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Rod Fontana Retires; Wants to become an Episcopal priest

We were first with this news when it broke back in April:

OAK PARK, Calif.- [NY Times]- Some people have their midlife crisis in reverse, like Ronald Boyer, who for most of his professional life has been better known as a star of pornographic films, Rod Fontana.

After 30 years of sowing the wildest of oats, Mr. Boyer, 54, has searched his soul and chosen, to the surprise of family and colleagues, to seek a priesthood in the Episcopal Church.

From his work in the rented villas of the San Fernando Valley, where hard-core sex films are shot, he has moved just a short distance west, to the Church of the Epiphany, which is guiding his transformation from pornography star to preacher.

The psychic distance, however, has been vast. In January, the lumbering 6-foot-3 performer was greeting fans on the red carpet of the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, along with the superstars of pornography like Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy.

In June, he was carrying the Holy Bible and a text titled “Gospel Light” to a live Internet show where he preached on the relative evils of pornography. “Is pornography a sin?” he asked on the show, which is aimed at people in the sex industry. “Probably. Definitely,” he answered, a response that reflected his own ambivalence as much as a desire not to alienate his audience. “So is eating carrot cake until you’re sick to your stomach,” he continued. “And so is punching somebody in the face. That’s a sin.”

Mr. Boyer’s embryonic ministry, devoted to bringing spiritual comfort to those marginalized by the sex industry, is driven by his deep faith and by a medical crisis that threatened the life of his child. But it is a work in progress, fraught with the contradictions and internal struggles of a man leaving behind a livelihood that was central to his identity.

He has tired of performing in sex movies, but even now doesn’t condemn it.

“Not one time did Jesus refer to pornography, or homosexuality,” he observed on the Internet show, which he began as a co-host in May. “Jesus could have commented. He didn’t.”

Still, to pursue a new path as a religious leader, he had to make a clear choice. At the end of January, Mr. Boyer, who is married to a recently retired adult-film star, Liza Harper, announced his own retirement and gave up directing and performing in hard-core movies, he said, for good. “I don’t enjoy it anymore,” he said at the time.

Mr. Boyer’s embrace of Christianity was not a result of a bolt-from-the-blue conversion. It was a gradual awakening to spirituality, in part stirred by unsettling changes in the multibillion-dollar pornography industry, which has veered into extreme territory in search of new ways of selling sex.

His journey from one private corner of American society to another has, by chance, traced the contours of America’s experiment with sexual liberation to a return to more traditional values.

For Mr. Boyer, his path completes a circle. He grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist community in South Carolina, where he was baptized and pursued a penchant for preaching as a teenager. He studied history and religion at Southern Wesleyan University, but dropped out to join the Army and serve in Vietnam, where he was wounded.

Back home, he became a police officer and was offered a job in New York City in 1975, he said. But before he could start, the city went to the verge of bankruptcy and Mr. Boyer found himself unemployed. At that crucial moment an actor friend confided that he was making a living by appearing in pornographic films, and offered to get him involved.

“I did my first job,” Mr. Boyer recalled of that summer, 1976. The set was at 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue, and there were tall ships on the Hudson River for the Bicentennial. “After that, I was hooked,” he said.

He liked the easy money, the sex, the camaraderie. He would not get rich performing in pornography, but he made a steady living.

Then, in the 1980s, he re-enlisted in the Army, he said, and served about a decade on active duty in what he called military intelligence.

A spokeswoman for the Army said Mr. Boyer was listed as having a rank of E-4 specialist, but she could not confirm any dates.

After the Army, Mr. Boyer returned to pornography, where he became known as “the colonel” for his military bearing. He had a reputation for sexual adventurousness. “Rod was one of the kinkiest guys I ever met,” said Urbano Martin, a director who has made many films with him. “I find it hard to believe he’s going to give this up. Rod is very addicted to the sex part of it.”

Asked about this, Mr. Boyer acknowledged, “When it comes to sexual acts, I’ll do anything.” But in recent years, he said, “my view of morality in this business has changed.”

He was speaking on the floor of the sex industry convention in Las Vegas last January, where he was interviewing people for a documentary about spirituality, and where, in a sign of the contradictions in his life, his wife had been nominated for best supporting actress in a sex film for 2006.

“When I got into porn,” Mr. Boyer said, “everyone in the business was kind to each other, loved each other, came together in crisis. It wasn’t some 1970s kumbaya, but people generally cared. Now you see devil signs, Satanism and horns everywhere.” He gestured at a passer-by with “Hail Satan” on his T-shirt. “That’s disturbing me a lot,” he said. “I see more of an evil influence in the business.”

He told anecdotes of being asked by directors to defile the flag or the Koran in sex scenes; he has resisted what he sees as a trend to choke or hit women during intercourse, or use what he considers degrading language.

Neil Malamuth, a psychology and communications professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the effects of pornography, said a niche of the sex industry has become more extreme and even violent, though that was not true for the entire business.

“There are younger people who represent these extreme videos, who are trying to break in, find a niche, and they can’t make their money by just following what the older guys have done,” he said.

With no pension forthcoming after his career as a performer, Mr. Boyer is feeling economic pressure above all. He has renewed a private investigator’s license to make money while he pursues his religious avocation. And as recently as January, on the same day that he was making his documentary about spirituality, he still performed in a sex film.

At a shoot in a luxury suite at the hotel where the adult video convention was held, he watched a football game while a first-time performer, Gianna Ferrari, had sex with him. “My mind’s not there,” he said afterward.

The contradiction between giving up pornography and feeling its attraction was still apparent in June, four months after retiring. “I love sex,” he said. “I love performing. I love the combination of the two. I could go back and do it again, but I don’t think I would. I had a passion for that. I put it there. Now I’ve channeled my passion to a different place.”

Giving up pornography is only one step on a long, difficult road to becoming a priest. In February and March, Mr. Boyer studied at a religious retreat in Big Sur, then prayed at a cathedral in San Francisco. He returned to meet with his priest and with the second-ranking official of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Bishop Suffragan Chester L. Talton, to gain approval to establish a ministry among sex workers.

The process to priesthood will take several years. Mr. Boyer began by being confirmed in the Episcopal Church this year. He is undergoing training to become a deacon, which will allow him to conduct most aspects of ministering short of the sacraments. To become a priest, he must study in a seminary for approximately two years and his candidacy must be approved by the diocesan bishop.

J. Jon Bruno, bishop for the Los Angeles Diocese, said Mr. Boyer’s path to the priesthood would not be precluded by who he was. “I wouldn’t put up an immediate impediment because of someone’s past life,” he said. “There’s no exclusion in the gospel for anybody.”

The diocese is integrating Mr. Boyer at a time when the national leadership of the Episcopal Church has come to near schism with the global Anglican Communion over the decision to accept homosexuals in the clergy and to consecrate same-sex unions. In Los Angeles three congregations have left the diocese over the issue.

Now the diocese faces the challenge of welcoming an ex-performer with more than 300 hard-core movies to his credit, most of them with unprintable titles. (“Foot Hustle” is one exception, a tribute to Mr. Boyer’s foot fetish.) His embrace of Jesus is hardly the stuff of a tidy Sunday homily. Fellow parishioners at the Church of the Epiphany in Oak Park do not know about Mr. Boyer’s life in pornography, and the church leaders who do seem uncomfortable discussing it in depth.

“I am hoping he can bring hopefulness and a love of Christ to people who desperately need it,” said the Rev. Hank Mitchel, vicar of the church, on a recent Sunday after services.

There is one other element of Mr. Boyer’s story. He and his wife have a daughter, Diana, who at 11 months old came down with a deadly staph infection from an insect bite on her bicep. Doctors prepared to amputate the baby’s arm when she did not respond to several antibiotics. But at the last moment they found a new drug to which the baby responded.

The experience convinced both Mr. Boyer and Ms. Harper, who was raised Roman Catholic, that they wanted to be part of a church. It was a personal crisis that cemented Mr. Boyer’s decision to pursue a spiritual path.

He was rejected by several congregations before coming to Oak Park, he said. When Mr. Mitchel heard the story of their daughter, now a delicate 4-year-old, the vicar recalled, “I broke down in tears and said, ‘You are welcome here.’ ”


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