Victoria - Polygamists living in Bountiful, B.C. abhor sexual abuse of children as much as any other caring parent, says the leader of one of the most controversial communities in Canada.
Winston Blackmore, who openly admits to having numerous wives and dozens of children, said parents at Bountiful protect their children from abuse.
But he declined to discuss allegations that older men in his community marry teenaged girls - a violation of statutory rape laws - while other girls are sent to sister polygamous groups in the United States to marry older men there.
Bountiful is located in southeastern B.C.'s Kootenay region near the town of Creston and about one kilometre from the U.S. border at Idaho.
"I don't know of any parents around here that are not concerned about their children and if they are abused or not," said Blackmore in an e-mail to The Canadian Press. "We sure are about our children."
B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate laying charges in Bountiful. Oppal said he will examine the likelihood of criminal convictions on charges ranging from polygamy to sexual assault.
For his part, Blackmore accuses the attorney general of religious persecution of the polygamous community.
He said parents in Bountiful want their children to grow up safe and happy.
"I know that my children shall hear from their parents that they should finish their school, they should grow up, they should be virtuous, they should live the 10 Commandments, and that they should make good choices in their lives," said Blackmore.
"I want them to learn how to work and pray, be honest in their dealings, and when they make commitments, I want them to keep them," he said.
"If they make mistakes in their lives, I want them to fix them, and I want them to know that their dad will do the best he can do to help them make it right."
Recently, more than 450 children apprehended by child-welfare authorities from a polygamous community in Texas, including at least one teenage girl from Bountiful, were ordered returned to their parents.
Texas authorities removed the children from their homes after a call to a domestic abuse hotline, purportedly from a 16-year-old in the Yearning For Zion community saying she was forced into a marriage with a man three times her age. That girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the call was a hoax.
Oppal said B.C. authorities have been struggling with the Bountiful issue for more than two decades.
The communities at Bountiful and the one in Texas are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway group from the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago and disavows any connection.
More than 800 people live in Bountiful where they are split into two different factions; one follows Blackmore and the others follow jailed American FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, in prison for being an accomplice to rape. Jeffs was convicted in Utah last year of forcing a 14-year-old into marrying an older man.
Oppal appointed the special prosecutor despite two earlier legal opinions saying that proceeding with criminal charges on polygamy would be difficult because anyone charged criminally under the prohibition of polygamy may decide to defend themselves on grounds that their rights to religious freedom are protected.
Oppal said the right to religious freedom is not an absolute right to break the law.
One legal examination suggested launching a court challenge of the laws barring polygamy as opposed to a criminal prosecution.
But Oppal said public concerns, which boiled over in the wake of the Texas raids, played a strong part in the decision to review charges.
Recently, East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett, whose riding is close to Bountiful but does not include the community, told the B.C. legislature that the practice of polygamy there must be stopped.
"It damages the lives of women and children," he said. "Polygamy is the underlying phenomenon from which all of the other alleged harms flow.
"We must take action to support women and children trapped in this polygamist cult."
In 2006, an internal B.C. Health Ministry report examined teen birth rates in the Creston area, which includes Bountiful, from 1986 to 2004.
The report found there were 181 births by teen mothers during that period, while the expected number was 76.
It said 69 of the 181 births were linked to Bountiful, and accounted for 38 per cent of births to mothers aged 14 to 18 in the Creston area. It also found that, of the 69 births, almost 50 per cent of the fathers were five years or more older than the mothers, and 28 per cent were 10 or more years older.
Nancy Meraska, the Alberta spokeswoman for the national organization Stop Polygamy in Canada, applauded Oppal's decision to seek criminal charges in Bountiful.
And she rejected Blackmore's comments about sexual abuse.
"He will never answer a direct question," said Meraska.
"He tries to make it look like what he's doing in Bountiful is no different than what happens out in what he calls the 'real world.' It's really, really ludicrous because he knows that polygamy is a crime in Canada. He's knows that trafficking girls for the purposes of sex, or the purposes of child-bride marriages is illegal in Canada and all the other crimes of polygamy."