St. George, Utah -- Sen. Orrin Hatch, attending a town meeting in southern Utah, found himself pressed by anti-polygamy activists to take a stand against the practice.
Bob Curran, director of the anti-polygamy group Help the Child Brides, asked the Utah Republican on Thursday, why, only an hour away, ''thugs'' rape children and nothing is being done to stop it.
''No one should be raping a child ... we need to protect our children,'' Hatch said.
Curran said girls as young as 13 and 14 were forced into plural marriages with older men in the nearby twin polygamous communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Another speaker, Sonya Blancke, said she was dismayed that polygamists were able to break the laws.
Hatch said, ''I wouldn't throw accusations around unless you know they're true.
''I'm not here to justify polygamy,'' he said. ''All I can say is, I know people in Hildale who are polygamists who are very fine people. You come and show me evidence of children being abused there and I'll get involved. Bring the evidence to me.''
Hatch said he could not take unsubstantiated claims and enforce law, and he would not ''sit here and judge anybody just because they live differently than me.
''There will be laws on the books, but these are very complicated issues,'' Hatch said.
Polygamy is illegal in Utah and a law enacted by the 2003 Legislature created the new crime of child bigamy - marrying a second wife who is under the age of 18 - and made it punishable by one to 15 years in prison.
The marrying of teenage girls is common in some of Utah's isolated polygamist communities, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, whose office drafted the legislation, said previously.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once sanctioned plural marriage but discarded the practice in 1890. However, there are believed to be tens of thousands of polygamists in Utah who continue the tradition and say they are following fundamental doctrine. The Mormon church excommunicates them.
The issue is sensitive in Utah, where many residents, including Gov. Mike Leavitt, have polygamist ancestors.
Prosecution of polygamists went into a hiatus for nearly a half century, following a police crackdown in 1953 on the Colorado City-Hildale enclave then known as Short Creek, Ariz. There was a public reaction against the tearing apart of the families.
In recent years, there has been a renewed effort to combat polygamy-related welfare fraud, incest and underage marriages. Much of the effort has been spurred by people who fled the cults.
The nomination of the county prosecutor here to be a judge was held up in the Utah Senate on Wednesday following allegations by anti-polygamy activists that he failed to vigorously pursue child-bride cases.