The one-year anniversary of the removal of 400-plus children from West Texas ranch operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a tremendous reminder of the valuable asset newspapers are in providing substantive coverage of issues and events that require lengthy and rigorous review of records and in-depth investigation.
For a comparison, consider Oprah Winfrey’s completely useless and utterly inept attempt to give her viewers an idea of the ranch’s life and activities. Actually, don’t consider it because I did, and I can tell you that it is a complete waste of time. As this HuffPost Story speculates, “it’s distinctly possible that there’s more to this story than was shown” in Oprah’s pathetic attempt to show what is behind the Yearning For Zion Ranch.
Actually, the HuffPost’s attempt to speculate is unnecessary because the Associated Press and a number of newspaper articles show that there is indeed more there than what Oprah was able to cobble together.
For starters, consider this tremendous Associated Press piece by Michelle Roberts that details in much nuance what the facts show about life at the ranch:
Documents used in court proceedings and thousands of pages of additional records, obtained by The Associated Press, offer a window into an industrious, prayerful community in which marriage was considered a mandatory ticket to heaven, and where legal marrying ages were secondary to divine matches ordained by Jeffs.
But more than anything else, these papers testify to a simple truth:
At the YFZ Ranch, Warren Jeffs controlled everything.
Notice how Roberts doesn’t just portray the ranch as either an industrious wonderful place or a horrible place filled with nothing but child abuse? If only some of the earlier coverage of the raid had been so nuanced. The place is also highly controlled and many legally questionable practices likely occurred there, namely, sexual abuse as defined by Texas criminal law:
But child welfare authorities and prosecutors say the FLDS theology of purity and plural marriage, combined with Jeffs’ one-man rule, had a darker undercurrent. They say it made the marriage and sexual assault of underage girls regular practice in the sect that uses the Book of Mormon but follows plural marriage and other practices long ago renounced by mainstream Mormons.
Since the raid last year, the FLDS has said it will not sanction underage marriages. But for years, Jeffs only acknowledged whether a girl had reached puberty, not her legal age.
“I say, in the name of the Lord, there is no underage marriage in a priesthood marriage, in celestial marriage. God has the right to rule. The Lord had me take these two underage girls on purpose, to show that I and we, this people, are with him, with God, not fearing man,” he wrote in 2003.
One of those girls, Jeffs wrote, was lucky to have a husband at her age. The girl, allegedly married to Jeffs at age 12, is the lone ranch child who remains in foster care.
The article rightly couches the abuse as allegations because they have not been proven in a criminal court. I do question whether the article relied a bit too heavily on the word of public officials. Reporters must remember that the word of the public official is not gospel, and merely quoting their statements does not mean that the underlying facts should not be investigated for inconsistencies.
The article also distinguishes between the unusual and questionable social practices (“‘A woman should ask for children, and that be the motive for those sexual relations,’ he said, adding there was to be no sex for pregnant women or women beyond childbearing years.”) and the illegal ones (“‘I say, in the name of the Lord, there is no underage marriage in a priesthood marriage, in celestial marriage. God has the right to rule. The Lord had me take these two underage girls on purpose, to show that I and we, this people, are with him, with God, not fearing man,’ [Jeffs] wrote in 2003.”).
The reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune‘s Brooke Adams should also be praised because the articles are equally detailed and nuanced in the coverage of the sensitive matter. Here the Houston Chronicle provides what amounts to the state’s defense of its actions a year ago, and The San Angelo Standard-times provides a perspective from the view of the YFZ Ranch residents.
The next step in the news coverage that I am still waiting to happen, or to find, would deal with the legal consequences of this raid. I would also like to see a closer examination of the political consequences of the issue of the legality of plural marriages. Because Texas wisely based its charges on the allegations of underage sexual abuse, this issue was skirted in this instance, but the legal and political issue remains. As the articles detail, once the issue of sexual abuse is set aside, the issue of whether the state may regulate marriage, and in particular the number of individuals legally permitted to enter into marital unions, becomes a touchier subject.
As long as individuals in either FLDS or other groups that practice polygamy do not attempt to register their marriages with the state, they most likely will not risk prosecution. But the legal consequences do not go away in terms of determining issues of inheritance, hospital visitation, child custody, divorce and property rights. Family law in this country is a beast of a subject, and the coverage of plural marriages just begins to nip at the complexity and inconsistencies.