Conviction of a Polygamist Raises Fears Among Others

New York Times/May 24, 2001
By Michael Janofsky

Salt Lake City -- The conviction of a Utah man on bigamy charges last week is causing anxiety among the state's polygamists, many of whom have grown fearful that prosecutors may now be eager to bring them to trial on the same charges.

Prosecutors, who deny they have any such intention, say the conviction creates a problem for them, as well, a new atmosphere of distrust among polygamous families, making them more reluctant to seek outside help for child abuse, domestic violence and emergencies.

As a result of the conviction of Tom Green, a husband of five and father of 29, polygamists and officials, who have generally kept at arms length, are re-examining their approach to one another.

Polygamists, whose beliefs derive from tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the church renounced more than a century ago, say they do not believe assurances they will not be prosecuted and now feel less inclined than ever to summon the authorities, even on serious matters. The Utah attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, said he planned to ask the Legislature next year for money to hire two additional investigators for matters relating to "closed societies" so more ordinary crimes do not go unpunished.

"This has pushed people a little further underground," said Anne Wilde, a polygamist wife for 32 years, referring to the trial in Provo, Utah, that ended with a jury finding Mr. Green guilty on four counts of bigamy and one count of criminal nonsupport. He could receive up to five years in prison on each count when he is sentenced next month.

Sitting in Ms. Wilde's home here near the Wasatch Mountains, she and two other women from polygamous families, Mary Batchelor and Marianne Watson, said the Green case had done a major disservice to the estimated 30,000 polygamists who live in Utah and neighboring states by presenting a false image of their chosen way of life.

The three women, who published a book last year, "Voices in Harmony, Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage," contend that Mr. Green, 52, is an anomaly among polygamists, for having wives and children in far greater numbers than average. A more common family, they said, includes two to three wives and 8 to 10 children.

Perhaps worst of all, they said, a separate charge of child rape against Mr. Green for having one wife who was 13 at the time of their marriage may leave the impression that all polygamist husbands marry under-age girls and abuse children. "They want us to come forward with abuse because they think so much of it is out there," said Ms. Watson, who declined to disclose the number of sister-wives or children she has out of fear of calling too much attention to herself. "Then if we don't, they think we're hiding it."

Which is not to say polygamous families are free of such problems. Sidney Anderson, director of the Women's Religious Liberties Union, an advocacy group in Utah, said a fear of prosecution among polygamists almost assures that crimes like child abuse will continue. "Women will die rather than deny their religious faith," Ms. Anderson said in a separate interview, referring to those who subscribe to the early teachings of the Mormon Church. "The state is forcing them into an abusive situation, and some men are using it to convince women that they have to live in isolation for the unit to be safe. So women who need help can't get it out of fear."

Ms. Watson said she has a friend, a polygamous wife, who is aware of child abuse in her neighborhood. "But she won't call to give any information," she said, "because she is afraid they might look at her." It is precisely that dynamic, Mr. Shurtleff said, that raises concerns among officials over the welfare of wives and children in plural families.

As evidence of his intentions not to seek out prosecutions based strictly on the antibigamy laws, Mr. Shurtleff said he favored reducing the charge of bigamy to a misdemeanor from a felony to encourage people to provide information about serious crimes in polygamous families.

But sensing the polygamists' growing aversion to figures of authority, Mr. Shurtleff said he needed two more investigators to work cases involving them - he has one - as well as more money in his budget to help pursue the cases. "I feel for the victims within," he said. "Where do they turn? How will law enforcement be able to help them?"

Ms. Anderson said the best way to answer those questions was for the Legislature to decriminalize bigamy altogether, which would make it easier for members of plural families to seek help when they need it.

"It's like the Taliban here," she said. "In Afghanistan, the authorities force women to wear black robes. Here, they force women to become criminals to live their religion. But to do it, they have to live underground."

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