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There is nothing so dangerous for a child as an insular, patriarchal religious organization, and the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, whose compound in El Dorado, Texas, is now under control of the Texas authorities, is one of the scariest examples. It took the extraordinary bravery of a 16-year-old girl to set in motion a chain of events that should have happened long ago.
She reported that she had been "married" to a 50-year-old man, forced to have sex, get pregnant, and have a baby. Because of her, Texas authorities have taken hundreds of children and women to safety. From all reports, they have yet to find her.
I give the Texas law enforcement and child protective agency officials a great deal of credit for moving in on the compound. They bucked the three trends in our culture that have kept these children at risk for far too long.
First, authorities in general are too fearful of intervening in religious enclaves, even when the harm is so awful and apparent. Yet, there is no right of religious liberty to engage in child and spousal abuse, or polygamy for that matter. The taboo against holding religious entities accountable is simply foolhardy.
In fact, enforcement of the polygamy laws could have stemmed many of these abuses. Yet, it is the rare prosecutor who will prosecute on the basis of the polygamy laws, despite the fact those laws are utterly clear and repeatedly have been upheld against constitutional attack. The largest enclave of FLDS resides in Bountiful, British Columbia. A misguided Canadian public official announced just yesterday that the government cannot go forward with a prosecution of polygamy against the FLDS (where the accounts of abuse are legendary), because of concerns about religious liberty. If Canadian law, though, protects polygamy, it also protects the child and spousal abuse that inevitably follow. That is not religious liberty, but rather religious licentiousness. American prosecutors have been marginally better, though there are many more cases out there that they ignore on daily basis.
If authorities (in TX, AZ, NV, and UT) had vigorously enforced the laws against polygamy, we would not have dangerous cults like the FLDS that are premised on extreme obedience of women and girls to domineering men and the disposal of teenage boys. Instead of preventing systemic abuse and neglect, authorities have been timid in the face of specious claims of religious liberty. It cannot be said often enough: no public official should tread lightly in the face of child abuse even if those perpetrating the abuse don the cloak of religion.
The sheer amount of statutory rape in the FLDS culture (along with physical abuse and neglect) is staggering, but it took the FBI years to put their prophet, Warren Jeffs, on the Ten Most Wanted List and then to apprehend him for taking underage girls across state lines to be married to older men. He was convicted in Utah for his involvement in the "marriage" of a 14-year-old girl to a 19-year-old boy and will face further state and federal charges in separate proceedings. His conviction alone should have put all authorities in the jurisdictions where the sect resides on the alert to rescue the women and children. (The boys do not fare well, either, as many are abandoned in adolescence in order to keep the ratio of men to girls favorable for the men.)
Second, Hollywood has romanticized polygamy. Thanks to actress Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks's wife, the fundamentalist Mormons' practice of polygamy has been glamorized in the nauseating HBO series, Big Love . When the members of Tapestry, a group of formerly polygamous wives fully (and sadly) educated on how the FLDS operates, objected to the show before it even appeared, she ignored their entreaties.
Big Love is business, obviously, but it's business that profits from the abuse of women and children. Hollywood pays tremendous attention to suffering children in Africa, but which ones have stood up for the American child victims of sex abuse at the hands of polygamist Mormons? It is a sad fact that American children who are victims of child sex abuse in all categories (clergy abuse, incest, teacher abuse, etc.) receive far less attention and support than foreign children. Do you know why children's issues are so difficult to get through state and federal legislatures? Children's advocates will tell you: "Children don't vote." It's also because too many wealthy adults don't give to suffering American children.
Third, as a culture, we are slow to react to evidence of child sex abuse. We worry about tarring the reputation of adults far more than we do about early intervention when a child is in trouble. It takes a whole culture for children to be sexually and physically abused -- adults to do it and others to take no action when they suspect what is happening. The worst thing that could happen in the El Dorado situation is that the apparent stonewalling by a number of the adults convinces authorities to restore these children to the cult. Adult members who will not talk truthfully to authorities should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. Every humanly possible effort needs to be made to protect the children from further abuse.
The question that should be on everyone's mind at this point is where is the girl who tipped off authorities? I am afraid to know the answer, to be perfectly honest.
That leaves the question of justice for all of the other children in the cult.
Because of the insular nature of the FLDS and the general culture's failure to intervene earlier, it will likely take decades for FLDS victims to find the ability to come forward and demand justice from their perpetrators. They deserve whatever time they need to heal and to find that justice and, therefore, offer yet another reason to eliminate the statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.
Marci Hamilton is the author of 'God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law' (Cambridge University Press) and the forthcoming Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008).