Finding The Truth In Eldorado

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints file out of the Tom Green County Courthouse following the custody hearing in San Angelo, Texas, April 18, 2008. Presiding judge Barbara Walther ruled that all children remain in the custody of the state.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Strong emotions exist on both sides of the debate and nobody involved wants to see children get hurt, but in the case of 416 children removed from a religious sect's compound in Texas, how do you compromise when you're negotiating with people who live by religious laws in conflict with U.S. law? CBS News' Hari Sreenivasan has been talking to people on both sides of the question.

"This is about children who are at imminent risk of harm," said Texas Child Protective Service's Marleigh Meisner.

"We are very much against child abuse in our society," insisted a representative of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

So which is it?

When Texas authorities raided the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas, they not only brought out 416 children, they brought a reclusive society blinking into the sunlight.

"They came in with guns," said one horrified resident of the ranch. "They were armed - SWAT teams - we were removed from our homes at gunpoint."

They are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan sat down with three of the FLDS women: Janet, Amy and Sally.

"We're different and we hold many things sacred," one of them told Sreenivasan, "but that doesn't mean we're trying to hide wrongdoing."

But in two days of child custody hearings, a judge heard testimony about underage girls giving birth and arranged plural marriages.

"The majority of marriages that we're aware of happen between 14 and 16, said Flora Jessup. "However, we do know of marriages that have occurred to as young as 8- or 9-year-old children."

Jessup escaped from the FLDS 22 years ago and is now a CBS News consultant. She says marriages are arranged by their leader, whom they call a prophet.

"All the girls' names are added into this book called the 'Joy Book,' and the prophet goes through and gets revelation from God," explained Jessup.

Marci Hamilton, a church and state scholar at Cardozo Law School in New York, is an expert on childhood sex abuse. She has one word for it: pedophilia.

"They've created a society in which it's appropriate to have sex with girls as young as 13," said Hamilton. "And also, it's an organization that operates on a patriarchal system, so that men are in charge; women are subservient; and the children are beneath the women."

Sreenivasan asked the FLDS women if they felt it was okay for a young woman who is still a teenager to be married to a man who could be twice her age.

"If that happened," answered Sally, "she would be very much loved and taken care of. There's no fear of anything like that."

Polygamy has been outlawed by the Mormon church for more than one hundred years, but FLDS members say they are clinging to the original teachings of church founder Joseph Smith. They believe it's a matter of religious faith - faith that Jim Bradshaw, a lawyer representing the FLDS, says has been attacked by this month's raids.

"In terms of a parallel in modern American history of violation of civil rights, I don't know that there is one," said Bradshaw. "To take away that many children from that many families based upon something that's completely unsubstantiated, that doesn't appear to have any foundation in credibility, it's ludicrous."

But there IS a parallel. Fifty-five years ago, in 1953, the government raided a remote FLDS compound at Short Creek, on the Arizona-Utah border.

More than 100 police went in, arresting several dozen men; 86 women and 263 children were taken into custody. Reporters were invited along on the raid, a strategy, says Peg McEntee, an assistant managing editor at the Salt Lake Tribune, that backfired.

"There were cameras and news people there who recorded this entire event, and those images and stories went all across the nation, which rose up and indignation and shock that the state had just arbitrarily raided this place and taken all these people into their custody," recalled McEntee.

Life magazine headlined "The Lonely Men of Short Creek," who were stunned as they had to make their own breakfast.

"The men were ultimately placed on probation," said McEntee, "were made to promise that they would never indulge in polygamy again. The women were kept as wards of the states. Many of the children lived in foster homes for about two years until they were released and allowed to go back. What happened was everybody just went back to Short Creek and began their lives again."

Today Short Creek is still an FLDS stronghold, now called the communities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah.

The next major police action against the FLDS came just two years ago, with the arrest of reputed leader Warren Jeffs. He was convicted of rape as an accomplice, for arranging marriages to underage girls.

His major accuser was Elissa Wall, who testified she was forced into marriage at the age of 14. After the trial, the now 21-year-old Wall felt the case had sent a message.

"I hope all FLDS girls and women will understand that no matter what anyone may say, you are created equal," said Wall.

How has that message been received?

"I know you didn't set out to be making statements on behalf of your faith or your practice, Sreenivasan told the FLDS women, "but how would you help people understand that your kids are safe here?"

"Well, to begin with," one of them answered, "our leader teaches us how to be clean and pure and virtuous. The men teach us, we follow their direction because it's the best way of life. And they themselves are clean and pure."

There are months, perhaps years of legal fighting ahead for the men, women and children of Eldorado. If there are criminal convictions, Professor Hamilton believes it would be the end of this compound.

"There is nothing in the First Amendment that says that any religious group has the right to exist," she said, "no matter what they do."

But Peg McEntee says, keep in mind the lessons of the raid of 1953.

"I do know they are people strong in their faith," she said, "strong in their convictions, and as we saw in Short Creek they kept to their faith, to their families, kept to their way of life. And I see that as a great possibility in the years to come after this raid."

As for the women of Yearning for Zion, they just want it to be over with and to be left alone.

"We've been out in the world. We were raised in the world. We know what it's like," said one.

"We chose," another explained. "We chose to be here because it is such a wonderful life here."