Abuse Among the Amish: And what about the Innocent Victims?

Ever since I exposed the sexual abuse I endured as a child by publishing my book, Why I Left the Amish, I have been asked repeatedly, “how prevalent is abuse among the Amish?” I’ve always answered that there is no way to know. One would have to be a fly on the wall in every Amish home at all times to really know. Yes, one could do a study and hope to discover the truth of this question. However, uncovering the truth would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Secrecy always shrouds abuse, and because of the insular nature of the Amish culture, that shroud of secrecy becomes nearly impenetrable. Very rarely do cases make it into the mainstream media.

And yet, once in a while they do. This past week, there was a case in Danville, Pennsylvania, in which an Amish bishop was being accused of not reporting sexual abuse he knew had occurred in his district. He was quoted as saying, “It wasn’t that bad.”

The perpetrator has been named Daniel Stoltzfus Lapp in reports. (He is the first Amish person I’ve heard of how has two last names.) In an article in the Danville News, there is much made of Daniel not having a lawyer representing him, and how he has refused multiple offers for counsel. If I were to take a guess about why he is refusing, I would say he is purposely trying to sound literally  and figuratively “defenseless.” Those of us who grew up in the culture know how much the Amish value martyrs. Most of all, though, refusing counsel keeps the attention on him.

In all three of the articles I read about this case, there is absolutely no mention of what is being done to protect the victims from further harm. They don’t just need protection from Daniel, they need protection from all those in their community who are likely surrounding them and making them feel guilty for exposing the abuse. Because sadly, that is what happens in most Amish abuse cases that are exposed. In fact back in 2011, Judge Reinaker set up a task force in Pennsylvania to address this very issue.

Oftentimes, when law enforcement or social workers become aware of abuse among the Amish, there is an unwillingness to intervene because the perception is that the Amish have a way to deal with these problems within their communities.

The truth is that they don’t. They certainly try. They use the only method they know: disciplining the perpetrator. If he is exposed, then he is expected to go to the bishop and ask to make a public confession. If he doesn’t, he will be visited by the elders of the church, who ask him to make the confession. If they deem the person to show proper remorse, they plan to “accept” the confession in the next church service. At the end of the service, the children and young people who are not yet members are dismissed and the confessor leaves with them. Then the members’ meeting begins. The bishop lays out what the “charges” are, and he suggests he will accept the confession with the person sitting or kneeling (kneeling is for the transgressions the bishop deems more serious). Then he sends the deacon through the members’ meeting, asking for people’s vote on whether they agree with the method the bishop suggested. The vote has to be unanimous. which it usually is (to disagree with the bishop is considered a transgression in itself, especially for women). Then the confessor is brought in, and he repeats the words of contrition after the bishop in high German. (He doesn’t have to say what he is sorry for, however, because the bishop has already done that.) The holy kiss and handshake are exchanged between the bishop and the confessor, and then all is forgiven and forgotten. Should anyone bring up the wrongdoing again, he or she can be subjected to the same discipline as the person who made the confession in the first place.

(Amish women also make public confessions, but not usually for abuse. Usually she is being disciplined for not being subservient to her husband, her father, or the church elders.)Amish

This method of discipline might work for transgressions that don’t get repeated. But abuse usually does, and so it is completely ineffective in these cases.

The most heartbreaking aspect of how the Amish deal (or don’t) with these issues has to do with the victims who are left alone to deal with the issues at best, and are harassed for exposing the abuse at worst. They are also sometimes accused of encouraging the abuse. They are pressured into forgiving the abuser (in other words: letting him off the hook). This is a systemic problem.

Modern psychology has found all of these ways of treating abuse victims to be harmful. But Amish people are not schooled in modern psychology. And so from what I can tell, the two girls in this latest case at 14 and 15 years old, are no more fortunate than the ones Judge Reinaker was trying to advocate for back in 2011.

So I don’t know the answer to how prevalent abuse is among the Amish, but I do know how little advocacy and protection is available to their children after these victims have been robbed for their innocence. Law enforcement and social workers need to be encouraged to treat abuse cases among the Amish just as they would for anyone else, and not allow the Amish and public perceptions to make them feel that there is one set of rules for the Amish, and one for everyone else. Amish children need advocacy as much as any other children.

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27 thoughts on “Abuse Among the Amish: And what about the Innocent Victims?”

  1. Saloma, such a good article on a devastating topic. I moved in December and just recently had the internet installed. I was so happy to see that you continue to write and post. Thank you. You have helped me address my past, you are inspirational.

  2. Saloma, Thanks for your very helpful and interesting article. I agree with you about how difficult it is to really know how much abuse actually occurs among the Amish. I know it happens and that getting to really know how much is like looking for a needle in a haystack. That is just how it is and it is a dreadful shame and a major sin. These things do happen in a closed society and it casts a shadow over the whole group. The Catholic church is getting torn apart because of all the horrible things that church authorities have committed and I am sure the Amish world would fall apart too if the abuse problem would be opened up in the Amish world. I deeply grieve for this and feel so sorry for the victims. We have a long way to go in the journey of life.

    1. I love your last statement, Mary. There are people who do evil things in every culture and from every walk of life. At times like this, it is always hard to remember that there are just as many people who do good things (hopefully more) in any culture, too. I think we can’t look at the Amish as a whole whether we want to deem their culture good, bad, or indifferent. But the cultural “norms” can also support wrongful behavior, and that I the part I find hard to accept around the abuse issues.

  3. pamela lakits

    I totally agree with you. The Amish children should be protected from these terrible acts of abuse just as the English are. In a perfect world this would take place, but sadly we don’t live in a perfect world. However, the more it is talked about and written about as you have done here and in your book the more it brings the problem into the light. Brave people like you Saloma who expose this terrible sin, who bring it out of the darkness are a gift to those who are too young to speak for themselves and for those who are older and are too afraid.

    1. You’re right, we don’t live in a perfect world, but when I have a chance to stop evil by exposing it and advocating for those who were wronged, then I’ll take that chance. I keep hoping that every time those of us who have lived in that culture speak out, it will encourage others to do the same. And thanks for your words of encouragement.

  4. Have you read “Beauty for Ashes”: biblical Help for the Sexually Abused” by John Coblentz? Book is sold through Pathway Publishers (Amish, I believe) Just curious about the advice he offers.

    1. Hi Carol. I’ve not read the book, and it’s not likely that I will. The title would persuade me not to. I think many Amish do not recognize that there is a psychological basis to some forms of wrongful behavior, and that it cannot all be “fixed” through the spiritual realm. Alice Miller claims unless we deliberately embark on a journey of grieving our losses (usually through therapy) if we endured abuse as a child, we are probably not going to heal. Seeking help from the Bible is another way of avoiding the hard work that goes with healing, at least in my way of thinking. Thanks for the question. If you read it, I would be interested in your take on it.

      1. I even wasted a few dollars and bought it. Believe me, I will NOT be donating it to a local library as I do with many books that I buy and read. Fortunately, I have not experienced abuse, but I cannot imagine that the steps this book advocates could be helpful. Had the author been female, I wonder if my reaction would be different, but I doubt it.

        1. Carol, thanks for letting me know. That would have been my guess. The Bible can feed us spiritually, but when it comes to healing from others’ wrongful deeds, there is a lot of hard emotional work to be done.

    1. Katie, your family may not be one of the few… we just don’t know that. The question of prevalence to me is not nearly as important as how the abuse is dealt with when it does happen.

  5. Saloma, I appreciate your heartfelt and well expressed article on a subject not usually brought out in the open. Very balanced and sensitive to the needs of the abused.

  6. Truth of the matter is sometimes the ones who have been taken advantage of “have to fight a little” BEFORE peace will come and this is especially true for those brought up Mennonite and Amish because turning the other cheek does NOT actually mean becoming a doormat or continuing to put up with abuse as some wrongly advocate. It is especially important that an abuser or offender be very repentant for their sins in order for forgiveness to be extended and no bishop or deacon can grant true forgiveness for a sin committed against another individual! It is especially critical for Christians to stand up for what is right and stand against what is wrong! For true Christians the lines should NOT be blurry and a lukewarm approach for either side of a dispute is NOT helpful. Personally I do not advocate “flight” as it is much easier to heal psychologically if one wholeheartedly stands up against/fights the wrong FIRST with righteous justice in mind and then seek a private place to weather the storm that follows. I am a huge advocate that “the truth” will then make one free!

  7. I’ve been reading the Amish magazine “Family Life” for over a year now. As a non-Amish person interested in Amish society, I find that it provides a window into how Amish people (at least those who edit or contribute to the magazine) view themselves, their religion, and their culture. Off the top of my head, I recall the topic of sexual abuse coming up several times, and I’ve gotten the sense that the editors of the magazine are aware that this is a significant problem, one which many Amish families are not currently addressing in an ideal manner. I hope these articles and letters may signal the beginning of a cultural shift that will lead to better prevention of abuse, and to better support for its victims.

    1. I certainly hope so. Back when I used to read the Family Life magazine (in my Amish years), these issues were not being addressed. So the fact that they now are is a hopeful sign.

  8. I think it’s interesting that the Amish have the same preference: “Let the church handle it, rather than the law” as some Native American tribes have.
    In Alaska a few years ago, two teenage Native boys went on a rampage (although I no longer remember the details) and were arrested by the law.
    Elders in the tribe persuaded the court that the tribe was better equipped to bring about repentance and reconciliation than the legal system. The main punishment given the boys was that they had to go separately into the wilderness for a stated period of months, staying away from family and civilization. Family connections are extremely important to the Native community so they may have had a point.

    I remember that it came out later that at least one of the boys on several occasions met secretly with his family before returning to the wilderness.

    So far as I know, neither of the boys has ever been in trouble since. I’ll have to do some research.

    My point in this is that the Amish tend to react the same way as Native tribes.

    1. That is a very interesting story. Thank you for pointing out the similarities. I’d be interested in the outcome of that situation.

      It seems to me that going into the wilderness alone is more conducive to bringing about a change of heart and behavior than proclaiming remorse and then having that be the end of it.

      The details of what the Native boys did would be important. Sexual abuse is quite different from stealing or dealing drugs, and so the discipline would fit the crime differently.

      Still, though, it brings up the question of whether subcultures should be bound by the same rules as mainstream society even though the cultural values differ.

  9. Sally schwartz

    Saloma,do you think there is a correlation between those who are abused and those who eventually decide to leave?

    1. Sally, I have often wondered that myself. Not everyone I know who has left was abused. I’ve noticed that many people who’ve left were on the lower end of the totem pole in terms of social standing within their respective communites. Whether this also correlates with having been abused, I can’t say for sure. My hunch is that it does.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking question.

  10. As an systematic abuse survivor i highly recommend the book called Dont Forgive to Soon. It was helpful to me for standing firm.

  11. I read Bonnet Strings earlier this week and have nearly finished Why I Left the Amish. I greatly appreciate your courage and honesty in your writing as you tackle such important subjects as mental health and sexual/physical/verbal abuse in such a thoughtful manner. May I respectfully share your books on my caregiving blog?

    1. Hello Gayle,

      Yes, you most certainly may… please do share my books and blog with anyone… and thank you for that. I appreciate your kinds words about my books. It is always gratifying to know when someone appreciates them.

      Please feel free to leave a link here to your blog.

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