WASHINGTON (AFP) — US authorities removed 52 girls from a polygamous sect's compound in western Texas on Friday, and questioned the remaining members of the breakaway Mormon church, officials said.
Those removed were aged from six months to 17 years old, according to the Child Protective Services in Schleicher County.
"The caseworkers need to have an opportunity to assess their needs and try to find out what the appropriate action will be," said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.
According to The Houston Chronicle, social workers spent Thursday night and Friday questioning people living at the complex and determined that 18 of the girls had been abused or were at immediate risk of future abuse.
The girls lived at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) led by Warren Jeffs, an avowed polygamist who is now serving time in jail.
Jeffs, who was considered to be their prophet, was arrested near Las Vegas in 2006 and sentenced to life in jail for being an accomplice to rape. He also faces federal charges in Arizona and Utah.
The girls were now being held at an undisclosed location in San Angelo, north of the compound, officials said.
The sprawling Texas ranch was bought by the sect in 2003 and was kept under surveillance by the authorities.
The mainstream Mormon church -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- renounced polygamy more than one century ago as a price of Utah's admission to the United States.
It now excommunicates members who engage in the practice and disavows any connection with the FLDS church, which is based in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, twin-towns located on the Utah-Arizona state line.
During Jeffs' trial in St. George, Utah, last year a woman tearfully told the court how she had been forced into marriage aged 14 at a ceremony he had conducted at a motel in Nevada in 2001.
The woman, identified only as "Jane Doe IV", said Jeffs performed the wedding despite her protests at the choice of husband.
The prosecution's key witness sobbed repeatedly as she described finding out who she was to marry. "I was horrified," she told the court.
Prosecutors said Jeffs instructed the girl to "multiply and replenish the earth and raise children in the priesthood."
After Doe's older husband had sexual intercourse with her, she asked Jeffs to end the marriage, saying she hated having "husband-wife" relations with him.
According to Doe, Jeffs told her to "go back and do what he tells you to do."
Two of her sisters testified during the preliminary hearing that Doe had been "forced" to have sex with her husband.
Defense attorneys said Jeffs did no more than offer routine advice in his capacity as a religious leader.
Members of the FLDS church are known to live in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, South Dakota and British Columbia.
The Texas seizure was reminiscent of a July 26, 1953, raid on Colorado City -- which at the time was called Short Creek -- during which police detained almost the entire community of around 400 fundamentalist Mormons.
Among those taken into custody were 236 children. One hundred and fifty of them were not permitted to return to their parents for more than two years.
The operation proved to be the political undoing of the then-Arizona Governor Howard Pyle, who was roundly accused of abuse of police power and lost his reelection bid the next year.
Those detained gradually rejoined the community. Only 23 polygamist men received one year probation at the time.
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