Over the years a number of cases have come to light of Amish who have committed sexual abuse, most recently in an Ohio community. Last week a central Pennsylvania news station did a report on the issue of sexual abuse among Amish, which you can view here: (UPDATE: no longer available online)
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.
Saloma goes on to detail how the system of discipline can allow a perpetrator to be absolved by the church but remain at liberty to commit more offenses. It’s an example of the tricky and sometimes tragic area which arises in the practice of a two kingdoms belief system.
I also think Saloma’s first sentence above is a good note of caution against painting with too broad a brush. I will note that some Amish have been working with English to address this issue. In the past, some have in fact decided to involve worldly authorities by reporting abuse. There are also publications which are joint efforts of English and Amish designed to help Plain people face domestic violence and sexual sin, plus at least one more related publication upcoming.
The Amish periodical Family Life has also addressed the topic by printing fictionalized pieces within the themes of sexual purity and abuse. In their comments on the issue the editors noted that “We realize the subject is a delicate one. There is always a risk of being misunderstood and of people being offended. After consulting with a number of ministers and bishops, we have come to the conclusion that the risk from not printing this material may very well be greater than the risk of printing” (Family Life, “Staff Notes”, Dec. 1999).
As Saloma suggests, it is hard to know how much abuse goes unreported, and in that also lies the danger of assuming much more abuse happens than in fact does. Whatever the reality, for present, past, and potential future victims, joint efforts between Amish and English to combat sexual abuse are encouraging.
Naturally Amish will get a greater share of attention than when similar things happen among non-Amish, but that is the case with just about everything. Attention is not what the Amish seek, but perhaps this sort of attention can end up saving a lot of suffering.