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.