OPINION – Things are changing in Short Creek, the polygamous community along the Utah-Arizona state line.
There’s a library, there are some new, more contemporary social events taking place and some good, sincere people trying to effect serious social and cultural change.
But, don’t expect miracles.
Change is always met with resistance.
If you have been a part of corporate America during the last 20 or so years, you have probably seen this in action as high-priced captains of industry have turned to even higher-priced consultants to come into their businesses to change employee attitudes and habits. In the corporate world, it is said true workplace culture changes can take three to eight years to establish.
In the real world it takes longer, usually at least 20 years.
In the case of the tightly controlled community of Short Creek, where polygamist leaders have ruled with a religious dominance since the area was settled by a group of loyal Mormon fundamentalists in 1913 as a hideaway where they could pursue their polygamous lifestyle out of sight of the law, don’t expect any miracles.
Things are not going to change quickly.
The law has sparingly stepped in and forced some changes over the years.
Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has been prosecuted twice and is now serving a life-plus sentence in a Texas prison for the sexual abuse of two underage girls. His brother, Lyle Jeffs, who first served as a “special counselor” to Warren, then as acting head of the cult, is on the run. He is said to have used olive oil to free himself from an ankle bracelet used to track him while on house arrest as he awaited trial for fraud charges. He’s been ducking the law since early June when he made his getaway.
For decades, the law has been reluctant to dip a toe into the messy political-religious quagmire. Former Utah Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow made it public policy that they would not prosecute crimes against the state’s bigamy/polygamy statutes. It was rare when a polygamy case was brought to trial and when it was, it was often handled with extreme incompetence – as in the case where a conviction against Warren Jeffs was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court for bad jury instructions – or brazen generosity – as in the case of several FLDS leaders who recently plea-bargained themselves out of jail.
Canada, on the other hand, has recently found two parents guilty of transporting their 13-year-old daughter across the border into the United States where she was forced to marry Warren Jeffs in 2004. Canada also has polygamy charges pending against Winston Blackmore, who has 27 wives and 145 children.
We see a few people going into the community today in hopes of some sort of normalization. They have organized events in the park from Fourth of July gatherings to small concerts. We have seen others try to help rescue young women trying to flee the community when they are to be placed in spiritual marriages. But few are courageous enough to stand against such a religious monolith.
That’s why a young woman named Elissa Wall becomes a key component of any hopeful cultural change.
Wall was the one who originally stepped forward with charges against Warren Jeffs, claiming he forced her, at the age of 14, to marry her cousin during a ceremony presided over by Warren.
It led to a conviction on two counts of rape as an accomplice in 2007 by a Utah court. Although the conviction was later overturned, Jeffs never again saw daylight as a free man because he was immediately whisked to Texas where he was found guilty of sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of children.
Wall has recently filed a $5 million civil lawsuit seeking damages from Warren Jeffs. My guess is that the jailed prophet, who has a history of snubbing court dates, will probably ignore the lawsuit and Wall will, deservedly so, walk with the money.
She, of course, has always risked being completely ostracized from family and friends for taking on Warren Jeffs who, despite his conviction and incarceration, is still the leader of the FLDS community.
But, she is standing tall.
So is Brielle Decker, one of Warren Jeffs’ former brides who still suffers from the mental and physical anguish imposed upon her as a member of this cult. For her, like many, the healing process may never be complete.
I had the first interview with her when she decided to go public. I wrote the first story. I was amazed at the courage that sprung from this young woman as she spoke. It was similar to the poise and courage displayed by Wall when she told her story in court. Prosecutors tried to protect her identity by referring to her as Jane Doe IV, but Wall asked that she be called by her given name.
Somehow, something got through to these women.
Something made them stand up and say, “This isn’t right.”
Somewhere they found courage.
Wall and Decker have been out there, putting the culture of polygamy into context, explaining that the FLDS world is not simply a matter of consenting adults adhering to a religious tenet, that it involves underage girls being forced into nonconsensual “marriages;” fraud; the inclusion of underage children into the labor force; the cradle-to-grave brainwashing of followers who are told their eternal salvation depends on fealty to a prophet who preaches infallibility.
It doesn’t help that the deck is stacked against them, either, but that’s what happens when the predominant religion influences the government, courts and public opinion.
Despite protests to the contrary, the church wields tremendous power and influence that clouds judgment, even when an offshoot group like the FLDS is involved.
That’s why any lasting changes in Short Creek will be slow in coming.
But it is surely worth the effort.
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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