skills [needed] and apply practice to ‘rewire’ the brain."
Participants in RECLAiM are guided through an online recovery program that is completely anonymous and available 24/7. Each person receives a personal coach and access to more than 15 hours of video, brain-training exercises, accountability support and spiritual resources.
Underlying both education programs and treatment is the work of health-care professionals such as Peter Kleponis, a leader in the field.
Kleponis reports that there is a "tremendous shortage of Catholic therapists who are properly trained in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual addiction."
Six years ago, Kleponis developed a comprehensive recovery program from a Catholic perspective.
And he’s working with the Institute for Psychological Sciences to create a post-graduate certificate program for licensed therapists on the diagnosis and treatment of sexual addiction. That program will be based on Kleponis’ Integrity Restored Recovery Program, which combines the latest research in the treatment of sexual addiction with Catholic spirituality.
"A person can find freedom from pornography addiction," Kleponis said. "Yes, it takes work. It takes perseverance. But it is possible. You can do it. The key is: You can’t do it alone. You need a good comprehensive program that includes counseling, support groups, education, spirituality, virtue. All of this, you need."
Meier also wants to help people be free of addiction.
"It amazes me how many good Catholics silently struggle with pornography," reflected Meier, "and I hope that the bishops will encourage people to seek the many proven resources, groups and counselors that are there to help them."
Kathleen Naab writes from Houston, where she covers news of the Church as a coordinator for Zenit News Service.