Church leader facing child sex charges

The leader of a Utah sect that believes in polygamy and sex with children has appeared in a US court on sexual assault charges.

Warren Jeffs, the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, did not speak and had the Texas court enter not guilty pleas on his behalf.

Prosecutors say Jeffs had sex with two children, one under 14 years old and the other under age 17.

Jeffs’ new attorney, Gerry Morris of Austin, asked San Angelo district court Judge Barbara Walther for more time to prepare a defence, telling her “I’ve only just been hired to the case and haven’t looked at the materials.”

Jeffs, 55, had been scheduled to go to trial this month on aggravated sexual assault charges, with a separate trial for sexual assault and one for felony bigamy to come later.

Jeffs was extradited from Utah on Nov. 30 and Walther had said extradition rules compelled her court to try him on all counts within 120 days of his arrival in Texas.

Jeffs, who is being held without bond, smiled at three male followers who stood when he was brought into the courtroom.

The Texas charges stem from the 2008 raid of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, a remote community south of San Angelo in this pecan-growing region.

Authorities seized 439 children and placed them in state custody on suspicion that the girls were being sexually abused and the boys were being raised to be sexual predators.

Most of the children were eventually returned to their families, but seven men in the sect who see Jeffs as their spiritual leader were charged and eventually convicted of child sexual assault and abuse.

Jeffs was convicted in Utah in a case stemming from the marriage of an underage girl to her cousin, but that was overturned in 2007 due to improper jury instructions.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church and believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven.

Mormons denounced the practice in the 1890s.

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