I have been enjoying writing the fun posts about my stay in Germany. However, today I turn to a more serious topic. On September 2, 2010, there was a report in the New York Times about sexual abuse within an Amish community in Missouri. I commend Malcolm Gay for reporting on this little known problem among the Amish. Even though I was born and raised in an Amish community and endured sexual abuse myself, it is hard for me to say just how prevalent sexual abuse is among the Amish in general. But what I do know is that Amish men are dominate in the culture and that girls are taught they should be submissive to the men (and boys) from the time they can understand the concept. Most Amish do not educate their children about sex, so girls can easily fall prey to sexual abuse. They often have no reference to know what is happening to them, even as the abuse takes place. And to make matters worse, the usual avenues for getting help are not available to Amish children. Very often abuses are first noticed and reported by schoolteachers in mainstream society, but even that avenue is blocked for most Amish children who attend their own parochial schools.
When sexual abuse is uncovered among the Amish, they focus mainly on the perpetrator’s repentance, rather than on the welfare of the children, which allows pedophiles to walk freely among innocents. They are simply not equipped to deal with these issues, and their isolation from mainstream society means that public services are largely out of reach, especially for children. Even if people in the community know of abuse, they will usually not intervene on behalf of the children, because they do not want to be seen as meddling in other families’ everyday lives. This leaves those Amish children who are being abused with few or no advocates, just when they need them the most.
What is unusual about this particular case of Chester Mast is that the Amish actually sought help from law enforcement. Normally the Amish deal with a perpetrator by expelling him for from the church for several weeks (the time period varies by community), having him make a public confession, and then forgiving him. They believe in “forgiving and forgetting,” which means the slate is wiped clean and people are asked to treat that person as if he hadn't transgressed at all. Once the confession has been made, no one is allowed to speak of it again. While the perpetrator is being forgiven, the Amish children, who just lost their innocence, are often being overlooked.
The case related in the New York Times, is no different in this regard — the Amish are concerned about Chester Mast pleading not guilty when he has already admitted the wrongs in a public confession in his church. They are quoted as saying that his lying is worse than the abuse. I found myself saying, “Not so! With the abuse, there were children involved! There is more involved here than this man’s redemption — what about the children?!”
The article in the New York Times barely mentions the known victims — six girls between the ages of five and fifteen, and that there are possibly more victims. There is no mention of whether authorities are continuing their investigations into abuse in this community or an Amish reaction on behalf of these children. Nor is there mention of whether the children are receiving treatment and counseling by social services. I am hoping there will be a follow-up story that focuses on the fate of the victims.
I agree with the sociologist Dr. Donald Kraybill’s assessment that the Amish believe these types of behaviors are spiritual failings and therefore don’t recognize a psychological basis for deviant behavior. In my experience, they look inside their communities for a spiritual solution, when the more appropriate solution would be to seek help from professionals who are trained to deal with psychological problems. People (including the Amish) need help from psychologists, social workers, and law enforcement officials. That is why we have them.
I once had a conversation with an Amish woman who had endured physical abuse from her husband until she finally sought outside help. Several professionals who stepped in to help said to her, “We don’t know how to deal with abuse among the Amish.” Her response was, “Deal with it just like you would with anyone else.” I thought that was aptly put.
To the counselors, social workers, and law enforcement officials who are involved in this case, or any other abuse cases among the Amish I would say, “Please, speak up on behalf of these children — you may be their only advocates.”
Photo by Sarah Weaver