Polygamists living in Bountiful, B.C., abhor sexual abuse of children as much as any other caring parent, says the leader of one of the most controversial communities in Canada.
Winston Blackmore, who openly admits to having numerous wives and dozens of children, said parents at Bountiful protect their children from abuse.
But he declined to discuss allegations that older men in his community marry teenaged girls - a violation of statutory rape laws - while other girls are sent to sister polygamous groups in the United States to marry older men there.
Bountiful is in southeastern B.C.'s Kootenay region near the town of Creston, about one kilometre from the U.S. border at Idaho.
"I don't know of any parents around here that are not concerned about their children and if they are abused or not," said Blackmore in an email to The Canadian Press. "We sure are about our children."
B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal appointed a special prosecutor, Terrence Robertson, to investigate laying charges in Bountiful.
Oppal said he will examine the likelihood of criminal convictions on charges ranging from polygamy to sexual assault.
For his part, Blackmore accuses the attorney general of religious persecution of the polygamous community.
He said parents in Bountiful want their children to grow up safe and happy.
Recently, more than 450 children apprehended by child-welfare authorities from a polygamous community in Texas, including at least one teenage girl from Bountiful, were ordered returned to their parents.
Oppal said B.C. authorities have been struggling with the Bountiful issue for more than two decades.
The communities at Bountiful and the one in Texas are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway group from the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago and disavows any connection.
More than 800 people live in Bountiful where they are split into two different factions; one follows Blackmore and the others follow jailed American FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, in prison for being an accomplice to rape. Jeffs was convicted in Utah last year of forcing a 14-year-old into marrying an older man.
Oppal appointed the special prosecutor despite two earlier legal opinions saying that proceeding with criminal charges on polygamy would be difficult because anyone charged criminally under the prohibition of polygamy may decide to defend himself on grounds that his rights to religious freedom are protected.
Oppal said the right to religious freedom is not an absolute right to break the law.