A law enforcement officer, left, escorts Polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs, center, and his defense advisor Deric Walpole out of the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas. A jury convicted Jeffs of child sexual assault Thursday.
As a Texas jury considers a possible life sentence for polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, a coalition of polygamist groups is condemning the sexual abuse that led to Jeffs' conviction.
"We are alarmed that such depravity could have been perpetrated by anyone," says a written statement from the Principle Rights Coalition, a group representing five polygamist groups in Arizona and Utah, as well as "numerous other independent Fundamentalist Mormons."
The groups advocate and practice polygamy as it was taught by early leaders of the Mormon Church, which renounced plural marriage in 1890 and does not tolerate it now.
"It is especially devastating to discover that sexual assault of young children may have occurred behind the false pretense of a religious ideology," the statement says. "If any members of our communities are in fact guilty, we fully support their being brought to justice."
Jeffs heads the nation's largest polygamous faith, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or FLDS, and was convicted in Texas Thursday of two counts of child sexual assault. The victims in the case were 12 and 15 when Jeffs consummated his FLDS "marriages" to the girls. An audio recording played to the jury was characterized by the prosecution as a sexual assault of the 12-year-old.
Seven other FLDS men were convicted of sexual assault and bigamy charges in Texas. Jeffs and some of his followers faced similar charges in Utah and Arizona but prosecutors in Texas have been more successful in obtaining convictions. That's because the Texas cases are bolstered by detailed and incriminating diaries, photographs, recordings and other documents seized in a raid on an FLDS ranch in Texas in 2008.
Jeffs moved some of his members and leaders to Texas, and built the faith's first and only temple there, in response to crackdowns in Arizona and Utah, where the FLDS group is based.
Other polygamist groups fear that the revelations about the FLDS practice of plural marriages involving underage girls would trigger more widespread attempts to prosecute polygamy.
The Principle Rights Coalition suggests decriminalizing polygamy would help root out child sexual abuse among those practicing "the principle," the religious term the groups apply to the practice.
"In some cases, years of isolation and secrecy may have cultivated and concealed abuse, since those who might ordinarily have come forward feared the threat of prosecution should their plural family arrangement be disclosed," the Coalition writes. "These reports of abuse illustrate the necessity of decriminalizing plural, consenting-adult relationships, while convicting those specific individuals who have victimized children."
The Coalition includes the Centennial Park polygamous group in Arizona, which has a settlement just down the road from the main FLDS towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. The Centennial Park group was formed by people who left the FLDS faith and is considered more open and progressive, and intolerant of child marriages.
The Davis County Cooperative Society also signed the Coalition's letter. Also known as the "Kingston clan," three top members of the group either pleaded "no contest" or guilty, or were convicted, in response to criminal charges in the last decade of child abuse, incest and unlawful sexual conduct involving girls as young as 15.
Another group, the Apostolic United Brethren, added its own separate statement.
"We repudiate and denounce Warren Jeffs' inappropriate actions in linking his despicable and unconscionable acts to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to Joseph Smith Jr. and Mormonism," the group writes. "Such acts and so-called ordinances are not and never have been condoned by the Gospel as it was established and restored by Joseph Smith."
Joseph Smith is the founder of the Mormon Church, who Mormons say "restored" the Mormon Gospel. Smith promoted and practiced polygamy in the early days of the faith. One of his many wives, Helen Mar Kimball, was 14 when she married Smith. There is a vigorous debate about whether Kimball and Smith consummated that marriage with sex.
The Mormon Church abandoned polygamy in 1890 in what many historians consider a political accommodation. The existence of polygamy in Utah led to strong resistance in Congress when the territory sought statehood. There's strong evidence the practice continued secretly among a select group until the 1930s.
A firm and final rejection then of polygamy by Mormon leaders prompted the formation of the so-called "fundamentalist" groups that persist today. Many share common origins and beliefs with the FLDS group. None are considered part of the mainstream Mormon faith.
Individual, unaffiliated polygamists have also been targeted for prosecution. In 2002, Tom Green was convicted of child rape for his marriage to one of his five wives when she was 13.
Jeffs was convicted in Utah in 2007 of facilitating rape for his role in the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old first cousin. That conviction was reversed last year by the Utah Supreme Court.
Also last year, similar charges in Arizona were dismissed after two key witnesses declined to testify against Jeffs.
It's unclear how the Jeffs conviction in Texas will affect the FLDS faithful. Even while in prison awaiting trial, Jeffs emerged as the victor in an internal challenge to his continued leadership. He has also continued to purge from the faith members he has considered unfaithful, including some of the group's top leaders.