‘I’m guilty of living my religion,’ says B.C. former bishop found guilty of polygamy

Cranbrook, B.C.—Winston Blackmore was making no apologies Monday after he and another former bishop of an isolated religious community in British Columbia were found guilty of practising polygamy.

“I’m guilty of living my religion and that’s all I’m saying today because I’ve never denied that,” Blackmore told reporters after a judge announced a verdict against him and co-defendant James Oler.

“Twenty-seven years and tens of millions of dollars later, all we’ve proved is something we’ve never denied,” Blackmore said. “I’ve never denied my faith. This is what we expected.”

Read more:Long-awaited trial of accused B.C. polygamists Blackmore and Oler begins Tuesday

Blackmore, 60, was married to Jane Blackmore and then married 24 additional women as part of so-called “celestial” marriages involving residents in the tiny community of Bountiful.

Oler, 53, had five wives.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Sheri Ann Donegan said the “collective force of the evidence” proved the guilt of both men, who were practising members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect that believes in plural marriage.

“His adherence to the practices and beliefs of the FLDS is not in dispute,” Donegan said, reading her written ruling in a courtroom in Cranbrook, B.C.

“Mr. Blackmore … would not deny his faith in his 2009 statement to police. He spoke openly about his practice of polygamy.”

Blackmore was shown a list of his alleged wives and made two corrections to the details, Donegan said.

“Mr. Blackmore confirmed that all of his marriages were celestial marriages in accordance with FLDS rules and practices.”

Blackmore’s lawyer Blair Suffredine told the court he would launch a constitutional challenge of Canada’s polygamy laws. A hearing date is expected to be set next Monday.

Blackmore said it’s not religious persecution that bothers him, but that it’s political persecution and he hopes the challenge will bring about change.

“Twenty-seven years ago, adultery was a criminal act. Twenty-seven years ago when they started with us, same-sex marriage was criminal,” he said.

“Those people all successfully launched constitutional challenges on the basic right to freely associate. For us I imagine it will be (that) this is entrenched in our faith and I would have been hugely disappointed if I would have been found not guilty of living my religion.”

A decades-long legal fight launched by the provincial government led to a 12-day trial earlier this year. It heard from mainstream Mormon experts, law enforcement officers who worked on the investigation, and Jane Blackmore, a former wife of Winston Blackmore who left the community in 2003.

Oler was self-represented in the trial but had the services of Joe Doyle, a so-called friend of the court appointed to ensure a fair trial, though he could not offer any legal advice.

Both men’s representation argued against the credibility of evidence related to marriage and personal records seized by police in 2008 from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, an FLDS church compound in Texas. The information pertained to members of the sect in the United States and Canada.

Doyle said important events related to Oler were missing, such as his client’s elevation to presiding elder in the community in June 2004. He also argued the Crown didn’t prove Oler continuously practised polygamy between 1993 and 2009.

“I find that the FLDS marriage records are ultimately reliable,” Donegan said before announcing her verdict against Oler.

“Having concluded the Crown has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that James Oler … practised a marriage with more than one person at the same time, I find Mr. Oler guilty of practising polygamy,” Donegan said.

Both Blackmore and Oler remain out on bail. Crown spokesman Dan McLaughlin said the maximum sentence for a conviction of polygamy is five years in prison.

The mainstream Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially renounced polygamy in the late 19th century and disputes any connection to the fundamentalist group’s form of Mormonism.

Blackmore and Oler were charged in 2014 for the second time with practising polygamy, more than two decades after allegations that members of the Bountiful community were involved in multiple marriage, sexual abuse and cross-border child trafficking.

Uncertainty over whether the Criminal Code section banning polygamy violated religious rights hovered over the case until 2011, when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the law was constitutional and that polygamy is a crime.

The constitutional reference case heard that the harms of polygamy outweigh any claims to freedom of religion and include physical and sexual abuse, child brides, the subjugation of women and the expulsion of young men — the so-called lost boys — who have no women left to marry.