Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Two Arrests Signal a Giant Step Forward for the Civil Rights Movement for Children

Thursday, Sep. 07, 2006

The last true frontier in civil rights in the United States is that of children's rights. It is our country's ugly secret that massive numbers of children are abused (a shocking one out of four, if a recent New York City study is to be believed). Yet the law has been excruciatingly slow both in stopping ongoing abuse, and in deterring abuse before it happens.

Fortunately, two arrests last week indicate that the tide is turning in favor of child abuse victims. First, Warren Jeffs -- the prophet of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ (FLDS) who was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, was captured and arrested. Jeffs was then indicted on two felony counts of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual assault with a minor.

Second, the monks at the Christ of the Hills Monastery outside Blanco, TX, were arrested, based on allegations of pedophilia, and the monastery was closed.

There was a time when abuse, especially by religious figures, was a see-no-evil phenomenon. Law enforcement would rather have eaten lightbulbs than pursued a religious figure for child abuse.

Thankfully, that attitude seems now to have been relegated to the past, partially thanks to the Catholic Church child abuse scandal, and the author Jon Krakauer. One can only hope that viewpoint - that religious figures can do no wrong -- has fallen to the bottom of the dustbin of history.

Warren Jeffs' Arrest

Even while on the 10 Most Wanted List, Jeffs had managed to remain on the lam for months. He was discovered during a routine traffic stop in Arizona; his car held weapons, and tens of thousands of dollars.

Jeffs is alleged to have personally transported many underage brides to the arms of much older men, who added these girls to their harems. He cited religious belief as an excuse for his illegal and destructive behavior

Both authorities in Utah (where there is much polygamous behavior) and prosecutors within the federal government had turned a blind eye to the FLDS for decades. It took a bestseller -- Jon Krakauer's chilling book Under the Banner of Heaven, based on accounts by activists like the formerly-polygamous-wives' organization Tapestry Against Polygamy -- and other intense media attention to finally spur law enforcement to get serious about Jeffs.

Now, both Utah and Arizona intend to prosecute Jeffs on the charges of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual assault with a minor. One would hope that the federal government will follow up with federal prosecution under the Mann Act, which forbids adults from transporting children across state (or country) lines for the purpose of sex.

The Closure of the Christ of the Hills Monastery

Also recently, Texas authorities closed in on the Christ of the Hills Monastery outside of Blanco, Texas. This monastery appears to have been an excuse for pedophiles to gather together to abuse children. It should have been shut down years ago; finally, it has been, and the monks have been arrested.

The first allegations came to light in 1999 -- when the monastery's mother organization, The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia withdrew its imprimatur. By now, there appears to have been multiple child victims, who were lured into participating in oral sex and sexual orgies.

(It also appears that the monastery was engaged in a huge hoax. Many believers made pilgrimages to the monastery's Virgin Mary, which purportedly cried rosewater-scented tears. There appears to be solid evidence that the "tears" were placed there by the monks, using eyedroppers.)

There was a time when the children abused in such settings had no chance for justice. Here was a small religious organization, outside a small town, in the large state of Texas - with a miraculous Virgin Mary, no less. In the past, no one would have listened to complaints about monks, of all people, especially when the alleged charges were said to occur on the same property as an ongoing miracle.

But times seem to be changing, and laudably, these victims' voices were heard, and Texas authorities did the right thing in taking action.

Authorities Should Be Lauded for Finally Taking the Side of Child Victims

When we see childhood sexual abuse victims prevailing on the system, and the system responding as it did in Blanco, what we are witnessing is the increasing momentum of a new nationwide civil rights movement -- one that is for children, to protect them from the horrific abuse so many suffer.

As I've argued in previous columns such as this one, there is much left to be done to protect children. (Most especially, states must abolish the statutes of limitations that are permitting far too many serial pedophiles to strike over and over again.) But children are in a better position today than at any time in United States' history. We need to press for even more change, but we should also praise the authorities who have the courage to go up against religious figures when children's well-being is at stake.

The Jeffs arrest is especially striking, because Jeffs was the head of an entire community that acquiesced in his treatment of his girl victims. Even some of the girls - immersed in their community's twisted mores - may defend him, at least at this point. (With some maturity, and the ability to speak to women who have been in their position, yet moved on to a better life, the girls are likely to change their minds.) Despite this potential problem with trial testimony, the FBI still moved against Jeffs - rightly so.

That means the government was taking the side of the child victims over and against vehement religious adults. When defenseless children can prevail under the law, even when their tormentors claim righteousness, you know we are on the right path.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Her email address is Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard