Saturday, April 19, 2008

Behind Closed Doors

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) broke away from the main branch of the Mormon church decades ago. The main branch, housed in Salt Lake City, Utah, disavowed polygamy in the late 1800's. The FLDS continues to preach and practice the polygamist tradition. This sect is housed in Colorado City Arizona, Hildale, Utah and outside of Eldorado , Texas. Living in sprawling compounds, there is reported to be over 10,000 members.

To get to heaven, it is taught that a man must have at least 3 wives. A woman's path to eternal bliss is only through subservience to her husband .

There is an ongoing dilemma of how to keep the number of boys in these compounds to a minimum so to enable each man to have a sufficient number of wives to meet the goals to attain bliss in the afterlife. 'Authorities have reported that at least 1000 teenage boys have been forcibly separated from their families , faith and community- principally so elder members of the sect would have less competition for wives' (BBC News June 14, 2005).

In 2004, Gideon Barlow was banished from Colorado City for wearing short sleeved t-shirts, listening to CD's and having a girlfriend. Gideon was reported to be one of 71 children born to the eight wives of his then 73 year old father. Suit filed by 5 'Lost Boys' alleged they were removed to lessen the competition for the elders in securing wives.

While the actions of the FLDS have long been known by authorities, there has been a great reluctance for them to take any sweeping action . In 1993, a Waco , Texas sect of another cult, the Branch Davidian's,was raided. The standoff between the government and the Branch Davidian's eventually led to a disaster in which approximately 80 members of the sect were killed.

Thus, actions against FLDS have been limited in scope. There has been an effort to cut off its head and hope that the body collapses . Warren Jeffs ascended to the leadership of FLDS after his father died in 2002. The government in 2005 indicted Jeffs on charges of arranging the marriage of a 28 year old man, who was already married, to an underage girl. Jeffs went underground. Eventually, he was located, charged , tried and convicted of forcing a 14 year old girl to marry her cousin. He currently faces trial in Arizona of being an accomplice to incest and sexual conduct resulting from 2 arranged marriages.

Recently, authorities were alerted by a call to a hotline from 'Sarah' , a 16 year old member of the sect, that she was the subject of physical and sexual abuse.On April 3 , a week long raid began at the 1,691 acre Yearning for Zion ranch outside of Eldorado , Texas. Over that week there were 416 children removed from the compound. First these children were taken to a facility in San Angelo, and many of the older children were subsequently moved to the city's Coliseum. Reports from state investigators are that girls who reported knowing the caller were uncooperative in any further questioning trying to identify this individual.

A Texas judge has now made an initial ruling in the case that all these children remain in the custody of the state for genetic testing. The authorities are now faced with the task of trying to determine the age of each child and the mother ( and father). Lack of birth records for many of the children will hinder the determination of their ages. If DNA testing is successful in linking a child to a mother, and if the age of the child is determined, as well as that of the mother, then the age of the mother at the birth of that child can be figured out. Under Texas law, no girl under 16 can legally marry even with her parent's consent. Thus, if the investigation reveals that a mother had a child before she was 16, the father of that child will have been automatically guilty of criminal conduct.

The circus has come to town. In a scene that was bizarre and compelling, lawyers , the children, and their families gathered in the courthouse, or were taken to a nearby auditorium and connected to the courtroom through videoconferencing. Exhibits had to be marked , copied and then carried between locations. The mothers of these children, all dressed in the same long colorful dresses, all with the same hairstyle,,sat and watched, as the judge made her decision.

It is incomprehensible to try to put oneself in the place of a woman who is living through this unfolding nightmare. The psychological battering that would permit one to be treated in the manner that these young girls and women have , must be relentless beyond our wildest imagination. We cannot project ourselves into a situation that is so foreign to everything we know and see . In the months to come, we will hopefully get a clear picture of the atrocities that must have occurred on a regular basis inside the fortress and out of sight .

Can the children possibly be returned to this environment? For them, it is the only life they have known. For the youngest ones, there may have been no aberrant actions ever taken against them. Certainly, their mothers would be powerless to protect them if they saw trouble coming. The courts will have to sort out whether the group behavior provides legal basis for taking all the children from their home, or only those against whom transgressions have already been committed.

For me, perpetuation of this situation is an unacceptable option. Not one more day should ever pass where a child can be subjected to the abuses that have long existed within this culture. The best interests of these children dictate that action must be taken which will make a loud and clear statement that this type of behavior is morally and socially reprehensible and will no longer be tolerated. While my heart goes out to the mothers who have themselves been victims, we cannot compound the error by in any way sanctioning what has transpired. We cannot put these children back inside the huge walls and hope they will somehow survive. We all know that to do so would be to make us complicit in permitting continuing atrocities to occur.

The court will be faced with walking a very fine line, making certain this does not appear a religious persecution, or an attempt to eradicate a cult without regard to the specific facts relating to individual cases. What is certain that the practices of the sect, when brought out into the light of day, will be viewed with horror and revulsion. We will soon know whether this is enough to force the implosion of FLDS. For the sake of the children, let us hope this is the final result.

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