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Janet's Missed Opportunity

Governor Janet Napolitano is a champion of women and children -- but not those trapped in polygamy.

I've got a dreadful message for thousands of young men and women trapped in the horrors of fundamentalist Mormon polygamy in a handful of remote and desolate towns north of the Grand Canyon along the Arizona-Utah border.

Governor Janet Napolitano -- the rising Democratic starlet who deftly portrays herself as a defender of women's rights, the champion of children and advocate of education -- has sold your souls for political expediency.

Make no mistake: Napolitano would rather appease conservative Mormons in the state Legislature than courageously fight to free thousands of young men and women from the shackles of a practice condemned by every civilized nation on Earth.

The governor had a rare opportunity last month during a historic meeting with the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to demand they take a proactive role in helping the victims of polygamy.

She punted.

Napolitano never raised the sensitive topic, despite the fact that the LDS has a long, deep and continuing connection with polygamy.

The governor will argue that fundamentalist Mormon polygamists have no formal connection with the LDS -- and technically, that's true.

The LDS banned polygamy in 1890 under tremendous political pressure from Congress. But many members of the faith continued to quietly practice polygamy in the rural West as fundamentalist Mormons.

And just because the LDS banned polygamy, that doesn't mean the LDS gave up its belief in polygamy. The church still embraces the concept in the afterlife, and it remains a key tenet in the LDS and fundamentalist sacred scriptures.

The ban also doesn't mean the LDS can simply wash its hands and claim it is not responsible for the dreadful social conditions created by polygamy, a practice it strongly encouraged for decades.

Rather than accepting responsibility, the LDS church has turned a blind eye. It has done little to encourage and provide support for those seeking to break free from polygamy practiced by their fundamentalist cousins.

The LDS wishes polygamy would just go away, and so does Napolitano. But it won't, not without a major effort by the state and the LDS.

The governor's failure to discuss polygamy last month with LDS leaders in Salt Lake City sends a powerful signal to fundamentalist Mormons that she will not seriously challenge their corrupt lifestyle that is based on coercing underage girls into polygamous cohabitations.

Her avoidance of the topic is a continuation of her steadfast refusal to take meaningful action to end the rampant sexual abuse, degradation of women, exploitation of youth, welfare and education fraud and tax evasion within the 10,000-member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS).

The FLDS controls three polygamist communities straddling the Arizona-Utah border including Colorado City and Centennial Park in Arizona and Hildale just across the line in Utah. The FLDS also has operations in Canada and Mexico and is building a new compound in Texas where underage girls are being moved.

Napolitano's inexcusable silence on an issue that cuts to the heart of human rights comes at the same time the Arizona and Utah attorneys general are conducting broad criminal investigations aimed at toppling the FLDS financial empire and indicting FLDS religious leaders who have engaged in child rape disguised as "spiritual" marriages.

The FLDS polygamists are making a mockery of Arizona's constitution, which bans polygamy, while benefiting from more than $10 million a year in state funds for welfare and schools.

Yet Napolitano does nothing.

She would rather cut deals with LDS leaders to score political points at the Legislature than stand up for the rights of countless victims trapped in a criminal enterprise.

Early last June on the heels of a brutal legislative session that repeatedly pitted Napolitano against prominent LDS Republicans including House Speaker Jake Flake (a descendant of polygamists) and Senate President Ken Bennett, Napolitano began seeking a meeting with LDS religious leaders in Salt Lake City.

Her staff quietly arranged a meeting with Gordon B. Hinckley, the LDS prophet and world leader of the 10 million-member church. The meeting was finally set for late September in Salt Lake City.

Napolitano invited several prominent Mormon leaders to join her delegation to Salt Lake City, including Republican attorney Leo Beus, Republican state Representative Bill Konopnicki and East Valley Leadership boss Roc Arnett.

Her office also secretly invited the East Valley Tribune to join the delegation -- while keeping the rest of the media in the dark that a meeting with LDS leaders was about to take place. It was obviously a calculated ploy to assure that the governor's visit would receive prominent coverage in the East Valley Mormon strongholds.

Napolitano now had a rare opportunity to address the problems brought about by polygamy with the head of the church that first instituted the practice. Merely bringing up the topic could have brought worldwide attention to the abhorrent conditions in Colorado City, where the FLDS headquarters are located.

 

More important, Napolitano could have sent an inspirational message that Arizona is strongly committed to providing meaningful help to anyone seeking to leave closed religious communities like Colorado City.

The state -- led by Attorney General Terry Goddard -- and Mohave County opened an office in August in Colorado City that is expected to provide a safe passage for those wanting to leave the FLDS. A victims' advocate is already in the field meeting with residents, and state welfare representatives are holding monthly meetings with the community.

While opening the office is a significant step forward, the men, women and children ensnared in fundamentalist Mormon polygamy also need Arizona's governor to provide strong moral support and encouragement.

But when given the chance to yell "Help is on the way!" when she sat down with LDS officials, Napolitano remained silent.

Like a good Mormon wife, Napolitano bowed before the LDS patriarchs and dutifully took copious notes. She carefully listened to the church's demands that Arizona political leaders do more to redevelop downtown Mesa, where the LDS has a major investment in a historic temple.

The governor made it abundantly obvious she was eager to please the LDS leadership.

"It is clear the governor wanted to understand where the church leadership comes from on a lot of issues," Beus tells me. "From education, to mass transit, to blighted areas in Mesa. . . . She was very, very active in the conversations she had with the church leadership."

Napolitano also discussed ways the state could work with LDS officials to restore the historic Brigham City settlement near Winslow. Ironically, Brigham City was founded in 1876 by Mormons during a period when polygamy was widely practiced.

As the LDS wish list grew longer and longer, Napolitano ignored the church's role in polygamy and the subjugation of women that polygamy represents.

She never once objected to a practice that is costing Arizona millions of dollars a year and wrecking thousands of lives -- a practice the men sitting across the table from her still embrace in their religious scriptures.

It was a gutless performance that strips away Napolitano's faade as a progressive leader on women's and children's rights issues. It exposed her as a crass politician groveling for favor.

Napolitano was clearly agitated when I asked her last week during a press conference at the state capitol why polygamy was not a topic during her visit.

"I didn't feel it was appropriate to bring Colorado City up in that circumstance," the governor said with no additional explanation.

Not appropriate?

Who is she kidding?

There is no group more appropriate in the United States with which to discuss the problems associated with polygamy than the LDS.

The practice where men take multiple wives who become their property was first discreetly introduced by LDS founder Joseph Smith in the 1830s. Smith's successor, Brigham Young, publicly endorsed polygamy in 1851.

Polygamy became a cornerstone of LDS doctrine. Plural marriage during life on Earth was necessary to gain access to the "celestial kingdom" in the afterlife.

Mormon devotion to polygamy created a national uproar. Polygamy was considered one of the twin relics of barbarianism, along with slavery. Riots, beatings and killings forced Mormons to migrate from Missouri to Utah to escape persecution. LDS commitment to polygamy repeatedly prevented Utah from obtaining statehood.

Congress passed a series of laws in the early 1880s that threatened to destroy the LDS by confiscating church property. Mormon leaders reluctantly banned polygamy in 1890, and Utah gained statehood in 1896.

The LDS eventually began excommunicating members who continued to practice polygamy, although some church leaders quietly engaged in polygamy well into the 20th century.

Despite the schism between fundamentalist Mormons and the LDS over polygamy, there are strong similarities between the two faiths that both follow the teachings in the Book of Mormon.

Former FLDS members say there is a quiet respect among many LDS members for the Mormon polygamists because they are living the life commanded by church founder Joseph Smith.

"They consider polygamists to be the brave ones who didn't bend to the state," says former FLDS member Penny Peterson, who fled Colorado City when she was a teenager.

The LDS also appears to be providing tacit support for polygamy by refusing to provide substantial assistance to those fleeing fundamentalist enclaves. Colorado City leaders have driven off hundreds of boys to reduce competition for wives. The boys are dumped on the streets of Salt Lake City and left to fend for themselves.

 

The LDS -- which gives more than $100 million a year in humanitarian aid around the world -- simply ignores the plight of those whose lives have been ruined by polygamy, a practice it encouraged for decades, says Vicky Prunty, executive director of Tapestry of Polygamy, a Salt Lake City group dedicated to assisting people fleeing polygamist communities.

It's not as if the church doesn't have the resources.

The LDS is renowned for its extensive internal welfare system and its massive stockpiling of food in cities across the nation. The church has sophisticated job-training programs for members. It believes that providing assistance to those in need is a fundamental part of being a Mormon.

"What I learned there is the church is very interested in the welfare of the people," Napolitano said about her visit. "It is very interested in making sure that children get well-educated. It's very interested in making sure that those who are out of work receive job training and help getting back into the work force.

"These are all things that are very consistent with what we are trying to do at the state government level," she said.

Except when it comes to the numerous children of Mormon polygamists.

It is painfully clear that Napolitano and the LDS are in agreement on how to address the snake pit of social problems caused by fundamentalist Mormon polygamy.

Pretend they don't exist.

"The LDS church doesn't want to help individuals coming out of polygamy unless they join the LDS church," Prunty says. "And the governor doesn't want to enforce the laws within her state. So there is common ground there."

Left in the lurch are thousands of young men and women who are looking at a dismal future as serfs within an FLDS theocracy.

But their fate means little to Napolitano in her ruthless drive for political advancement.

The governor would rather appease LDS leaders who still include among their most sacred scriptures Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which justifies polygamy and serves as the foundation of fundamental Mormonism.

Here's an excerpt:

"And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.

"But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed."

Does that seem right, governor?

E-mail john.dougherty@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8445.


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