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Woman recounts childhood of abuse at B.C. polygamy hearing

Members of the polygamous community of Bountiful gather for church Sunday, April 20, 2008 near Creston, B.C.

Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press

Rena Mackert sat in tears in the front row of a Vancouver courtroom Wednesday, as she watched a video of herself recounting a childhood marked by sexual and physical abuse, which she said is the direct result of the polygamous life she was born into.

Ms. Mackert was the first of 14 women and children who once lived in polygamous communities to offer videotaped testimony at a British Columbia court case examining Canada's polygamy law.

Ms. Mackert was born in 1953 in an area that later became known as Colorado City, Ariz. Her mother was a third wife; her father later married a fourth, and the family eventually grew to include 31 children.

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Sitting in her home in Anacortes, Wash., nervously fidgeting with a green pendant hanging around her neck, the 56-year-old told a B.C. government lawyer sitting behind the camera about being sexually abused at three years old.

"My father molested me for the first time that I know of," Ms. Mackert said in a calm voice, her eyes often closed or looking away from the camera.

"It was forced oral sex. I cried and begged and pleaded. He slapped me and pulled my hair. He slapped me and spanked me and told me what a bad girl I was, that if I told anyone what a bad girl I was, he would have to spank me very severely."

The abuse continued for more than a decade, said Ms. Mackert, and all the while she was convinced it was her fault after years of being "indoctrinated" that women must submit to men.

"So from the onset of the sexual abuse from my father, it was very clear to me that I was a bad, evil person and I'd done something to cause my priestly father to do those things," she said in the video, one of four broadcast in court on Wednesday. The rest will be presented as the hearings continue over the next two months.

"We were taught that a woman's responsible for a man's behaviour, sexually. If you dress in a way, tight clothing, clothing that shows your skin, and a man thinks evil thoughts, it's the woman's fault."

Ms. Mackert was born into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago, and it is the sect linked to the isolated community of Bountiful, B.C.

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It was the failed prosecution of two religious leaders of Bountiful that prompted the B.C. government to ask the court to examine whether Canada's ban on multiple marriage is in accordance with guarantee of religious freedom in the Charter of Rights.

Outside court, Ms. Mackert said her experience wasn't unusual among the polygamous families she knew, where women and children had no rights.

"This is not about religious freedom. This is about abuse - there was sexual abuse in just about every home," she told reporters.

Ms. Mackert's family moved to the Salt Lake City area when she was around seven years old, but she said the abuse continued until she was about 16 - a year before she was married.

Ms. Mackert was forced to marry her step-brother, with whom she had three children. Five years later, they divorced when Ms. Mackert's husband declared he wanted out of the polygamous lifestyle.

She said she was told by the man leading the church at the time, Leroy Johnson, that she would be forced to marry a man in his 50s who was already married to her sister. She refused, and also took it as an opportunity to tell Mr. Johnson about the abuse she has suffered.

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"He demanded to know why I was lying about one of God's priesthood holders, he told me that I was a liar," she said in the video.

A few days later, she was ordered to leave without her children. She moved to California, where she met a lawyer who helped her return 11 months later and take her kids.

It took her years to overcome the psychological scars of her childhood, Ms. Mackert said, and she hasn't completely healed. She struggled with drug and alcohol abuse into her 40s, and said she still suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Participating in the B.C. case, she said, has helped.

"I got no justice for my father and the mistreatment, and though I am not getting justice here, my voice is heard, and it needed to be," she told reporters after watching her video affidavit in court.

"I feel like I've been validated, the things I went through."

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