Teen brides sue leaders of polygamous commune
Debbie Palmer was 15 when the “prophet” took her by the hand into a bed room and ordered her to marry a 57-year- old man.
She was his fifth wife. He was her step- grandfather. Most of the 30 children he had were older than her. It was the first of her three “celestially arranged marriages.”
Now the 47-year-old Palmer and 35 other women who grew up in polygamous communes run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are taking the men they say forced them to marry as teenagers to court.
Claiming “systematic abuse” at the hands of the church’s elders and its “priesthood” of male followers, the women are scheduled to file a class-action lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court next week.
They expect another 150 women from
“The principal claims are
for abuse and we expect sister claims to be filed in the
“Every time I tried to talk to the church elders, including my father, about the abuse my children and I were suffering, they told me to keep silent,” said Palmer, who was raised in a polygamous commune in Lister, near Creston, and is one of the principal plaintiffs. Her story is the subject of a documentary entitled Leaving Boun tile! to be aired on Global TV this Saturday.
The lawsuit, details of which will be announced after a preview screening of the show today, is expected to expose the inner workings of the secretive sect where autocratic leaders demand and receive complete obedience, decide who marries whom and where followers live.
The leaders have the power to remove wives and children from men they consider have fallen, control the taxpayer-funded schools on the communes and are the ultimate law as far as commune members are concerned.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter Day Saints has between 10,000 and 20,000 members, mostly in
The fundamentalists broke away
from the Mormon Church after it was pressured into disavowing polygamy in 1886
in exchange for the statehood of
The lawsuit comes in the wake of the death of Rulon T. Jeffs, the self-styled and never-challenged prophet of the polygamists who lived in a gated desert compound on the Utah-Arizona border.
Jeffs, 93, who had approximately 75 wives, and scores of children, was also the head of the church’s financial arm, the United Effort Plan. The man who was held in God like acclaim reportedly controlled more than $200 million US in assets.
Prior to his death, the autocratic
leader who always preached “perfect obedience produces perfect
faith” sat on the board of several
Jeffs had several mansions in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area and lived at one time in a 8,300-square-foot home with 23 bed rooms, two kitchens, 10 baths and four fire places.
In B.C., the church-related assets
include vast tracts of land in the
a sawmill in Cranbrook, a
wood-preservation plant, a mattress factory in Creston, several houses,
livestock, trucks, heavy machinery and alfalfa farms that send bales of feed to
The commune was until recently led by hockey-crazy businessman Winston Blackmore, 46. Blackmore, who has 30 wives and more than 100 children, remains the commune’s bishop, chief executive officer of its businesses, trustee of its property and
superintendent of its school, which receives about $150,000 a year in taxpayer funding.
Weeks before his death, Jeffs
Jeffs ordered followers not to listen to Blackmore’s sermons, ordered Blackmore to relinquish control of his junior wives and to place his assets under the direct control of the United Effort Plan.
The move has triggered a power struggle for control of the church assets, which
is threatening to fracture it into breakaway groups.
Church members in B.C. and the
Flora Jessop, who left the
polygamous commune of Hildale 16 years ago after being married off to her first
cousin and accusing her father of sexual abuse, said some 150 women in the
“I think the case is going
to wake up the world as to what is going on in these communes,” Jessop,
33, said from
Neither the media-shy Warren Jeffs nor Winston Blackmore responded to calls for comment.
B.C. stopped prosecuting polygamists in 1992.
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