AUSTIN - A dozen girls in a polygamist sect were sexually abused in underage "spiritual marriages" performed with their parents' consent, Texas' child-protection agency said yesterday.

One of every four pubescent girls at the Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado, Texas, was married at an inappropriate age, Child Protective Services found.

"The 12 girls were 'spiritually' married at ages ranging from 12 to 15, and seven of these girls have had one or more children," CPS said in a report wrapping up a nine-month investigation in the largest-ever U.S. child-welfare case.

Sect spokesman Willie Jessop called the report a "sensational" bid by state bureaucrats to win over public opinion after they rashly ordered a mass removal of children last spring and managed to keep only one girl in foster care.

A handful of families remain under CPS supervision, but barring new allegations or evidence of abuse, the case is wrapped up. Separate criminal cases alleging offenses such as sexual abuse of children and bigamy against some men from the sect are pending.

A state appeals court, later upheld by the Texas Supreme Court, demolished CPS' legal rationale for sweeping all children from the ranch.

The appellate judges called the removals an "extreme measure" and said CPS should have probed more deeply how five sect girls then in foster care became pregnant at ages 15 and 16.

Yesterday, CPS said that nearly two-thirds of the 146 sect families it investigated had children who were abused or neglected.

It concluded that the dozen sexually abused girls and 262 other sect children were improperly supervised because they were exposed to the underage marriages. Under Texas law, that's parental neglect, the report said.

The report, sent by state Family and Protective Services Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein to social-services czar Albert Hawkins, defended CPS' actions.

"For the Department of Family and Protective Services, the Yearning for Zion case is about sexual abuse of girls and children who were taught that underage marriages are a way of life," the report said.

"It is about parents who condoned illegal underage marriages and adults who failed to protect young girls - it has never been about religion," it added.

Jessop, though, said the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints didn't mistreat girls at the ranch, which it owns. He said teen pregnancies occur there at no higher frequency than in society at large.

Stopping just short of threatening a lawsuit against the state, Jessop said CPS' actions threaten the security of all Americans, especially religious minorities.

"This is a desperate attempt for Texas officials to justify their barbaric actions they did on April 3," he said of the report.

The state Department of Family and Protective Services, CPS' parent agency, pointedly dismissed in the report one of the sect's main criticisms - that CPS and law enforcement officers entered the ranch based on a hoax call about child sexual abuse.

The tip is now thought to have originated with calls from a Colorado woman with a history of filing false police reports.

"The report met the statutory definition of abuse; therefore, DFPS was required to act," the department said.