Hidden victims of polygamy

Officials are accused of turning a blind eye to alleged sexual abuse in a polygamist sect.

Published May 15, 2006 3:55PM (EDT)

Every Sunday night, I'm enthralled by the polygamist Henrickson family on HBO's "Big Love" (the catfights, Bill's abuse of Viagra, the shared sisterhood, all those fun meals!). But according to a recent exposé of a polygamous sect on the Arizona-Utah border, "Big Love" is tame TV. The Los Angeles Times describes a horrific culture of "rampant" sexual abuse and denial of basic rights to women and children among the estimated 10,000 members of the Mormon offshoot known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Reporters David Kelly and Gary Cohn sifted through court records, investigative reports and interviews by the Times to offer readers a glimpse into a closed world where sect members force girls as young as 13 into arranged marriages. The girls then work at homes, often organizing eating shifts of large families around a picnic table. Husbands threaten wives with commitment to mental institutions "if they fail to 'keep sweet' or obedient," Kelly and Cohn write. Some 400 boys as young as 13 have been kicked out of town, "abandoned like unwanted pets by the side of the road and forcibly ostracized from their families to reduce competition among the men for multiple wives," according to the Times. Others must leave school at age 11 or 12 and work in dangerous construction jobs. Rapists and child molesters are protected by religious authorities and law enforcement.

The allegations have emerged as a result of the FBI's hunt for fugitive Warren Jeffs, a sect leader known as the "prophet," who has been accused, among other things, of sodomizing his nephew when he was a boy. Jeffs is also wanted for rape and conspiracy. According to the Times, Jeffs has the power to order marriages, separate families, tell couples when to have sex and evict residents. Some of the so-called Lost Boys, who were exiled and forbidden from contacting their families for wearing short-sleeved shirts or talking to girls, are now suing the church.

But the big question remains why the public is learning about all this only recently and why officials in both states have done so little about it until now. "The fact that this has been going on all these years, and the fact that justice has not been there to protect women and children ... from amazing civil rights violations -- it is an embarrassment," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told the Times. "I don't want to indict the states of Utah and Arizona, but mea culpa -- we are responsible." In fact, they supposedly knew that local police referred charges of sexual abuse to church leaders. Some local officials were reportedly polygamous themselves and allegedly participated in driving boys away or taking women to mental institutions, according to the article.

"I never once considered going to the police," says Sara Hammon, 30, who told the Times that she had been molested for years by her father and brothers. "Going to the police would have been going against the whole town. Everyone was [molesting]. The church never said it was all right, but it was treated nonchalantly."

Even cases that were prosecuted are believed to have been given lenient sentences. One defense attorney said that even he was astonished that his client spent just 13 days in jail for molesting his five daughters -- what Mohave County Superior Court Judge Richard Weiss reportedly dismissed as really just "a little bit of breast touching."

"If the county attorney had brought in a sociologist who said this was a big issue up there, it may have made a difference," he told the Times. "The lesson for me is I only see the tip of the iceberg here."

Officials are now taking some notice, though. In addition to the Jeffs hunt, both states are bringing legal actions. Eight sect members have been indicted in Mohave County, Ariz. And the U.S. Justice Department is looking into civil rights violations by local police.

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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