ELDORADO, Texas - An elder in a Texas polygamist group says the church will now forbid its underage girl members to marry if they are not old enough to legally consent to marriage in the state where they live.
Willie Jessop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said yesterday that the church has been widely misunderstood. But he says the church will not sanction marriages of underage girls and will counsel members against such unions.
Jessop, a church leader, insists that marriages within the church have always been consensual.
A judge earlier yesterday ordered the immediate return of more than 400 children taken from the polygamist sect's ranch, bringing an abrupt end to one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther, responding to a state Supreme Court ruling last week, signed an order filed by attorneys for the parents and Child Protective Services that allows the parents to begin picking their children up from foster-care facilities around the state.
The first emotion-filled reunions came yesterday afternoon, as parents trickled into foster-care facilities to pick up their children.
"It's just a great day," said Nancy Dockstader, whose chin quivered and eyes filled with tears as she embraced her daughter, Amy, 9, outside the Baptist Children's Home Ministries Youth Ranch near San Antonio. "We're so grateful."
Nancy and James Dockstader said they have four other children to pick up in Corpus Christi and Amarillo.
The sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch was raided in early April after state officials said the sect had been forcing underage girls into marriage and sex. FLDS members denied any abuse
The order signed by Walther requires the parents to stay in Texas, to attend parenting classes and to allow the children to be examined as part of any ongoing child-abuse investigation. It also requires that parents allow state workers to make unannounced visits to the families and that they notify the state if they plan to travel more than 100 miles from their homes.
But it does not put restrictions on the children's fathers, require that polygamy be renounced or that parents live away from the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
_ In Canada yesterday, meanwhile, British Columbia's top lawyer appointed a special prosecutor to look into allegations of sexual misconduct within a polygamous community there.
Attorney General Wally Oppal said the prosecutor would assess the likelihood of criminal convictions in the community, a breakaway Mormon sect of about 1,500 people that practices polygamous marriages. The community includes about 500 U.S. citizens.
Oppal said Robertson will examine if there should be charges for polygamy, sexual assault, sexual exploitation or a combination of charges.
"There is evidence of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse," Oppal said. "The problems we had in the past is that we had a reluctance of witnesses to come forward."