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Former child bride asks for LDS action

Utah official says church does aid those escaping polygamy

Published: Sunday, May 13 2007 12:37 a.m. MDT

Susan Ray Schmidt in '74, husband Verlan LeBaron and kids Melanie, James and Jeanette.

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A former child bride is asking The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reach out to people leaving polygamy.

"They can help the victims of (Hurricane) Katrina and the Asian tsunami, and they can't help the people in their own back yard who are living that way because of foundational Mormon teachings?" ex-LeBaron wife Susan Ray Schmidt said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "I do not consider that Christian."

Schmidt recently sent a letter to LDS Church leaders, asking the church to step forward and provide financial support and resources to women and children leaving polygamy. In her letter, she suggested that the LDS Church has a responsibility for an issue it created more than 100 years ago.

"The Mormon Church would truly benefit if they could pass the word to the communities that they would be the safety net," Schmidt said.

The LDS Church declined to comment on the issue, church spokesman Scott Trotter said Thursday. The church no longer practices polygamy and excommunicates those who do.

The LDS Church does provide some help to those leaving polygamy, said Paul Murphy, the Utah Attorney General's Safety Net coordinator.

Murphy said that any help from the church comes on a more local level rather than from LDS Church headquarters. The Utah and Arizona Attorney General's Offices have formed the Safety Net Committee, made up of polygamists, activists and bureaucrats to reach out and help abuse victims within closed polygamous societies.

"I'm hearing many accounts of different wards and churches stepping up, offering money, shelter, services and food," he said. "I know some nonprofit groups rely heavily on the LDS Church and Bishop's Storehouse."

The Bishop's Storehouse is a church-owned network of warehouses that provides food, clothing and other items for needy people who request help.

Schmidt made her request to the church public while on a book tour in southern Utah. She is promoting her book, "His Favorite Wife: Trapped in Polygamy," which details her life in the LeBaron group.

As a teenager, she had been told she would marry polygamist leader Ervil LeBaron, but she then married his brother Verlan at age 15.

In the 1970s, Ervil LeBaron ordered a series of assassinations of rival polygamous leaders. Schmidt went into hiding when the murders started, and she eventually left her husband in 1975. She now lives in Idaho and said she did not seek help from the LDS Church when she left the polygamous group.

"I thought...unless I become a member of (the LDS) Church, they're not going to help me," she said. "Looking back at the different girls caught in polygamy, they have nowhere to go. Why is it the Mormon church has not set up a refuge for these people?"

Anti-polygamy groups have repeatedly accused LDS leaders of turning a blind eye to abuses within polygamy.

"Its leaders remain silent while Mormon fundamentalists campaign to legalize or decriminalize polygamy. The church routinely turns down opportunities to help women and children who escape from polygamist communities," Tapestry Against Polygamy director Vicky Prunty told the Deseret Morning News earlier this year.

Questions about the level of LDS Church support were raised publicly during a town hall meeting on polygamy held last month in St. George. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said the LDS Church has provided help in the past.

"They do it quietly," Shurtleff said.

The HOPE Organization, which helps women and children leaving polygamy, said it receives support from the local Methodist and Catholic churches, but not the LDS Church.

"These are people in need, and we need to help them," said HOPE director Elaine Tyler.

Asked if the LDS Church could — or should — do more to help those leaving abuse in polygamy, Murphy says "yes."

"I would also make that same request to every church, mosque, synagogue and every charitable organization out there," he said. "The need is great. The resources are few."


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com

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