We understand the dismay expressed in some quarters over the further delay in deciding whether to lay charges as a result of a police investigation into the polygamists of Bountiful in southeastern B.C.
The controversy surrounding the 60-year-old community of fundamentalist Mormons has been a matter of public concern for over two decades.
The concern is not merely with the practice of polygamy itself, though that is clearly against Canadian law. The wider issues include such questions as whether minors are being exposed to sexual abuse or women are coerced into marriages against their will.
As Suzanne Fournier reported in The Province last week, the RCMP spent two years investigating Bountiful and delivered a report to prosecutors last fall.
Last month, senior prosecutors provided B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal with their considered opinion on whether charges might succeed.
While we have not been told what those recommendations were, they were clearly of such import that Oppal felt he needed yet further input.
He has now hired veteran lawyer Richard Peck as special prosecutor, and asked him to review the file and report back by the end of the month.
Activists have expressed outrage at the delay.
But their impatience should be tempered by realism. As far back as 1990, Victoria abandoned plans to prosecute the polygamists because of the likelihood that the charges would not stick.
There is no greater certainty today that charges would survive a constitutional challenge.
The Charter of Rights, whose sweeping impact on Canadian jurisprudence has broadened considerably in the past two decades, guarantees religious freedoms.
If the government proceeded with a case against Bountiful and lost, the result could effectively legitimize polygamy, an outcome sure to inflame large sectors of public opinion.
Oppal has asked Peck to consider charges other than polygamy, including sexual exploitation.
A serious problem in the past, though, has been to secure witnesses willing to testify in court, whatever they might have told police in private.
A proceeding of this kind will be costly. And before taxpayers are asked to foot the bill, they must be assured court action really is in the public interest.
Of course, if prosecutors believe they have evidence that women or young girls are victims of criminal acts, there is no choice — the case must proceed.
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