Investigation Reveals Hidden Culture of Incest, Rape, and Sexual Abuse in Amish Country

A year of reporting by Cosmo and Type Investigations reveals a culture of incest, rape, and abuse.

The memories come to her in fragments. The bed creaking late at night after one of her brothers snuck into her room and pulled her to the edge of her mattress. Her underwear shoved to the side as his body hovered over hers, one of his feet still on the floor.

Her ripped dresses, the clothespins that bent apart on her apron as another brother grabbed her at dusk by the hogpen after they finished feeding the pigs. Sometimes she’d pry herself free and sprint toward the house, but “they were bigger and stronger,” she says. They usually got what they wanted.

As a child, Sadie* was carefully shielded from outside influences, never allowed to watch TV or listen to pop music or get her learner’s permit. Instead, she attended a one-room Amish schoolhouse and rode a horse and buggy to church—a life designed to be humble and disciplined and godly.

By age 9, she says, she’d been raped by one of her older brothers. By 12, she’d been abused by her father, Abner*, a chiropractor who penetrated her with his fingers on the same table where he saw patients, telling her he was “flipping her uterus” to ensure her fertility. By 14, she says, three more brothers had raped her and she was being attacked in the hayloft or in her own bed multiple times a week. She would roll over afterward, ashamed and confused. The sisters who shared Sadie’s room (and even her bed) never woke up—or if they did, never said anything, although some later confided that they were being raped too.

Sadie’s small world was built around adherence to rules—and keeping quiet was one of them. “There was no love or support,” she says. “We didn’t feel that we had anywhere to go to say anything.”

So she didn’t.

Even on the day the police showed up on her doorstep to question then-12-year-old Sadie’s father about his alleged abuse of his daughters.

Even on the day when, almost two years later, Abner was sentenced by a circuit court judge to just five years’ probation.

And even on the day when, at 14, she says she was cornered in the pantry by one of her brothers and raped on the sink, and then felt a gush and saw blood running down her leg, and cleaned up alone while he walked away, and gingerly placed her underwear in a bucket of cold water before going back to her chores. A friend helped her realize years later: While being raped, she had probably suffered a miscarriage.

It wasn’t until now that Sadie decided to speak up, to reveal the darkness beneath the bucolic surface of her childhood. She’s tired of keeping quiet.

Over the past year, I’ve interviewed nearly three dozen Amish people, in addition to law enforcement, judges, attorneys, outreach workers, and scholars. I’ve learned that sexual abuse in their communities is an open secret spanning generations. Victims told me stories of inappropriate touching, groping, fondling, exposure to genitals, digital penetration, coerced oral sex, anal sex, and rape, all at the hands of their own family members, neighbors, and church leaders.

The Amish, who number roughly 342,000 in North America, are dispersed across rural areas of states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, a leading authority on Amish life. Because of their high birth rate—and because few members ever leave—they’re one of the fastest-growing religious groups in America. Lacking one centralized leader, they live in local congregations or “church districts,” each made up of 20 to 40 families. But the stories I heard were not confined to any one place.

In my reporting, I identified 52 official cases of Amish child sexual assault in seven states over the past two decades. Chillingly, this number doesn’t begin to capture the full picture. Virtually every Amish victim I spoke to—mostly women but also several men—told me they were dissuaded by their family or church leaders from reporting their abuse to police or had been conditioned not to seek outside help (as Sadie put it, she knew she’d just be “mocked or blamed”). Some victims said they were intimidated and threatened with excommunication. Their stories describe a widespread, decentralized cover-up of child sexual abuse by Amish clergy.

“We’re told that it’s not Christlike to report,” explains Esther*, an Amish woman who says she was abused by her brother and a neighbor boy at age 9. “It’s so ingrained. There are so many people who go to church and just endure.”

And yet, as #MeToo has rocked mainstream culture, Amish women have instigated their own female-driven movement. “It’s much slower and less highly visible,” says Linda Crockett, founder and director of Safe Communities, an organization that works to prevent child sexual abuse. “But I have seen a real uptick over the past 10 years in Amish women coming forward. They hear about each other—not on Twitter or Facebook, but there’s a strong communication system within these communities. They draw courage and strength from each other.”

“I get phone calls now….There’s a bunch of Amish who have my cell phone number, and they use it. The men call on behalf of the women,” says Judge Craig Stedman, former district attorney of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—home to nearly 40,000 Amish—who has served on a task force that connects the Amish to law enforcement and social services. (Although most don’t have cell phones, the Amish might use pay phones or call from “English” neighbors’ homes.)

Some victims, like Sadie, have long since left the church and the Amish way of life, but others, including Esther, are still on the inside, sending out an alarm to the world they’ve been taught to reject. “They want to talk,” explains Crockett, “so they’re turning outside.”

There’s no one reason for the sexual abuse crisis in Amish Country. Instead, there’s a perfect storm of factors: a patriarchal and isolated lifestyle in which victims have little exposure to police, coaches, or anyone else who might help them; an education system that ends at eighth grade and fails to teach children about sex or their bodies; a culture of victim shaming and blaming; little access to the technology that enables communication or broader social awareness; and a religion that prioritizes repentance and forgiveness over actual punishment or rehabilitation. Amish leaders also tend to be wary of law enforcement, preferring to handle disputes on their own.

As a child, Sadie was up before dawn every morning to milk her family’s cows, wearing a pleated head covering and long dress, her shoes and socks a dull black, as her local church rules, or Ordnung, required. “If you didn’t work as hard as you possibly could, you were considered lazy,” she says. She never turned on a light switch or shopped for clothes in a store. She didn’t speak English at home—just Pennsylvania Dutch, the only language she knew until first grade. And she never revealed her abuse to anyone, except a cousin and her father himself, when he asked her, point blank, if her brothers were touching her. (The next time he asked, she lied, fearful he would beat the boys, as he often did.)

But what was happening in her house was a poorly kept secret, according to several of Sadie’s relatives. One of them reported Abner, who has since died, to local church leaders—Sadie remembers her father being “shunned” for six weeks, a common form of discipline in which the accused is socially ostracized and forbidden from eating at the same table as church members. After a shunning, the person confesses in church and the community is strongly compelled to forgive and forget that the “sin” ever happened. In Sadie’s house, she recalls, everything went back to normal—or at least, to how it had been before.

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SOURCE: Cosmopolitan, Sarah McClure