The issues of under-age sex and taking more than one wife were in the spotlight in the United States this week as more than 460 children seized from a polygamist sect in April were returned to their parents. The Texas supreme court ruled that state authorities had erred in raiding the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints’ compound. But the parents must stay in Texas, allow child welfare authorities access and agree to take parenting classes. Government officials are still expressing reservations about the court rulings.

Texas child protective services acted against the Yearning for Zion Ranch on April 3 after a caller to a domestic abuse hotline said she was a 16-year-old girl who was being abused by her 50-year-old husband. The caller was never found and it appears the calls were a hoax, but authorities said they had to act on it. “If we had not treated them as credible and something had happened, people would be very upset,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety. But the supreme court agreed with a lower court ruling that officials had failed to prove that the children were in immediate danger when they were removed.

Exactly what has been happening in terms of sexual relationships in the community of the break-away Mormon sect — and how it differs, materially, from sexual behaviour common in the mainstream of society — is far from clear. Prosecutors alleged that girls as young as 12 were being forced into marriage and boys were being raised to perpetuate the practice, which is linked to a belief that a man must have three wives to reach the highest realms of heaven. But initial reports of more than 30 under-age mothers proved to be mistaken; the state failed to satisfy the supreme court that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, or offer any evidence of sexual or physical abuse among the other children, reports The Houston Chronicle.

The sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, is in jail for a sex-related conviction last year and awaiting trial on charges of sexual conduct with a minor and incest. Documents seized in the recent raid showed that Jeffs, 52, had married four girls under the age of 14. A photograph shows him with his 15-year-old wife at the birth of their baby. ~ Reuters, May 30; Guardian (UK), June 2; New York Times, June 6   

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....