Group urges sponsorship of boys cast out of polygamist sect
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Even though he was abandoned by his family after his church leader excommunicated him for wanting to go to public school, a former member of a polygamist sect on Saturday asked that people not condemn his father.

"The fathers are not always the bad guys. They, too, are being persecuted by the prophet," said Richard Gilbert, who was in Salt Lake City to speak on behalf of some 400 boys and young men pushed out of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ.

The prophet is Warren Jeffs, who reportedly has banished hundreds of men and boys from the twin border cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, in a struggle for control over the sect, whose estimated 6,000 to 12,000 members make it the largest polygamous group in the West.

Gilbert and about 50 other boys appeared at a Capitol news briefing to help announce the efforts of the nonprofit group Diversity, a mentoring group seeking donations and sponsors the hundreds of youths abandoned by their families.

Gilbert said he was excommunicated at age 16 after saying he wanted to attend public school. In July 2000, Jeffs, told followers to stop associating with apostates and outsiders and pull their children from public schools.

"This is really happening in the United States," he said. "There's a lot that goes on that people need to see and help with."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has volunteered to mentor one of the boys, said the efforts of Dr. Dan Fischer, a Midvale dentist and former FLDS polygamist to establish the foundation will help those who want out of the sect.

Fischer and his group have pledged to help some 400 boys ages 13 to 21 who have been banished or excommunicated from the FLDS for such "sins" as talking to girls or watching movies. Sports are banned, as are observances of national holidays. Too many children have been exploited, victimized and discarded," he said.

"Colors and design of dress are dictated," he said. "Hairstyles are dictated. All are to wear long underwear from wrist to ankles, even in extreme heat."

From the time children are born, they are brainwashed, he said. Home schooling leaves out world and American history, and most sciences are outlawed. Children are taught that God ordained blacks to be slaves and Jews were meant to be punished for killing Christ.

The abandoned boys are sometimes left in the desert in the middle of the night. They have few educational and no financial resources and fear eternal damnation because of their banishments.

Fisher said FLDS is a Taliban-like religious organization that needs to rid itself of surplus males to satisfy its polygamist members. Men marry as many as 70 wives. If they are excommunicated, their wives and children are reassigned to other men, he said.

Fischer said he wasn't trying to overthrow polygamy, but added polygamists who claim freedom of religion while they abuse or abandon children are employing a "smoke screen" as a way to hide their problems.

The Diversity group has gotten the support of best-selling author Jon Krakauer, who explored the FLDS and other polygamist sects in Utah, Arizona, Mexico and Canada for his book about religious extremism, "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." The book, published last year, remains a best seller.

"People from outside this region are amazed this has gone on so long," said Krakauer, adding that it was important not to demonize the residents of Hildale and Colorado City.

The real villain, he said, is Jeffs, 48, who assumed leadership of the church after the September 2002 death of his father, former prophet Rulon Jeffs. Many at the time thought one of two church elders, Louis Barlow or Fred Jessop, would have been named president. Both have now been excommunicated.

Law enforcement also is part of the problem. Police in the border towns often take orders from Jeffs, and through local justice courts have prosecuted and levied huge fines on boys charged with such "crimes" as indecent exposure for rolling up their sleeves.

Utah and Arizona prosecutors have been investigating allegations of welfare and tax fraud, incest, child abuses and forced marriages of young girls to adult men. Anti-polygamy activists claim FLDS church leaders often traffic young girls between Colorado City-Hildale to the church's enclave at Creston Valley in British Columbia.

Tommy Steed, now 19, was excommunicated two years ago for associating with people who weren't FLDS members and for watching three movies.

Getting thrown out of the church meant no one, not even his family, was allowed to talk to him. He couldn't be part of the community's shared property program, and had no way to make a living. Certain he would be destroyed by God, as he had been told all his life would happen should he fall away, he considered suicide.

"I believe this happens to many of the other children. They need treatment," he said. In the past three years, Jeffs has gotten so fanatical, he said, he wouldn't be surprised to hear the leader order mass suicides.

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Originally published Saturday July 31, 2004