HILDALE – For many former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, losing their families and learning the truth about their imprisoned prophet’s crimes against young children has created a crisis of faith – leaving some feeling like ships without a spiritual anchor.
“It’s an everyday evolution,” Hildale resident Willie Jessop said.
More and more FLDS members have left the only way of life they’ve ever known – some by choice; others as a result of church disciplinary action. Jessop said thousands more still remain faithful to jailed prophet Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving a life prison sentence for child sexual assault.
Many disenfranchised FLDS members are now investigating or have aligned themselves with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jessop said, which the FLDS church broke off from in the 1930s after the practice of polygamy was banned.
“I’ve witnessed many people and very close friends that have joined the LDS church, and it’s been a very positive experience and successful for them,” Jessop said.
Jessop, who served as head of the security detail for Jeffs before Jeffs’ imprisonment, said the core beliefs upon which the FLDS religion was originally founded, which are the foundational tenets of the LDS church, still hold true for many ex-FLDS members. This makes the LDS church a natural place for many disenfranchised members to seek spiritual refuge. Both LDS members and FLDS followers, for instance, believe in the Book of Mormon as a volume of sacred scripture; they sing many of the same religious hymns; and both churches share the same historical origins, as the FLDS religion is an offshoot of the mainstream LDS church.
For Jessop, who left the FLDS faith but still has plural wives, and for others like him who are still actively practicing polygamy, joining the LDS church is not an option, as the practice of polygamy has been banned in the church since the 1800s.
“We don’t know that there’s ever going to be a place for us at that table, at least currently,” Jessop said.
Jessop said losing his religion has not cost him his faith.
“I think that we’ve all been able to come to grips that we believe very much in a God and a Heavenly Father,” he said.
“I don’t feel abandoned by my Heavenly Father,” Jessop added. “If anything, this experience has helped us have more confidence in him and less in an individual (leader).”
Opening up with Oprah
Jessop recently discussed what he called his “crisis of faith” with America’s “Queen of Talk,” Oprah Winfrey.
In 2009, acting as a spokesman for the FLDS church, Jessop invited Winfrey to tour the Yearning For Zion ranch outside El Dorado, Texas, where the infamous 2008 raid took place that preceded the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Warren Jeffs for child sexual assault.
At the time, Jessop was serving as head of Jeffs’ security detail. The intent of inviting Winfrey to the ranch, he said, was to show the outside world that the FLDS had nothing to hide. That was before Jessop discovered the prophet he was loyal to had more to hide than he could have possibly imagined.
“Being the head of the security detail, it’s almost like my job is to protect the Oval Office … from being intruded in, not patrolling what’s inside the Oval Office,” Jessop told Winfrey during a new one-on-one interview that aired Sunday. “And, so, yes, we created the environment that he was allowed to do this (have sex with young girls) in, but what we were looking for was an outside attack. We had no idea that we were being eroded morally from within.”
Sunday, the Oprah Winfrey Network aired an episode of “Where Are They Now?” featuring an in-studio interview with Jessop as well as footage shot by Winfrey’s film crew at the Water Canyon School in Hildale, which was reopened by the Washington County School District in August 2014 after being closed for more than a decade. The focus of the show was to explore where former Jeffs supporters, like Jessop, stand today.
Last fall, Jessop traveled to Chicago to sit down with Winfrey and shoot the footage that appeared in “Where Are They Now?” on Sunday. During the interview, he revealed details about the circumstances that changed him from an ardent Jeffs follower to someone who now openly opposes the FLDS prophet.
“Due to the graphic nature of Mr. Jeffs’ acts, I didn’t feel to disclose that other than to a very select crowd,” Jessop said.
But he opened up as he talked to Oprah.
Jessop detailed the day Jeffs, at that time a fugitive listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, was finally apprehended by police. He was pulled over near Las Vegas in a routine traffic stop, Jessop said. Officers placed him under arrest, and in the back of Jeffs’ Cadillac Escalade they found boxes Jeffs told them contained sacred religious records that were protected by law as clergy documents.
It wasn’t until 2011 that Jessop thought to look in those boxes, hoping, he said, to find evidence or information that would help exonerate Jeffs of the crimes he had been charged with. Instead of finding evidence to clear Jeffs’ name, however, Jessop said he found damning evidence, including audiotapes, that verified just what Jeffs had been doing with young FLDS girls behind closed doors.
“It was awful,” Jessop said during his interview with Winfrey. “Him having group sex with little girls. And it was basically just a tremendous amount of pornography.”
“The way he was doing it was using religious language to cover up some horrifically gross acts,” he added.
After discovering that the prophet he had protected and defended was hiding some very dark secrets, Jessop interviewed the young girls involved and, one by one, they confirmed Jeffs had engaged in group sex with them.
In 2009, Jessop told Winfrey on camera there was no way any sexual relations had occurred between Jeffs and young FLDS girls. In the interview that aired Sunday, a very different Jessop had a very different story to tell as he talked candidly with Winfrey.
Jessop said the details revealed on the show were so graphic that he didn’t allow most of his family members to watch the episode Sunday when it was broadcast; two of his older sons watched it and that was it, he said.
Once Jessop’s eyes were opened to the fact that Jeffs was guilty as charged of the gross crimes he had been imprisoned for, he publicly denounced the prophet.
Persecution became heavy after he turned against Jeffs, Jessop said. FLDS leaders tried to take his family away from him; his children were expelled from school; his employees were threatened with excommunication if they continued working for him; and his business was thoroughly vandalized, he said – an act for which he was later awarded millions of dollars in a default lawsuit settlement when the defendants in the case failed to show up for the court hearing.
Since the Oprah Winfrey Network’s special aired Sunday, Jessop said, people have approached him to apologize for the treatment he received after he denounced Warren Jeffs. One woman, whose grandson showed her a copy of the show, called him in tears and apologized, he said.
“She said she had no idea,” Jessop said.
“I have had an outpouring of people that have come to understand what I went through in Texas,” he went on to say.
Despite facing persecution and even having family members – his biological parents included – turn against him, Jessop said he views his departure from the FLDS church as God’s way of taking him out of his comfort zone and giving him “a wonderful opportunity to reset my relationship with my Heavenly Father.”
“I know that it’s made me, as a person, a better person and more focused on what I need to do and the person that I need to be,” Jessop said.
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