updated 6/2/2008 8:47:13 PM ET 2008-06-03T00:47:13

British Columbia's top lawyer on Monday appointed a special prosecutor to look into allegations of sexual misconduct within a Canadian polygamous community.

Attorney General Wally Oppal said the prosecutor will assess the likelihood of criminal convictions in the community, a breakaway Mormon sect of about 1,500 people that practices polygamous marriages. The community includes about 500 U.S. citizens.

Oppal said Robertson will examine if there should be charges for polygamy, sexual assault, sexual exploitation or a combination of charges.

"There is evidence of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse," Oppal said. "The problems we had in the past is that we had a reluctance of witnesses to come forward."

At least one teenager from the community of Bountiful, in western Canada, was apprehended by U.S. authorities in April when a related polygamous community in Texas was raided.

Oppal said in April he planned to order a polygamy charge arrest or ask the courts to weigh in on Bountiful's legal standing within the month. The issue is complicated because although polygamy is banned, religious freedoms are strongly protected in Canada.

"I think that what's going on in Bountiful, or what we are told is going on in Bountiful, is something that the criminal law should look at," Oppal said Monday. "The evidence is there regarding polygamy. The question is whether it's constitutional or not."

Oppal said the province's attorney general's office has had a file on the community for two decades. Bountiful was previously investigated in a three-year review that was launched in 2004. Detectives spent three months investigating the community, but no charges were brought.

Authorities raided the Texas polygamist compound and took custody of 463 children in April. Child welfare officials said the beliefs practiced there left girls at risk for sexual abuse and encouraged boys to become sexual perpetrators.

A Texas district judge has since ordered the immediate return of the children, who began reuniting with their families Monday.

Oppal said he wants to ensure the Bountiful investigation is done correctly.

"We saw what happened in Texas," Oppal said. "The authorities moved in quickly and then they found out they'd proceeded improperly."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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