Page last updated at 18:34 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 19:34 UK

Texan sect girls 'in abuse cycle'

Members of the sect stand outside Fort Concho, where the people removed are being housed
The women and children are being housed in an old frontier fort

A polygamist sect raided by Texan authorities was the site of a pervasive cycle of sexual abuse against children, according to claims in court papers.

More than 400 children and 130 women were removed over the weekend from a compound belonging to the sect.

Investigators told the court all the children were at risk of "emotional, physical, and or sexual abuse". Some of the teenage girls were pregnant.

Lawyers for the sect have asked a judge to quash search warrants for the ranch.

Texan authorities currently have legal custody of 416 children, all of them believed to have been living at the ranch in Schleicher County.

'Widespread pattern'

State troopers and officials moved in last week after a teenage girl phoned a domestic violence centre to say she had been abused at the 1,700-acre Yearning for Zion (YFZ) ranch.

Church built at the FLDS's compound in Texas (2005)
Troopers raided the FLDS compound after a girl called authorities

In court documents released on Tuesday, child welfare officials allege that the site was rife with sexual abuse and that young girls were groomed to be "spiritually married" at puberty.

"There is a widespread pattern and practice of the YFZ Ranch in which young, minor female residents are conditioned to accept and expect sexual activity with adult men at the ranch upon being spiritually married to them," investigator Lynn McFadden wrote.

The cycle is continued when boys on the ranch reach adulthood and are "spiritually married" to young girls, "resulting in them being sexual perpetrators", she added.

Children were also deprived of food, locked in cupboards and physically beaten as punishment for breaking rules, investigators claim.

'Broken ribs'

According to the court papers, the 16-year-old girl who made the calls that triggered the raid said she had been sexually assaulted by her husband, who would also beat her "whenever he got angry".

The girl told investigators she had been married to her 49-year-old husband at age 15 and had already had one child. Eight months later, she was pregnant again, she said.

She recounted how her husband had choked her and hit her, on one occasion breaking several ribs. Other women in the house would hold her baby while he beat her, she said.

"She reported that church members have told her if she leaves the ranch, outsiders will hurt her, force her to cut her hair, to wear make-up and clothes and to have sex with lots of men," Ms McFadden wrote.

It is still unclear whether the girl has been identified among those removed from the compound. They are being housed at Fort Concho, an old frontier fort.

Officials are continuing to look for documents, photographs and computer records on the compound.

Jailed 'prophet'

The sprawling ranch is located about 160 miles (260km) north-west of the Texan town of San Antonio and includes large housing units, a medical facility and a temple.

Picture of Warren Jeffs taken after his arrest by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
Warren Jeffs led the breakaway Mormon sect from 2002

It has been under surveillance by the authorities since it was bought by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway branch of Mormonism, five years ago.

The sect's prophet is Warren Jeffs, a self-confessed polygamist who was jailed in Utah last year for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who married her cousin.

The self-proclaimed prophet is currently awaiting trial in Arizona on separate charges of being an accomplice to four counts of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages.

His 10,000-strong sect, which dominates the towns of Colorado City in Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, split from the mainstream Mormon church more than a century ago.

Members believe a man must marry at least three wives in order to ascend to heaven. Women are taught that their path to heaven depends on being subservient to their husband.

Polygamy is illegal in the US, but the authorities have reportedly been reluctant to confront the FLDS for fear of sparking a tragedy similar to the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, which led to the deaths of about 80 members.

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