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Experts: Sect opens up to retrieve children, hasten heaven

  • Story Highlights
  • Sect attorney says church granted interviews, set up Web site to educate public
  • Mormon studies expert: Church needs children returned to enter, enjoy heaven
  • Another expert on sect says church's openness scripted to elicit sympathy
  • Attorney says Internet "savvy" church members watch TV, fear another Waco
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By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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(CNN) -- It took an extraordinary event -- the state's seizure of more than 400 children -- for the polygamist Mormon sect to open its gates to outsiders after decades of seclusion.

To parents, it's not a matter of mere custody, an expert explained. Their salvation is on the line.

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have recently held news conferences, launched a Web site and allowed journalists into their formerly off-limits compound in Eldorado, Texas.

Previously, the Mormon offshoot's distrust for outsiders prompted members to close themselves off so their purity wasn't tainted and so their rituals and religion didn't draw scrutiny, experts say.

"Because of their history of persecution, they have what you'd call a paranoia complex," said Dr. W. John Walsh, a Mormon studies expert who testified on behalf of FLDS parents during the custody battle. "They've never really reached out to outsiders."

FLDS attorney Rod Parker could not be reached for comment, but explained to KSTU-TV in Salt Lake City, Utah, that his clients launched a Web site because society is essentially ignorant about the sect. Video Watch Parker say the state won't fight fair »

"Because no one knows anything about them -- they have no face, they have no voice, nothing -- a big part of it is to give a voice to these people," he said.

Texas authorities raided the Yearning for Zion ranch earlier this month after, they said, they received a report of child abuse. The girl who made the report hasn't been found, but child-welfare officials say they found evidence of child and sexual abuse. A judge concurred April 18, ruling to keep the children in state custody, at least temporarily. Video Watch how a report says some mothers are minors »

The sect's sudden openness appears an attempt to reunite mothers and children. However, the stakes may be higher, said Walsh, who explained that FLDS members believe polygamy and ably caring for many children are essential to reaching the highest tier of heaven.

According to FLDS beliefs, you must be free from sin -- as with most Christian religions -- to get to heaven. Those deemed "wicked" go to hell until they atone for their sins, said Walsh, a mainstream Mormon doing post-doctorate studies at the University of St. Thomas-Houston in Texas.

Those who aren't deemed wicked go to the "spirit world" to await the final judgment that dictates in which of the three levels of heaven they will reside for eternity. Everyone will eventually go to one level of heaven, Walsh explained, but to ascend to the highest tier, you must first learn certain lessons -- how to be a good parent and spouse among them.

"To really enjoy heaven, you have to be married and you have to have your kids with you," Walsh said. "Everything experienced on Earth will be in its more perfected form in heaven." See a map of FLDS enclaves »

If you haven't learned the lessons you needed to learn on Earth, "you would have to learn these lessons in the spirit world" before entering heaven, he said.

If your children are taken away, you may have to learn how to be a good parent in the spirit world, thereby postponing your passage to heaven, Walsh said.

In short, the parents are willing to sacrifice their secrecy in exchange for the children -- a level of desperation that Walsh believes Texas authorities could tap to reach an "amenable" compromise.

But don't mistake FLDS openness for candor, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law who has studied polygamist sects for 10 years.

The FLDS is only as open as it needs to be. Everything church members offer -- the news conferences, the interviews, the tours of the YFZ compound, even the Web site's name -- has been scripted to elicit sympathy, she said. Video Watch women say, 'We need our children,' after the raid »

The sect's Web site, www.captivefldschildren.org, is rife with photos and videos of crying women and children, one boy looking fearfully into the camera during the raid, declaring, "I don't want to go."

The site also includes a timeline with subject lines such as "officers force their way into homes," "sacred site desecrated," "children's innocence threatened" and "mothers and children torn apart."

Other than a link to a PayPal page where visitors can send donations, there is no way to contact the FLDS. The Web site itself is anonymously registered in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and attempts to reach the owner via e-mail were fruitless.

As for the interviews, "the FLDS has been good at getting hand-picked wives on the airwaves," Hamilton said.

The women, she said, are sending the same message: The church and its compound offer followers a "wonderful lifestyle," and the mothers simply want to bring their children back before they are corrupted by outside influences.

"They always put the women up front because this is a very oppressive patriarchy, and the men are not sympathetic characters," said Hamilton, the author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children." Video Watch a mother dodge a question about how many wives her husband has »

"They want to persuade Americans that they don't need to worry about things and that this is a nice, little religious community and they take care of everyone," Hamilton added. "It's intended to sway the public, and if the public gets swayed, it puts pressure on the prosecutors."

The women also repeatedly say the search warrant served at YFZ ranch was based on a bogus report, which leads Hamilton to believe the church's "legal representatives are using the airwaves as much as they can to put up a very weak case on due process."

Walsh said he believes sect members realize, "If you want the best chance to get your kids back, public opinion will matter." Video Watch a woman say the state 'lied' to FLDS mothers during the raid »

In his interview with KSTU, attorney Parker described his clients as "terrified." Church members are Internet "savvy" and watch television, so they understand what can happen to a religious group that walls itself off, he said.

"They know about Waco. They thought they were going to be victims of the same kind of thing," Parker said, invoking the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas that killed 74 people, many of them children.

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Comparisons to the Waco raid -- an event generally ill-received by the American public -- is another tactic to elicit emotion, Hamilton said.

"They are trying to forestall the inevitable argument that there is a conspiracy of abuse that all the women are involved in," she said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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