Sect leader facing rape trial to use faith as his defence

Sydney Morning Herald/September 11, 2007

The US is both religious and religiously tolerant, but if the nation's founding fathers could have imagined someone like Warren Jeffs, they may not have been so ready to embrace freedom of worship.

Jeffs, 51, the leader of a polygamous Mormon sect, is about to stand trial for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl. He is reputed to have dozens of wives, some inherited from his father.

The girl was married to her 19-year-old cousin in 2001, and the marriage consummated weeks later, all at Jeffs insistence. She will be the principal witness against Jeffs, who took over formal leadership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when his father died in 2002.

As the church's leader, or "prophet", Jeffs claims to be in direct contact with God and therefore determines who can marry whom. The girl reportedly twice told Jeffs she did not want to marry or have sex. He is allleged to have told her it was her spiritual duty and that it was sanctioned by God.

In addition to the girl, two men are expected to give evidence about Jeffs's interference in their sexual relations with their wives, and about his instructions to persist with underage weddings regardless of state law. By Jeffs's reasoning, to oppose him is to oppose the will of God, although divine guidance failed him in August last year. He had been on the run when police stopped him for having an illegible car number plate, and he was arrested.

While the trial is about justice for one woman, it is also likely to excite public interest for its insights into the 12,000-strong community Jeffs leads.

The community, where immodest, short-sleeved shirts and movies are banned, exists in two towns either side of the Utah-Arizona border in remote desert country - Hildale and Colorado City.

Jeffs reportedly has excommunicated more than 100 men, taking their wives and children from them and placing them with other men.

Teenage boys are expelled for going to the movies, or looking at girls with interest. A welfare worker in nearby St George says teenagers are expelled almost weekly and left to fend for themselves in a mainstream society for which they are unprepared. Many end up in trouble with the law.

In the past five years about 2000 teens had been ordered out with no support and forbidden to contact their parents, said Michelle Benward, vice-president of the support group New Frontiers for Families.

"The mothers are living in such fear," Ms Benward said. "Most of them have 10 or 12 children. If they are once held as misbehaving they are told they could be reassigned to another husband or their other children can be taken away.

"There's thousands that have either been invited to leave or have left because they can't deal with the level of scrutiny. I have a couple of hundred I have contact with … hundreds of boys and 10 girls."

Polygamy is illegal in Utah, although it is not a factor in Jeffs's trial. However, the trial will hear evidence of Jeffs urging his followers to maintain the practice.

A spokesman for the Utah Attorney-General, Paul Murphy, said there were 30,000 polygamists in the state. Instead of charging people with polygamy, officers were told to focus on child abuse, fraud and domestic violence.

Mr Murphy said jury selection had begun last Friday.

Defence lawyers will argue that Jeffs is being prosecuted for his faith. Officiating at a wedding ceremony did not make him an accomplice to rape, a defence lawyer, Walter Bugden, is reported to have said.

Ms Benward, who is about to open a home for excommunicated teens, said it was not polygamy but Jeffs who created problems for his cult.

"There are other polygamous groups in Utah that do very well. The problem is having a tyrannical, obsessed, deranged leader."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.