Senate hears appeal for task force on polygamist sects

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - A Senate committee heard appeals yesterday for the creation of a federal task force to combat polygamist sects that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described as sophisticated organized crime rings.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office has investigated a sect in Texas, was among those backing legislation sponsored by Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

The bill would establish a task force in the U.S. Department of Justice and assist victims of polygamist groups.

The hearing, which included testimony from two former sect members, spotlighted the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) led by Warren Jeffs, who was once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. Jeffs and four of his followers were indicted Tuesday by a grand jury in Texas for felony assault of a child.

Abbott told reporters after the hearing that further action is likely as investigators sift through "boxes and boxes" of documents and examine other evidence. "I would say we're in the early stages of our investigation," Abbott said.

Carolyn Jessop of West Jordan, Utah, who escaped an FLDS community in Arizona in 2003, said that Jeffs exerted a "tyrannical hold" on sect members and performed secret marriages between underage girls and older men. Boys and girls as young as 12 were forced out of public schools to work for FLDS construction companies and other businesses, in shifts that lasted from 6 a.m. until after dark, she said.

Principle Voices, a polygamy advocacy organization, denounced Reid's bill. "If Reid truly cares about women and children in polygamy, then he should help them, not hurt them," the group said in a statement. "Principle Voices strenuously objects to any effort to characterize our families as anything but what they are: families."

The hearing coincided with Pioneer Day, which Mormons celebrate around the world to commemorate the arrival of Mormon pioneers to Salt Lake Valley, Utah, in 1847. The Mormon Church outlawed polygamy more than a century ago, but breakaway sects have continued the practice.

The FLDS was originally based at isolated locations in Utah and Arizona but has since moved to other states. In Texas, more than 400 children were placed in foster care from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in El Dorado, Texas, but the Texas Supreme Court later ordered the children returned to their parents, ruling that the state had overstepped its authority.

The indictments issued Tuesday charge Jeffs and four of his followers with sexually assaulting girls under the age of 17. A sixth member was indicted on three counts of failure to report child abuse.

FLDS representatives have accused the state of religious persecution. But Abbott vigorously dismissed the criticism as a "smokescreen" to distract from the investigation into sexual assault allegations.

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