Groups Airing 'Utah's Dirty Little Secret'

As activists gather, they say state's inaction on the issue allows sexual assaults, child abuse, welfare fraud to go unchecked.

Los Angeles Times/August 18, 2002
By Julie Cart

Zion National Park, Utah -- It's been two years since Utah's Legislature appointed a full-time investigator to root out crimes associated with polygamy. But, aside from last year's high-profile prosecution and imprisonment of polygamist Tom Green, no other cases have been brought to court.

Anti-polygamy activists, who gathered here Saturday for an unprecedented meeting, charge that the state has not done enough to stamp out "Utah's dirty little secret." They say the inaction is allowing child abuse, welfare fraud and sexual assault to continue unchecked in polygamous communities.

Groups from Utah, Arizona and Canada met for the first time to gather material for a report they intend to forward to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. They also have recruited former "sister wives" to help build a massive class-action suit to be filed against a polygamous religious group that arranges marriages of girls as young as 13.

Activists called polygamous leaders "the American Taliban," saying women are subjugated by the practice of plural marriage.

And over and over again, they said Utah's polygamy investigator has merely provided political cover for the state, which has little interest in delving into a highly sensitive issue.

"I think it's a good show, but it's all a political game," said Flora Jessop, who fled her polygamous family in Colorado City, Ariz., when she was 16.

Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, are polygamous communities that straddle the states' borders about 40 miles southwest of here. There are an estimated 40,000 polygamists living in western areas of the U.S. and Canada, where some splinter groups have fled after internal fractions.

"Polygamy is an ugly word, no matter how you look at it," Jessop said. "But child abuse is ugly too. What do people think is going on in these towns? There are still children being abused and still girls trying to run away. So as long as that's [still the case], no, I can't say there's been any progress in two years."

Officials say that investigating closed societies is difficult and that women and girls seldom come forward to report abuse. In some rural areas, the sheriff and county prosecutor are reluctant to get involved in what they view as a matter of religious choice or lifestyle, state officials say.

Anti-polygamy activists say that's no excuse for not going after lawbreakers.

Ron Barton, Utah's polygamy investigator, acknowledges he doesn't have much to show for two years of work.

"I would have hoped that more would have been done during that time," he said. "My eyes have been opened to the problems in the community. The problems are pretty well hidden. There are children who are victimized, sexually molested by non-family members. Incest. Underage marriages. Spousal abuse. Welfare fraud. Women and children are the primary victims."

Barton investigated flamboyant polygamist Green, who was sentenced last year to five years in prison for bigamy and failing to repay the state for thousands of dollars in welfare payments his family improperly received. It was the first conviction of its kind in Utah in 50 years.

Green, 54, will be sentenced again Aug. 27, this time for child rape for marrying Linda Kunz Green in 1986 when she was 13. He was 37. She is the only one of his wives that he legally married. The others were sealed to him in a religious ceremony.

Green's complex family structure, which was dissected during the trial, gave investigators fits. When they finally constructed a family tree, Green was charged with rape.

Linda Kunz Green was Green's stepdaughter at the time of their marriage. Green had been married to Kunz's mother, Beth Cook, whom he later divorced. Green, who has married two other stepdaughters, has at least four wives, four ex-wives and 33 children.

Anti-polygamy activists dismiss Green's prosecution as a "show trial," a charge that riles Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff.

"They don't know what they're talking about," he said, adding that new polygamy cases are being prepared. "I have no respect for people who just stand there and complain and do nothing to help. This is a much more wide-ranging problem than we had thought. Other prosecutions will be forthcoming, but we're making sure to do this right. We are serious about it."

Aside from appointing a polygamy czar, the Utah state Legislature has done little to display the political will to deal with the issue. A draft bill making it easier to prosecute polygamists appears to be doomed to defeat.

In 2001, legislation was killed that would have punished parents who allowed unlawful marriages--such as underage or plural unions.

"They've been slow to respond to the issues," said Jay Beswick, one of the organizers of Saturday's meeting. "I don't think Utah can really tackle this problem without outside help. They can't do it themselves because everyone is too connected to polygamy."

Polygamy was a tenet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until 1890, when the practice was outlawed. About 70% of Utah is Mormon and more than 90% of the state's elected officials are church members.

In the months before the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, polygamy was a taboo subject for general discussion in Utah. Now, that informal ban seems to have been lifted.

Even as anti-polygamy activists gain a voice, once publicity-shy polygamists are speaking out. Signs on Salt Lake City's Main Street and Interstate 15 advertise a book, "More than One: Plural Marriage--A Sacred Pioneer Heritage."

Meanwhile, Arizona, which has polygamous communities in Mohave County on the Utah border, is not talking about it.

State representative Linda Binder attended Saturday's meeting and said she is dismayed that officials in both states have done so little about the problems.

"I don't care what consenting adults do," Binder said. "I do have a problem with sham religious marriages and child abuse. I do have a problem with that."

Binder said her efforts to pass legislation curbing polygamy have met resistance. Elected officials can no longer say they are unaware polygamy exists, she said, or claim ignorance of abuses.

"We have a situation here that is unconscionable," she said. "We have the Taliban in our backyard. We know about what's happening and it's time to step up to the plate. I'm a woman. I can't turn my back on women and children who are in these situations. It's appalling."

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