A team of child- and spouse-abuse experts from the Utah Attorney General's Office have met with members of the Apostolic United Brethren, marking a groundbreaking summit between the state's top law-enforcement agency and Utah's second largest polygamist group.
Atty. Gen. Jan Graham heralded Sunday's meeting as the first cooperative effort aimed at crime victims within Utah's polygamous communities, a faction of society that largely has operated outside the purview of authorities since Utah outlawed polygamy in 1890.
``Our focus is the victims, and if we are serious about trying to help them, then this is what has to happen,'' Graham said on Monday. ``This is what we have planned to do in every single polygamous community . . . one way or another. Either with their blessing or not.''
Church leader Owen Allred at the Bluffdale-based Apostolic United Brethren (AUB) welcomed the chance to educate their congregation about sexual, child and spousal abuse. Allred and other church leaders sought to assure state officials that abuses recently publicized in other polygamist groups were not happening within AUB.
But some in the polygamist community, including members of the Bluffdale group who felt they were ambushed on Sunday, criticized the meeting as a harbinger of deeper intrusions into their religious practices and freedom.
``If they are going to do it here, they should do it at all the Christian churches,'' said Ogden Kraut, a polygamist who learned of the meeting through AUB members.
``Apparently, Owen had made the arrangement but he didn't tell the people that it was going to happen,'' Kraut said. ``It came as a surprise to all of them. It scared some people and probably worried many of the others.''
With Allred's blessing, Graham sent leaders of her ``Safe At Home'' program to the Sunday sacrament meeting of the 5,000-member UAB. About 900 members regularly attend services at the warehouse-like church near the Utah Veterans Memorial Park. Other UAB members are scattered throughout Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as Montana and Mexico.
Greeted at the church door by Allred and Graham's team, worshippers were split into separate sessions for men, women and children, a typical arrangement at other ``Safe At Home'' presentations, the attorney general said.
``It's something we like to do,'' she said. ``For the women, there's a special program for them about their right to be free of abuse -- it wouldn't have been appropriate to keep the young children with the adult women.''
The A.G.'s team relayed definitions of domestic violence, provided information about obtaining protective orders, guided teen-agers through a seminar on the prevention of dating violence and tried to define for children the limits of appropriate contact with adults.
In the works for weeks, the meeting came months after Allred and one of his four wives visited the Capitol in Salt Lake City hoping to meet with Graham and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt amid growing news media and police scrutiny of abuses found within some polygamist groups.
At the time, Allred was rebuffed.
On Monday, he praised the about-face.
``This is the answer to my prayers,'' said Allred, the 84-year-old leader of AUB, a polygamist faction that traces its roots to the turn-of-the-century split between the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which turned away from polygamy, and Mormons who maintained the practice begun by church founder Joseph Smith.
Allred acknowledged that he did not tell everyone in his congregation the state workers were coming Sunday.
``I want them to investigate wrongdoing in my people's families just the same as they do anybody else's,'' Allred said.
Graham said Sunday's meeting was the first step of a five-point program targeting the estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people in Utah polygamist groups.
Other ``lifelines'' include:
-- A toll-free victims 24-hour hot line for those within polygamist groups.
-- A victims' shelter designed for women and children leaving polygamous relationships.
-- A detailed review of child-endangerment laws and policy headed by the Children's Justice Advisory Board.
-- An educational neglect task force to examine truancy and withdrawals of minors living in polygamous families who are removed from school against their will.
-- Domestic-violence training in polygamist groups.
``Claims of religious freedom are no defense to the crimes of statutory rape, incest, sexual misconduct with a minor and child abuse,'' Graham said. ``We know that for potential victims of domestic violence or child abuse, knowledge is power. Our program informs people they have a legal right to be free of abuse, and how to get help if it happens.''
But Mary Potter, who earlier this year helped organize the Women's Religious Liberties Union, a group calling for the legalization of plural marriage, accused Graham of wrongly targeting one group -- solely on a religious basis -- at the exclusion of the rest of society.
``The state is testing the waters to see how far they will go,'' Potter said. ``They intend to do some damage. As far as I'm concerned, they should stay out of people's religions.''
Members of the AUB church, like many other polygamist churches, believe men must take more than one wife to ascend to the highest level of heaven. The tenet stems from early doctrine of the LDS Church, which formally disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
After Sunday's meeting, Allred said 795 out of 800 people responded favorably to the subject matter and to further cooperation with Utah officials. Graham said her team was invited to return, although no individual at the service stepped forward to reveal a specific case of abuse.
Members who spoke with Potter and Kraut, however, said they felt betrayed.
``We cannot attack a religion or a lifestyle or a culture based on the actions of a few,'' Potter said.
The attorney general's interest, Potter said, was generated by the national scrutiny of polygamy that followed the arrest of two prominent members of Utah's polygamous Kingston family.
John Daniel Kingston stands accused of the May belt-whipping of his then-16-year-old daughter for rebelling against an arranged polygamous marriage to her uncle, David O. Kingston. The girl told police she was David's 15th wife. Her father has been charged with child abuse and her uncle with incest.
Many ex-polygamists say Utah's laissez-faire approach to polygamy helped create a culture of abuse within some polygamous communities. Although the state constitution outlaws it, no one has been prosecuted for polygamy since the early 1950s. Expect that record to continue, said Graham.
``Our purpose is to reach victims,'' she said. ``That is all.''