VANCOUVER (CP) – In a new documentary about alleged horrors in a closed polygamous community in the United States, women who have fled say that child abuse is as plentiful as the wives.
It’s happening in Canada too, warns filmmaker Laurie Allen, here for the world premiere Thursday of Banking on Heaven. In the film, showing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Allen looks at Colorado City, Ariz., home to a fundamentalist Mormon splinter group. Followers of the same religion started a community in Bountiful, B.C., in the late 1940s where polygamy has been practised openly for decades.
Debbie Palmer, a woman who fled Bountiful, says hundreds there are loyal to the self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs who ruled Colorado City.
Jeffs is wanted by the FBI on three charges of sexual conduct with a minor in connection with his role performing marriages between allegedly underage girls and older men. He also is charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Banking on Heaven speaks with women who have escaped from Colorado City. They say they were married off as young as 14 to men who had many wives, and kept pregnant for as long as they could bear children.
“The same thing is happening in Bountiful,” says Allen.
She says her information is based on conversations she’s had with women who have fled Bountiful and other communes connected with it, including Palmer.
Palmer, who was married to a 55-year-old man when she was 15, says she ran away from Bountiful in 1998 to protect her daughter from polygamy.
“I was his sixth wife,” said Palmer, who has since written a book about her experience called Keep Sweet.
Palmer said in an interview that she is still in touch with people in Bountiful who don’t follow the extreme prophet Jeffs. Palmer says girls in Bountiful are being raped and are too afraid to go to police because they have been conditioned to think this is a holy way to live.
Some women of Bountiful, members of a breakaway sect of the fundamentalist church of Latter-Day Saints, have said they don’t need saving and that in fact, they love living polygamous.
Last spring they held a summit in nearby Creston and denied allegations of trafficking in child brides, underage marriage, sexual abuse and welfare fraud.
A registered nurse and midwife from Bountiful said two 16-year-olds have had babies in the community and none younger. The youngest so-called celestial marriage involved a 15-year-old girl who turned 16 the next day, she said.
A consensus was also reached recently within the church that girls shouldn’t get married until they are at least 18. Under Canadian law, they can legally marry at 16 with the permission of their parents.
In Banking On Heaven, Allen says women from Colorado City were subjected to “mind control.”
She interviews resident Ruth Cooke, who has more than 50 brothers and sisters. Cooke says most of them were sexually abused by family members. Her daughter was handicapped as a result of the ongoing incest. Cooke describes walking in on the girl being molested.
Carolyn Jessop, who fled Colorado City with eight children, says women are treated like breeding machines.
Allen says in the film, which she narrates, that children are taught women are nothing.
They are raised to be loyal first to the prophet Jeffs, and then their fathers, Allen says.
She describes a snitch system the church uses to keep everyone in line.
“They act as spies for Warren Jeffs, snitch on their mothers when they step out of line and will even hold her down to be beaten,” says Allen.
Allen said Jessop had a horrible time trying to get control of her children when she left the polygamous town. She says polygamy will never go away and governments shouldn’t waste time trying to stamp it out.
“It’s about mandatory education. Educate all these kids about the rest of the world. They should be going to public schools and educated because educated people make better choices,” Allen said in an interview in Vancouver.
She says she is donating 20 per cent of the profits of her film to a charity called Child Brides that helps women who want out.
Some members of the public aren’t convinced that children should be raised in polygamy.
B.C.’s Attorney General Wally Oppal said he has been amazed at how much mail he has received from citizens asking him to find out what’s happening in Bountiful.
“A whole street block in North Vancouver wrote to me about this,” he said.
“This has sort of been a festering file for a long time. Each Attorney General that has dealt with it reached a dead end. I’ve made it my business to pursue this thing,” he said.
Former attorney General Geoff Plant announced in the summer of 2004, the start of an RCMP investigation into allegations of child abuse, forcible marriage and sexual exploitation in Bountiful. No charges have been laid.
Oppal said the RCMP is still trying to interview residents, but that it has been hard to get people to come forward.
Palmer is appalled at the way the government is handling the issue.
“How can they?” asked Palmer.
“The women we’re most concerned about, who were 15 and 16-years-old when they were assigned to the men in positions of authority inside the community, aren’t coming from a position of strength to make their own personal complaints any more than any other child who has been raped in their life.
“When you’re controlled and conditioned that way from birth you do not have any other frame of reference or any other way of making choices.”
Allen said she hopes Banking on Heaven gets people talking about the problem. She was organizing a discussion panel about the film for Friday.
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