Utah official lectures at seminar on cults

Many at conference wonder why the state has not been more vigorous in polygamist prosecutions

The Salt Lake Tribune/ June 28, 2008

Philadelphia - Top officials for the Utah and Arizona attorneys general were peppered with questions about prosecuting polygamous crimes at a conference here focused on cultic groups.

Abutting events on the lessons learned from the mass suicide at Jonestown and recovering from membership in a cult, Paul Murphy of the Utah Attorney General's Office and his counterpart in the Arizona Attorney General's Office, Jane Irvine, gave what could be considered a primer on polygamous groups in the Southwest and detailed actions taken against those who allegedly have abused children, encouraged young brides and ousted teenage boys.

Murphy and Irvine took pains to not to label polygamous groups in their states or others as cults, but discussed the efforts both states have made to crack down on abusive situations inside the scattered, and in many ways, closed-off groups. Many in the audience, filled with social workers, former cult members and sociologist and scholars, wondered why the states weren't doing more to protect the children and women in the communities.

In the aftermath of the raid by Texas authorities into the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints' Yearning for Zion ranch, polygamous sects are an issue of discussion at the International Cultic Studies Association meeting this weekend at the University of Pennsylvania.

For some attendees, there was no question the FLDS sect and polygamy should be included in the conference discussions.

"It's definitely cultic," said Beth Davies, who left a cult some 19 years ago. "There's a point when you have to call an ace an ace."

Janja Lalich, a professor of sociology at California State University-Chico, didn't go as far, but said the group has "hallmarks of a cult." She added, though, that the media has a political over-correctness complex about using the word cult, and she got laughs from the crowd when she said that the FLDS has now pledged not to perform any underage marriages.

Later, Murphy and Irvine took turns explaining polygamous groups, but many in the audience wanted to know why more wasn't being done.

"In any other universe, I think child protective services will step in," one questioner declared when the discussion turned to the so-called Lost Boys ousted from the communities and left to fend for themselves.

Murphy stressed the work his agency and others have done in previous years and now to investigate crimes and open up the dialogue with polygamists.

"Some people just say, 'Why don't you just arrest them all?' " Murphy, the director of communication and policy with the Utah office, said. "That's an important question to ask.

Society has to determine do we care enough what is going on between consenting adults to put 10,000 adults in prison and 25,000 children in foster care?"

Irvine said they welcomed guidance. "We came here for help," she said.

For many, the introduction to the nuances was taken with sheer fascination.

"There's a bit of culture shock going on right here in this room," said Livia Bardin, a licensed clinical worker from the Washington, D.C. area.

Murphy took one last stab to explain how Utah has approached the issue.

"What we want to stop is the abuse," Murphy said. "We could care less about what they believe but we do care about the abuse and we want it to stop."

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