VANCOUVER, British Columbia – U.S. and Canadian justice officials exchanged ideas Thursday on how to investigate reports of sexual abuse in polygamous enclaves in both countries.
British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal said authorities were concerned about reports of sexual abuse and exploitation of children among members of the Bountiful compound in southwestern British Colombia.
The compound’s 1,000 members are followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that broke away from mainstream Mormonism after the broader church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Oppal met with visiting Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to discuss investigations against members of the sect, which has enclaves in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
“It’s not so much about polygamy as it is about crimes committed against women and children, primarily, in some of these groups,” Shurtleff said.
As the attorneys general spoke to reporters, Bountiful’s leader, Winston Blackmore, stood at the back of the room taking notes.
Four families founded Bountiful in 1947. The sect follows the early teachings of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who said plural marriage was essential to be glorified in heaven.
Bountiful and the sect’s enclaves in the U.S. have been the target of allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation of girls and abandonment of teenage boys who are deemed a threat to older men seeking young brides.
Blackmore later said he was being discriminated against because of his religious beliefs.
“I was born into my life, born into my faith, and I don’t think it’s any more fair to expect that I should abandon my faith than you should abandon yours,” Blackmore said.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is investigating the alleged sex crimes, Oppal said, but no one has been charged.
“We need people who will come in and testify that there is evidence of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, sexual assaults,” Oppal said. “Those are the matters of greater concern to me than the polygamy case and the polygamy issue.”
Oppal said his department “constantly” hears of children being abused or sexually exploited in Bountiful, “but we can’t do anything with that unless we have a witness.”
Mary Batchelor, director of Principle Voices, a Salt Lake City-based pro-polygamy group, said she and several other women who wanted to speak on behalf of plural wives were denied access to a meeting between Shurtleff and Canadian women’s organizations.
“It’s a bit ironic that they felt they knew better (about polygamy) without anyone present from the community,” said Batchelor, who tried to get in with Ruth Lane and Leah Barlow, who are both married to Blackmore.