Bountiful, Canada - Whether or not a British Columbia court eventually decides that polygamy should be legalized in Canada, there is no excuse for provincial authorities to ignore credible reports of abuse of children and women allegedly going on in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community of Bountiful, B.C., where polygamy is widespread. Even if a judge decides that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right of FLDS believers to practise what they call “celestial marriage,” the constitutional affirmation of their rights as a community cannot indemnify individuals within Bountiful (or any other polygamist community) from criminal prosecution if they physically and psychologically abuse their wives and children.
The situation at Bountiful came to mind in recent days, because of the conviction last week in Texas of Warren Jeffs, the “prophet” of the FLDS. A jury found Jeffs guilty of child sexual assault and aggravated child sexual assault after hearing recordings of him ritualistically raping 12-year-old girls in the church sanctuary of his multi-family compound near San Angelo, Tex., while other adults, including the girls’ parents, looked on.
Of Jeffs’ 78 wives, 24 were under the age of consent (17 years old) in Texas when they married; and of those 24, at least five had been brought from Bountiful to be “forever spiritually bound” to the cult leader.
B.C. child-welfare officials were told by their American counterparts as long ago as 2008 that child brides from Bountiful were being force-married to Jeffs, but have done nothing to step in and shelter the children in the community. Nor has any action been taken to investigate claims made during the ongoing litigation surrounding Bountiful that physical and psychological abuse is used to keep wives fearful of leaving or of standing up for their children, that water torture is used against babies and toddlers to make them respectful of authority figures (namely community leaders) or that leaders use substandard education and sequestration from the outside world to keep community members dependent on their leadership and willing to obey their orders.
Whatever the legal status of the FLDS practice of multiple-marriage, there is no justification for child abuse. Whenever allegations are raised against individuals in Bountiful, provincial bureaucrats must treat them with seriousness and swiftness. The Charter may protect the freedom of adults to engage in behaviour against their own best interests, but it does not extend to them the right to mistreat their children in a similar manner.