PHOENIX (AP) — For decades, allegations of wife-beating, forced marriages, child abuse and welfare fraud in polygamist communties were ignored.
But a joint effort by authorities in Arizona and Utah to investigate polygamist sects signals some change.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard confirmed last week that a lawyer and investigator are looking full time into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Arizona Republic reported.
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The polygamous sect broke away from the mainstream Mormon church 70 years ago and has more than 6,000 followers living 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon in the isolated twin communites of Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Utah.
Last week, Goddard and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff met with hundreds of church members, a rare invitation by a community that has carefully nurtured isolation.
“The visit was helpful in breaking down long-standing suspicions about dealing with the state,” Goddard said. “We need to find responsible voices in that community who are not afraid to stand up against child abuse.”
But top FLDS leaders refused to attend the meeting between government officials and residents.
“We are under attack,” said church leader Warren Jeffs from his pulpit last month. “We need the Lord’s protection.”
Jeffs, whose father led the church until his death in 2002, has been accused of fathering children with at least two teenage girls who were his spiritual wives.
“I don’t mind telling Warren Jeffs that I’m coming after him,” Shurtleff said last month.
Officials in both states are looking into welfare fraud allegations.
The Arizona Auditor General’s Office launched an investigation into suspected misuse of public funds in a public school district run by FLDS members.
County and state officials also plan to establish a presence in the community in ways that could include independent law enforcement, welfare and tax support offices and women and children’s protective services.
Also, current and former church members are preparing to sue in an effort to cripple the financial trust that controls chuch assets that are estimated to be worth several hundred million dollars.
“We are not trying to break up families, we are trying to end the incest, the abuse, the child rape,” siad Bob Curran, director of Save the Child Brides, a Utah advocacy group.
The stepped up scrutiny and prosecutions of polygamy could impact the church.
“My own sense of this is that state civil authorities can make inroads in shaping religions,” said Linell Cady, professor of religious studies at Arizona State University. “You can look at the Roman Catholic Church and the issue of sex abuse and see how civil authorities are definitely making a difference in how the church is conducting its affairs.”
Previous attempts to prosecute polygamists have led to repercussions. Authorities in Arizona made their biggest move against the sect on July 26, 1953, when Gov. Howard Pyle sent officers into Colorado City.
The raid became a crisis for state officials after photos of weeping children being pulled from frantic women were published.
Polygamy was a part of early belief of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was abandoned more than a century ago as the territory sought statehood. The Mormon church now excommunicates those who advocate it.