SALT LAKE CITY - The kidnapping of teen-ager Elizabeth Smart allegedly by a man who wanted her to be his "plural wife" has fueled concern in Utah over young girls' involvement in the deeply controversial practice of polygamy.
Activists say that, although the circumstances of Smart's case are unique, sexual abuse of young girls and incest are common in many polygamist groups, and that enforcement of anti-polygamy laws is lax.
The "tragic irony is that the horrible things that happened to her happen every day of the year to other young girls in these communities," said David Leavitt, a lawyer who prosecuted one of Utah's best-known polygamists in 2001.
Since the Utah attorney general's office began focusing more attention on the issue a couple of years ago, "we've repeatedly heard evidence of older men marrying young girls and taking them into polygamy," said spokesman Paul Murphy, adding that the girls are often 13 to 16 years old.
Brian David Mitchell, a self-proclaimed prophet who endorsed polygamy in a 27-page religious tract, is accused of abducting Smart, then 14, as one of seven wives he hoped to take. He then raped or sexually abused Smart after threatening to harm her and her family, prosecutors charged last week in a criminal complaint.
Once mostly a Western U.S. phenomenon associated with the Mormon Church, polygamy has now spread across the nation, flourishing largely in secret and often in smaller, rural communities. Mormon leaders formally rejected the practice in 1890 and regularly excommunicate members who participate.
Mitchell, once a practicing Mormon, was expelled from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last year after vowing to restore the "lost blessing" of polygamy.
Utah officials say they have worked hard in the past few years to toughen laws that impose criminal sanctions on people who force underage girls into marriage. A new law awaiting the governor's signature would make it a second-degree felony for a married man to take another wife younger than 18.
But those efforts are window dressing, several lawyers and activists say. New laws are rarely enforced, resources needed to pursue these cases aren't available, and prosecutors are loath to go after polygamists who take child brides or engage in sexual abuse, they said.
"Overwhelmingly, as a society we say these families aren't like our families and these children aren't our children, so why should we care? Because of how young girls in these situations are traumatized," said Leavitt, a descendent of a historically polygamous family and brother of Utah's governor, Michael O. Leavitt.
Many breakaway Mormon sects embrace the church's original doctrines, including its endorsement of polygamy, and are convinced its current policies against the practice are wrong. By having as many wives as possible bring as many children as possible into the world, they believe, unborn souls have the opportunity to enter righteous homes and be saved.
Not all polygamist groups endorse incest, but several do on various grounds, according to Andrea Moore Emmett, a writer who has researched polygamy for several decades.
One breakaway Mormon group in southern Utah believes that fathers can have intercourse with their daughters because "Jesus was born of Mary through God," she said.
Another group near Salt Lake City believes that its members are descended directly from Jesus and must intermarry to keep their bloodline pure. Another Christian fundamentalist group thinks brothers and sisters should marry as Adam and Eve's children did "to procreate," Emmett said.
The polygamist whom Leavitt prosecuted, Tom Green, was married to two mother-daughter pairs and had begun a sexual relationship with one of his wives when the girl was 13, according to information presented at his criminal trial. Another recent case involved a 16-year-old girl who was badly beaten after running away from an arranged marriage to her uncle, David Ortell Kingston, then 33.
Reliable data about the extent of polygamy in the United States are difficult to find. Many polygamists are staunchly anti-government and do not participate in the census or seek birth certificates for their children.
Often, only first marriages are recorded; subsequent marriages are typically religious ceremonies with no legal documentation. Many adults in these families do not have Social Security numbers.
Government officials guess that the number of polygamists in Utah ranges from 30,000 to 50,000; anti-polygamist activists say the number across the United States is double that, at least.
Some women report being deeply satisfied and fulfilled with their polygamous families.
Through years of research, Moore has identified 13 long-standing polygamous "clans," some with hundreds of members, some with thousands. Each clan is led by a "prophet," usually an older man who claims absolute religious authority over the group.
Even more common are "independents": men who claim to have religious revelations directing them to establish polygamous families. Such families tend to live in secret, under the sway of their head male.
Flora Jessop, 33, grew up in Colorado City, a large polygamous community in northern Arizona, in what she describes as a fairly typical polygamous family. Her father was married to her mother and her mother's younger sister. Jessop contends that from an early age her father sexually abused her. At 13 she took him to court, but a judge dismissed the charges.
During the next three years, Jessop says, she was held captive at her uncle's house and beaten repeatedly "for daring to stand up to a man." The role of girls in these households is one of "total submission and total subservience," she said.
It's not uncommon for Mormon girls to be recruited into these breakaway households through Mormon singles dances or chat groups on the Internet, anti-polygamist activists said. Taught to be obedient and to respond to male authority from an early age, these girls are potential converts to polygamy, activists said.
Mitchell may have preyed on the religious convictions of Smart, who comes from a devout Mormon family, during her captivity, activists said.
Judith Graham writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.