DALLAS – Gov. Rick Perry hinted Thursday that members of a polygamist sect whose children were recently returned amid a botched sex-abuse investigation should pack their bags, a newspaper reported.
Perry, who was in La Baule, France, for a European business conference, said that the state of Texas has an obligation to protect young women from being forced into marriage and underage sex, The Dallas Morning News reported in its online edition.
He also warned members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that child sex abuse won't be tolerated and even suggested that followers of the renegade Mormon sect may want to get out.
"If you are going to conduct yourself that way, we are going to prosecute you," Perry said. "If you don't want to be prosecuted for those activities, then maybe Texas is not the place you need to consider calling home."
Willie Jessop, an FLDS elder who lives in Utah, said Perry's remarks were shocking, particularly given a Texas Supreme Court ruling that forced this week's return of 440 sect children on the grounds that child welfare officials provided scant evidence that the children were in danger.
"It's an outrage that he should even make such gross and broad allegations," Jessop said. "He's listening to people that tell lies about the FLDS."
FLDS officials have accused the state of persecuting sect members for their religious beliefs.
Texas authorities raided the sprawling compound in west Texas in early April after three calls to a domestic abuse hot line, purportedly from a 16-year-old mother who said she was being abused by her middle-aged husband. The calls are now being investigated as a hoax.
Perry said that using the information state authorities had at the time, "they acted with the best interest of those children."
"If responsibility needs to be taken for (court edicts) saying that we stepped across some legal line, I'll certainly take that responsibility," the governor said.
Jessop, who has insisted that children at the ranch were not mistreated, has sidestepped questions about underage marriages at the Yearning for Zion ranch. But he did announce this week that the church would no longer sanction marriages of any girl too young to give legal consent.
Though the children have been returned, a criminal investigation continues.