1 of 2
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Pastor Bernie Anderson of Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Salt Lake City will address conferencegoers at South Towne Expo Center.

Many women see the signs but don't recognize them for what they can mean. Their husbands withdraw, become reclusive, spend money that's unaccounted for, and — most of all — they have secrets. Secrets about where they go, what they spend their time doing, why they stay so late or go so early to work.

Bernie Anderson knows all the signs, because he lived them.

A highly respected leader of his congregation, Pastor Anderson now leads Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church. But for years, he had a secret life that he kept all to himself, day in and day out. As he ministered to his flock, his own soul was floundering. Secrecy and silence masqueraded as his best friends.

In that way, Pastor Anderson was just like an untold number of church leaders across the spectrum of faith traditions.

He was addicted to porn.

As a 9-year-old boy, Bernie loved to rummage — through basements, closets, boxes — any place where he might find hidden treasure. While staying at a relative's home, he found a discarded pornographic magazine. "Even then it was scintillating. I remember visiting that closet at least a couple more times to see if I could find more," he recalls.

The next time, it was a discarded Playboy magazine at his own house. Then regular opportunities to view the Playboy Channel through a modified cable TV signal at his grandparents' home when they weren't around or had gone to bed. Finally, basic cable TV in his own home offered MTV "with plenty of skin to take in. Sexual thoughts and fantasies continually clouded my mind, and masturbation became the normal, frequent release."

The binges were always followed by remorse and begging God to forgive him. He fought silently and alone all during his teen years. College was something of a reprieve most of the time, because he kept himself so busy he seldom had time to seek out his hidden vice. But visits home provided the free time required for movies and magazines. The technology to offer Internet porn had yet to be developed.

His final years as an undergrad were filled overflowing with activity: He met and got engaged to his future wife, Christina; served as student body president of his college, and took a position as a youth minister at a local church. Even so, "pornography was still a constant temptation, and while I wanted to confess my ongoing battle to Christina, I feared that she might quickly drop me and run the other way.

"And if I told anyone else, I ran the risk of others finding out. The reputation I had built, along with the trust and popularity I enjoyed, would all come crashing down."

Pastor Anderson said pride and selfishness are key components of a porn addiction, which, after all, is centered on only one person in the realm of fantasy that seems believable. But marriage offered what he thought was the prospect of overcoming his problem, he said.

"Like so many guys who struggle with porn, I bought into the idea that once I was married and could legitimately fulfill my sexual urges, the desire for pornography would fade. But that wasn't the case. I probably lasted about a month before I found myself in a regular video store searching for 'hard R' or cable version porn movies."

At this stage, he became so desperate to view it "that I actually sneaked into the church with my rented video, secretly watching it on one of the classroom TVs or in the audiovisual room that was located in a secluded place."

Meanwhile, his youth ministry was thriving. Yet he grew weary of the "constant battle to maintain two lives. But I found myself never really able to shake the monkey off my back, even while serving as a pastor."

In an interview with the Deseret Morning News, Pastor Anderson said men who indulge in porn have an innate ability to mentally "compartmentalize" their thoughts and actions. That may be particularly true with religious leaders or others involved in full-time ministry, because the hypocrisy is so great.

"They have this part of sexuality, and it's separate from what we experience from our spouse. We can live with that level of incongruity. That goes on until there is a 'crisis of truth' of living one way" connected to family, church and vocation on one hand, and "this other way" of secrecy, indulgence and constant guilt on the other.

"You can maintain a marriage relationship that way. It may not be the ideal, or meeting the needs of your spouse, but you can get by. And many do that, for many, many years," he said.

For Pastor Anderson, it was seven years, to be exact. Seven years of marriage with a secret he wouldn't tell.

For most of that time, he was riding on a successful and growing ministry. Looking back, he recognizes "the seductive nature of success and the intoxicating effect of a compliment," which often led to some of his most vulnerable times with porn.

"Perhaps subconsciously we start believing in too many of the good things members tell us about our sermons, demonstrations of compassion and biblical insights. ... Don't be surprised at the subtle lure that accomplishment and accolades can bring. These lead to a sense of entitlement; they lead us to act as though we can do or have whatever we want."

That sense of invulnerability feeds the problem, his wife would later recall. "Everyone knows you, but no one knows you."

Success took the Andersons to Michigan, where he entered seminary training in 1997, a year after he'd been introduced to the Internet. He thought the rigors of religious study would be a barrier to porn. Instead, he found himself asked to participate in national Seventh-day Adventist events that required travel and regular television appearances on a religious broadcasting station.

It was during those heady days that his addiction to Internet porn began to take root. Once he had completed seminary, they returned to Texas and bought their first home in 2000. It had a small outbuilding he turned into a private study, providing a secluded venue for "work" that nearly always strayed into Internet porn.

Unbeknownst to Pastor Anderson, his wife had been suspicious for at least two years about some of his activities, but kept her questions to herself. One night, after finding computer images he had forgotten to erase as usual, she confronted him. Rather than becoming defensive, he admitted his involvement. She agreed to keep silent if he would stay away from it.

The bargain worked for a while. Until he moved into the pastor's study at their new church and began taking a personal laptop computer to use there. Months went by, and in the summer of 2003, his wife acknowledged to herself that the signs of his continued addiction were unmistakable. She was gathering the courage to leave him.

Better than most, clergy know the difference between sins of omission and commission — the first is a failure to do something God asks, and the latter is a choice to do something God forbids. The duality of porn encompasses both, Pastor Anderson said. Addicts focus on the choice to indulge, but don't understand how they fail others around them in the process.

"It wipes the soul out of a marriage," he said. "There are some that feel it will make the sexual relationship (with a spouse) stronger, but that's the lie of pornography."

Looking back, he sees the lost time with his children, the lack of an intimate relationship with his wife and the time that could have been used for meaningful friendship among the casualties.

Fear of embarrassment and potential job loss kept his wife silent most of the time, and she rarely spoke to Pastor Anderson about it. "Part of me was afraid that he would console himself with more porn, and part of me was unable to verbalize what I felt. Looking back, I know this was the biggest mistake of my life," she later recalled. "It was such a toxic way to live.

"He would go in cycles of repentance and desire to be close to our family. Then there'd be a longing to pull away, to flee to his fantasy world. In retrospect, that was our whole married life. ... Each time he came back, I welcomed him. After all, I loved him. ... But one day I realized that I was loving him at the cost of myself."

Her self-image was torn to the core.

An unbidden confession to a fellow clergyman came just in time while Christina and the girls were away at a church camp. Then — of his own accord — he confessed to church superiors, thinking he would certainly lose his job and his livelihood. But the depth of his remorse and his determination to confess without the threat of getting caught publicly convinced them he was sincere. They let him stay.

His wife stayed, too, but the trust had been shattered.

From there, "it has been all about being accountable," he said. He began reading everything he could about sexual addiction, attended an in-depth, church-sponsored seminar and learned how to set up safeguards for himself — with the help of his wife and his office staff — and confessed to his wife in a more specific way about the extent of his activities.

Not long after confessing to church superiors, he was asked to talk about his addiction at a seminar for fellow pastors. Initially wary, he decided if that's where God was leading, he would try to follow. With his wife's permission, he shared his story. Though asked to keep it quiet, "church people talk," he said. Word got out, and the media came calling — first local reporters, then national broadcast interviews.

Knowing that "the power of sexual sin is in its secrecy," Pastor Anderson said he "wanted to send a clear message to the church that we needed to address this issue and not contribute to its growth by concealing it."

While some questioned his motive, most were supportive, he said, adding part of his reasoning had to do with becoming authentic after living a double life for so long. "Any prominence or popularity I had gained in ministry was based somewhat on a false premise. ... People weren't seeing the entire picture.

"Going public allowed me to make the point that I was more interested in authenticity than popularity, which I think is an important place to arrive at. It no longer mattered so much what people thought about me. The conviction that God placed on my heart was to speak out, even at the cost of losing my job."

To this day, he knows he is not immune. "You have to live with the fact that there is a vulnerability there. ... But you never play the game of saying 'just this once won't hurt.' It's like being addicted to alcohol."

The greatest safeguard is one that's often the most difficult to do, he said. "It's making sure our relationships are open and real and honest. The minute you start to hide and escape and things become secret, that's when you're in trouble."


Editor's note: Pastor Anderson's new book, "Breaking the Silence: A Pastor Goes Public With His Battle With Pornography," was published earlier this year by Autumn House Publishing.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com