Gov. Rick Perry, accepting personal blame if Texas “stepped across some legal line,” nevertheless on Thursday strongly defended its sweep of all youngsters from a polygamist sect’s ranch.
“I still think that the state of Texas has an obligation to young women who are forced into marriage and underage sex — to protect them. That’s my bottom line on this,” Mr. Perry said during a visit to France.
State child-welfare authorities last month removed hundreds of children from a ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, saying that the sect forces underage girls to marry older men. The state this week returned all the children to their parents after courts ruled that it had overstepped its authority in the mass removals, but says it is continuing its investigation.
The governor said he hopes state law enforcement officials and prosecutors “continue to send the message” to the sect that child sexual abuse won’t be tolerated.
Mr. Perry warned sect members that “if you are going to conduct yourself that way, we are going to prosecute you. If you don’t want to be prosecuted for those activities, then maybe Texas is not the place you need to consider calling home.”
Willie Jessop, a Utah-based elder in the sect, called Mr. Perry’s remarks shocking — especially, he said, after the courts ruled against the state.
“It’s an outrage that he would even make such gross and broad allegations,” Mr. Jessop said. “He’s listening to people that tell lies about the FLDS.”
The sect has denied there is any greater prevalence of child abuse in its ranks than in mainstream society. It has accused CPS of religious persecution.
Mr. Perry, speaking in La Baule, France, where he gave the keynote address at a European business conference, was asked if he will fire or discipline any state officials because of the way the case was handled.
“I think that with the knowledge that the CPS had at the time they acted, that they acted with the best interest of those children,” he said.
Mr. Perry said he hopes CPS and the sect “work together” to protect any sect children who may be in jeopardy.
“If responsibility needs to be taken for [court edicts] saying that we stepped across some legal line, I’ll certainly take that responsibility,” Mr. Perry said. “I am substantially less interested in these fine legal lines that we’re discussing than I am about these children’s welfare; that’s where my focus is. That’s where CPS’ focus is.”
Mr. Perry said he wants Texas to enforce its laws, which generally forbid minors under 17 from engaging in sex, especially with partners who are four or more years older.
“Forcing a young woman who reaches puberty into a marriage with an older man for whatever reason is not appropriate behavior in the state of Texas,” he said.
The governor said investigating the sect has been “incredibly difficult” because of a lack of cooperation by sect parents. While he said, “I understand totally reuniting pre-pubescent children with their mothers,” he said authorities must focus on “what occurred here and why it occurred here. And that is a clear violation of … social standards and the law.”
Mr. Jessop said girls in his fundamentalist Mormon sect aren’t in danger. On Monday, the church announced that it would no longer sanction marriage of any female under the age of legal consent in the state where she lives.
Mr. Jessop said Mr. Perry, in calling for criminal prosecutions, showed the same stubbornness as President Bush on the Iraq war.
“Rather than acknowledging we’re in there on bad intelligence, we keep fighting the fight,” Mr. Jessop said. “I don’t know if that’s a Texas thing or what that is. But he’s in that same mentality — let’s continue to justify why we’re there rather than acknowledging it wasn’t true.”
Mr. Jessop also cited a Dallas Morning News review of Mr. Perry’s e-mails, which showed the Republican governor did not receive a full briefing on the FLDS removals until five days after the raid.
“It’s an outrage he would even comment on things that he obviously hasn’t stayed close enough to, to personally know what he’s talking about,” Mr. Jessop said.
He said Mr. Perry ought to get his facts straight. He said the governor has rebuffed a sect invitation to visit the ranch.
Perry spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said the governor used his phone and personal updates from his staff to stay informed about FLDS-related events in early April. She said the governor was engaged but deferred to experts at CPS and the Department of Public Safety to conduct the investigation and do their work.
Ms. Piferrer, asked about the sect’s invitation for Mr. Perry to visit the ranch, said, “It would be inappropriate for the governor to go to the home of any child who was removed by CPS because their parents are under a criminal investigation for not protecting them from sexual abuse. This case is no different.”