A Report Revealing Incest, Rape, Abuse, and Cover-Up in Amish Country

A recent article in Cosmopolitan Magazine by investigative reporter Sarah McClure, has given voice to those who have been sexually abused and silenced in Plain communities, and it has rocked the positions of “Amish defenders” as I call those who want to cling to the ideal image of the Amish. The article is graphic, which is necessary for the nature of the subject. Survivors of abuse need to tell their stories including the details, because the emotions are lodged within them. Those of us who have been abused and silenced for years seek safe places to tell our stories. By writing this article, Ms. McClure has opened the door to telling our stories in public, which is incredibly empowering. There is such a relief in shattering the silence that shrouds the abuse we endured. I am so grateful to her.

Here is a quote from the article:

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.

I knew that I wasn’t the only one who endured abuse in my Amish childhood, but reading Ms. McClure’s article moved me to tears because it confirmed what I had suspected all along… that the abuse problem is much more widespread than anyone knew. And so is the system of covering up the abuse and silencing the victims. Ms. McClure wrote:

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.

I know from experience what she means by “widespread, decentralized cover-up.” Except that the Amish now have a new weapon in their arsenal to silence victims, most often women. Victims can find themselves in a “culturally appropriate mental health facility”, where they are drugged and kept against their will. I have known about these centers and I’ve even “toured” one of them. The concept of what they can and are used for chill me to the bone. Ms. McClure wrote:

Several years ago, Esther was sent to a facility for “counseling” after she tried to seek help for another Amish woman who was being sexually assaulted. When she protested, church leaders threatened to excommunicate her permanently.

No one would tell her why she was there. Instead, she was pressured to sign papers that would allow staff to communicate directly with her ministers, she says (she eventually gave in and signed). “From the first evening, they wanted to put me on medication,” she recalls. She said no, since “a lot of these people who get stuck in these facilities come home drugged and no longer have a life. They’re zombies.” (She’s aware of about 30 other Amish sexual assault victims, including two of her sisters, who have been sent away to such facilities.)

Eventually, Esther says she was told that refusing “sleep medication” would only prolong her stay. When she asked about side effects, a house parent told her, “It doesn’t matter— you have to take it.”

So she did. Except the drugs weren’t for sleep at all: According to her medical records, she was prescribed olanzapine, an antipsychotic medication that treats mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Every morning and night, she and other Amish patients lined up to receive their drugs. “We’d have to go and fill a small container with water and then go up to this pedestal; we’d all take turns,” she says. “It was gut-wrenching.”

Esther now says Amish leaders use lockup stays to silence women who are increasingly eager to go public with abuse allegations. “When a victim speaks out,” Esther explains, “they get sent to a facility and drugged so that they shut up.”

The use of these facilities takes the silencing of the oppressed and abused to a whole new level by robbing them of free agency. These facilities didn’t exist when I was in the community, but now they are cropping up in many Amish and Old Order Mennonite areas. They are run by Plain men who are not schooled in psychology and whose aim it is to preserve the culture. In Plain communities when there is a conflict between the good of an individual and what the leaders perceive to be the good of the community, they will almost invariably err on the side of the community. I have heard of individuals being “detained” in these facilities when it is discovered that they are planning to leave the Amish. That could have been me, had these facilities existed when I left at 20 and again at 23.

I have always said that the silencing of abuse is nearly as traumatizing as the abuse itself. I would venture to say, this level of silencing is worse.

I am glad to see that there has been high-profile publicity around this article. Ms. McClure was interviewed by Michel Martin on NPR two days ago, and she was interviewed by Kate Couric in her publication Wake Up Call.

LancasterOnline published an article. Politico mentioned and linked to the article in Women Rule, as did Real Clear Investigations.

I was surprised to read Erik Wesner’s post on Amish America, and even more surprised to read his responses in the comments section. I will be going there next to respond to some of the comments.

There is a lot to read and absorb here. I welcome your comments about the issues raised here.

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17 thoughts on “A Report Revealing Incest, Rape, Abuse, and Cover-Up in Amish Country”

  1. It sounds like the culture they are trying to preserve is men’s access to women and children in whatever way they want. I’ve been reading about She Said; Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the book exposing Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment of young women in the movie industry. Worse than the harassment was the nondisclosure agreements the women were forced to sign that thoroughly silenced them, a tactic used throughout the movie industry. That’s the legal version of the drugging the Amish men are doing.

    Many men assume they have the right to sexually use women and children. Men with power use their power to silence their victims and hide what they are doing.

    Journalists are busting down the doors. Thank goodness for Sarah McClure and all those who picked up and amplified this story.

    1. Johanna, thank you for your comments. I have not read the book you mentioned. I don’t think it gets any worse than drugging people in terms of taking away their free agency.

      I agree about the journalists who are busting down doors. Let’s take away the oppressors’ hiding places!

  2. Thank you for giving the abused a voice when they cannot speak for themselves. You are right about the fact that silencing of the abuse is just as bad as the abuse itself.

    I am 63 years old and was estranged from my entire family many years ago because I would not be sileced about the abuse we endured through our childhood and young adult years.

    However, I would not change anything as a life alone in peace and harmony is better than being with an abusive family.

    I live in Europe but abuse in any shape and form is a global problem we need to adress. Thank you so much for your courage to speak and write about it.

  3. I just read the post and comments in Amish America. I’m so glad you were right in there in the discussion, Saloma. If you hadn’t, I don’t think I could have read very much of it.

    It bugged me that all these long critical comments about McClure’s article made no mention of the drugging to silence the victims and little attention to the abuse.

    1. Johanna, thank you for your comments. I was thinking about this as I awoke this morning, and I realized for some people, this report comes as a total shock. They may have wondered whether the Amish live up to their “good” reputation, but this is the first time they are confronted with concrete knowledge that “not all is right in Amish country.” I’m thinking they are in the shock phase of the loss of their image of the Amish. People seem to need a model of a good society, and if not the Amish, then who?

      You’re right, they have not mentioned all these other aspects of the report. They are still clinging to the image of “the good Amish” with all their might.

      Some people are going to want to deny the validity of these stories, and yet they realize they are credible. The only way to deal with that is to kill the messenger. And that is why the graphic nature of the report is what they are focusing on.

      I say to those people… get ready. This is just the beginning… there are many more stories to be told.

      1. Your statement, This is just the beginning, is so true. The Roar of Silence by Esther Beachy is from my former neighborhood. It is the most horrifying story I have ever read. I know of only two bookstores in Holmes County that carry the book. Some bookstores that cater to the Amish don’t want to carry the book.

  4. Ye gods. I had never heard of such a facility. Frankly, if it weren’t you that is reporting it, I would tend to totally disbelieve it!

    It seems to me a case of the Amish having ‘just enough information to be dangerous’. I doubt that the Amish would have come up with a concept by themselves; SOMEBODY informed somebody of ‘treatment centers’.

    It simply reinforces my belief that the most damaging aspect of Amishness is their ignorance, and their comfort in it. I am beyond disgust.

    1. Elva, I know. I was offered a “tour” through such a facility from a former liaison for the facility. He wanted me to understand how wonderful the center is in taking care of the Amish with mental illness. But when the woman who took us through showed us the locked cabinet of drugs and informed us that all the patients are on medication, I got the heebie-jeebies. I realized the potential for these facilities to be used for people who are not “obedient” in the name of “mental illness.” This was years before I heard any of these stories.

      When I read Ms. McClure’s part of the report about each patient taking turns getting their medication, I thought of “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest.”

      You are absolutely right… the lack of education and willful ignorance among the Amish is at the heart of so many of their ills. It discourages self-awareness and self-reflection. How can anyone make any self-corrections without self-reflection? When a child is abused, there is so much pain that child has to stuff into the unconscious. But it doesn’t stay there. So when that child is grown and has children of his or her own, there is only one direction for that locked-up pain to go… right down to the next generation. And so it goes, one generation after the next.

      Any exposure to even basic psychology could be so helpful for the Amish. But that would awaken their desire for freedom, education, a sense of self, and it would detract from the emphasis on obedience.

      I honestly don’t know how to “fix” the Amish culture. With more freedom, education, sense of self, could they still maintain their culture? If not, does it deserve to survive? These are the fundamental questions that are brought up with the realization that the Amish have a systemic abuse problem.

      And we haven’t even begun to address the physical abuse problems. I find that one just as devastating.

      Elva, it’s great to hear from you. I hope you’re staying warm up there in Alaska.

  5. I second Johanna’s appraisal of your comments on Amish America; many of the other commenters didn’t address the most egregious issues or seemed to give little weight to the abuse victims’ situations. Yours was an unswerving, firm, articulate voice that the discussion cried out for. I admire both the tone and substance of your remarks. Brava!

    1. Thank you, Joan. I wasn’t the only voice there to bring the discussion back to the stories of the atrocities these women endured. But there was a lot of opposition there, that is for sure. Thank you for your support.

  6. Do you have an opinion on the book, “Beauty for Ashes,” by John Coblentz? Pathway Publishers describes it as giving “practical steps to healing for the sexually abused.”

    The Beachy book you referred to is not even listed as being available in the Heartland Library System which serves a large portion of Illinois including the large Amish settlement at Arthur.

  7. Question Saloma, you said that Plain men run these facilities. How are they able to administer drugs to these women when there is no way they have the medical degrees to administer them. This whole thing is like out of some kind of horror movie!!!! I don’t understand how they are able to get away with it??
    I am so proud of these women who are getting out there and telling their stories. Like you they are so brave. It all needs to be dragged out into the light. It is all so hard to understand, how do these men justify what they are doing? Do they really think this is fine with God?

    1. Pamela, that is the million-dollar question… how are the administrators of these centers able to obtain their drugs? My guess is that they have someone who is willing to prescribe what they want. The drug companies are all too willing to sell their drugs. All it takes is a psychiatrist who doesn’t mind prescribing drugs without follow-up visits. I knew someone like that in Vermont.

      Yes, this whole thing is like something out of a horror movie. I cringe when I think of what it was like to plan on leaving my Amish community without getting caught. Back then, the pressure would have been intense for me to stay. But at least I wouldn’t have been whisked away to one of these centers and drugged, taking away any free agency I had left.

      No, I don’t think these men can justify what they are doing, and they know that these actions are not fine with God. But in some cases, they don’t seem able to help themselves. It is common for them to remark that the person they violated “was tempting me.” They will say this even when the victim is a child.

      When children are violated and silenced, they have nowhere for all these emotions to go, except to stuff them into the unconscious. But they don’t stay there. When these victims grow up and have children of their own, they find themselves repeating the patterns of abuse that they inherited.

      Part of the problem is that the Amish is not a self-reflective culture. Without self-awareness, one cannot discern which traditions and patterns to correct and which ones to pass on. So all the family patterns… both healthy and unhealthy… get passed right down to the next generation.

      Thank you, as always, for your insightful questions and comments.

  8. Just read all the comments in Amish America. Your comments were excellent, I especially liked your final comment. Well said!!!! I do hope something good will come from these articles and blogs. Sadly there is always going to be abuse in this world for evil walks the earth, but turning our heads and refusing to see it isnt the answer. I hope law enforcement gets more involved and that the Amish can be made to understand they are not above the law. Victims need to be heard, they need compassion and they need support from us all.

    1. Pamela, the case of David Smucker that I read about in my latest blog post gives me hope that the message is being conveyed to the Amish that they are not above the law.

      And yes, victims need all the support we can give them.

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