Winston Blackmore, who was found guilty of practising polygamy in a fundamentalist religious community, speaks with reporters outside court in Cranbrook, B.C., Monday. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Former bishops guilty of polygamy involving isolated sect in Bountiful, B.C.

CRANBROOK, B.C. — Two former bishops of an isolated religious commune in British Columbia have been found guilty of practising polygamy after a decades-long legal fight launched by the provincial government.

Winston Blackmore, 60, was married to Jane Blackmore and then married 24 additional women as part of so-called “celestial” marriages involving residents in the tiny community of Bountiful.

The court heard his co-defendant James Oler, 53, had five wives.

Justice Sheri Ann Donegan said Monday the evidence proves Blackmore has been a practising member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect that believes in plural marriage.

“His adherence to the practices and beliefs of the FLDS is not in dispute,” she said, reading her written ruling in a Cranbrook, B.C., courtroom.

“Mr. Blackmore … would not deny his faith in his 2009 statement to police. He spoke openly about his practice of polygamy.”

Blackmore was shown a list of his alleged wives and actually made two corrections to the details, Donegan said.

“Mr. Blackmore confirmed that all of his marriages were celestial marriages in accordance with FLDS rules and practices.”

Donegan praised the testimony of Jane Blackmore, calling her a highly credible and ”careful” witness.

“There was nothing contrived or rehearsed in her answers. She was impartial.”

Blackmore’s lawyer Blair Suffredine has already told the court he would launch a constitutional challenge of Canada’s polygamy laws if his client was found guilty.

The 12-day trial earlier this year heard from mainstream Mormon experts, law enforcement who worked on the investigation and Jane Blackmore, a former wife of Winston Blackmore who left the community in 2003.

Oler was self-represented in the trial but had the services of Joe Doyle, an amicus curiae, a so-called friend of the court appointed to ensure a fair trial, though he could not offer any legal advice.

Both men’s lawyers argued against the credibility of evidence related to marriage and personal records seized by police from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, an FLDS church compound in Texas, in 2008. The information pertained to members of the sect in the United States and Canada.

Doyle said important events related to Oler were missing, such as his client’s elevation to presiding elder in the community in June 2004. He also argued the Crown didn’t prove Oler continuously practised polygamy between 1993 and 2009.

“I find that the FLDS marriage records are ultimately reliable,” Donegan said before announcing her verdict against Oler.

“Having concluded the Crown has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that James Oler … practised a marriage with more than one person at the same time I find Mr. Oler guilty of practising polygamy,” Donegan said.

Both Blackmore and Oler remain out on bail. Crown spokesman Dan McLaughlin said that the maximum sentence for a conviction of polygamy is five years in prison.

The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is based in Utah, officially renounced polygamy in the late 19th century and disputes any connection to the fundamentalist group’s form of Mormonism.

Blackmore and Oler were charged in 2014 for the second time with practising polygamy, more than two decades after allegations that member of the Bountiful community were involved in multiple marriage, sexual abuse and cross-border child trafficking.

The charges were the latest step in a series of investigations and failed attempts at prosecutions dating back to the early 1990s involving Bountiful, located in the southeastern corner of the province and close to the U.S.-Canada border.

Uncertainty over whether the Criminal Code section banning polygamy violated religious rights hovered over the case until 2011 when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the law was constitutional and that polygamy is a crime.

A constitutional reference case heard that the harms of polygamy outweigh any claims to freedom of religion and include physical and sexual abuse, child brides, the subjugation of women, and the expulsion of young men, the so-called lost boys, who have no women left to marry.

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