MANILA — IN a mirrored hotel ballroom in the Philippine capital, a group of religious leaders convened to confront the ``problem of pornography.'' For three days, 160 men and women of various faiths and nationalities discussed what they said were the effects of the explicit representation of sexual material: child prostitution, rape, the breakdown of family, and other social dysfunctions.
The international gathering last week was a milestone for a decade-old, United States-based movement against pornography, especially sexual depictions of children and ``hard-core'' pictures showing people engaged in bizarre forms of sexual activity.
``This is a whole new beginning,'' said Jerry Kirk, a Cincinnati-based former Presbyterian pastor who is the unofficial leader of the movement. Dr. Kirk's group, the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, has all but eradicated the sale of hard-core magazines and videos in Cincinnati and won passage of two US federal laws prohibiting the exploitation of children.
The conference combined elements of an interdenominational assembly, a gathering of activists, and an academic convention. At times, the atmosphere inside the ballroom suggested what an orientation meeting for crusading knights might have felt like.
Participants prayed, strategized, and assessed the practices of what they saw as a base and immoral enemy. And they reassured themselves about their motives. ``I believe God has called us,'' Kirk told participants.
Presentations addressed developments in the industry, including:
* The rapidly changing technology of pornography. Although he presented no hard numbers, Deen Kaplan of the Religious Alliance Against Pornography (RAAP), the Cincinnati-based group that organized the conference, said the worldwide computer network known as the Internet ``is literally filled with hard-core pornography.'' ``You may see less pornography in your communities,'' he said, ``but that's because it's being transmitted by wire instead of by bookstores.''
* The downside of political freedom. Religious leaders from Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa indicated that the end of the cold war and the liberalizing of trade opportunities with the West had brought unprecedented amounts of pornography into their countries. ``When the country was behind the Iron Curtain,'' said Sergei Riakhovsky of the Moscow Church of God, ``the people saw nothing.'' Since then, he added, ``the flow of pornography has become uncontrollable.''
* The growth of sex tourism. ``The persistent sexual abuse of Asian children by foreigners has become commonplace in at least 10 countries of Asia today,'' said Ron O'Grady, international coordinator of a Bangkok-based organization called End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism. He described the patterns of pedophiles - including some Western religious workers - who molest large numbers of children during long sojourns in Asia and sometimes record their acts on film or video.
Worldwide delegates, many faiths
The conference was remarkable for at least two reasons. First, it drew such a variety of participants, representing more than 35 countries and 40 religious groups. Among those attending were black-clad Roman Catholic priests, including Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago and a leader of the movement; Mormons in impeccable business suits; a phalanx of uniformed Salvation Army officers; a Muslim lawyer from India; a Protestant cleric from Namibia; and an American Southern Baptist whose son is an all-state tight-end football star.
Also noteworthy was the extent to which conference-goers identified pornography as a cause of social ills, rather than a manifestation of deeper problems in the way that men and women in society perceive themselves and their sexual relations. The idea that pornography causes crimes like rape and child molestation is controversial, but participants seemed to have no doubts about the malevolent power of certain images
The influence of images in society
Cardinal Jaime Sin, the Archbishop of Manila, speaking at the opening of the conference, defined its subject as ``the struggle over which images are to feed our minds and hearts.... The dominant images which reside in our depths ultimately constitute our self-understanding. They come to define who I am as a person, what values I should embrace, what attitudes and behavior are appropriate for me.''
He added: ``When it is claimed ... that empirical data linking image and behavior may be inconclusive, we should not allow this to influence us unduly.''
According to Gen. Paul Rader of the Salvation Army: ``Some may regard the soft-porn erotica so readily available in widely marketed magazines, films, videos, HBO, MTV, and advertising as relatively innocent. We maintain that more important than the images themselves is the distorted understanding of human personhood and sexuality that is communicated by those images. It is this that demeans us as human persons created in the image of God, erodes our sense of moral responsibility and lowers resistance to more bizarre and deviant sexual images.''
``Pornography,'' said Mr. Kaplan of RAAP, ``contributes directly to numerous ... destructive problems, including sexual violence against women, child molestation, child prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, addiction among men, and severe changes in attitudes and values towards women and children.''
Having identified the pictures as the problem, many conference participants prescribed legalistic countermeasures, urging law enforcement agencies to enforce existing laws governing pornography and legislatures to pass new ones. Oddly enough, religious leaders nominally concerned with spiritual matters spent comparatively little time discussing how to address the cravings that people try to satisfy by using pornography.
``The sentiment seems to be to outlaw pornography,'' said Lavinia Byrne, a Catholic nun who attended the conference. She said there was too much emphasis on legal responses and too few attempts to explore and understand ``the attractiveness of pornography.''
Conference organizers were sensitive to concerns that their approach would lead to the abridgment of freedoms of expression. ``It's not right to criticize us as being in favor of censorship,'' explained Cardinal Bernardin. ``What we are against are things that are not permitted by law.'' That means child pornography, which is illegal in many countries, and many commercial transactions involving hard-core pornography. Nobody in Manila wanted to condone ``softer'' pornography - such as that found in the pages of Playboy magazine - but many acknowledged they couldn't do much about it.
Mr. O'Grady, the sex-tourism expert, tried to strike a positive tone. He urged the religious leaders to look ``objectively and responsibly at the issues of human sexuality.''
Their ultimate goal, he said, should be ``to help the human community to find and express a human sexuality which is based on a loving relationship between two people; which respects the integrity of both the lover and the loved; which never exploits the other for selfish ends; which is totally nonviolent.''