Joined: 3 Jun 2007
the following is a sad, interesting, eye-opening article about some things that have
occurred among the Amish. In part, their culture which shuns the outside world (everything
not Amish they call "english") contributes to the abuse of women and subjugation of young
girls in particular. Of course, this is not to say that all Amish are bad people or that
the faith or lifestyle is entirely wrong. But it does show that there are problems within
this system that won't resolve themselves easily. - ed
This article can be found at:
The Gentle People
Impressed by their piety, courts have permitted the Amish to live outside the law. But in
some places, the group's ethic of forgive and forget has produced a plague of incest—and
let many perpetrators go unpunished.
By Nadya Labi
When she wrote the letter that she hoped would protect her sister, Mary Byler was lying on
a twin bed, surrounded by rainbow-colored walls and a sky-blue ceiling decorated with
bright white clouds. A stereo sat on the floor beside her. There were no signs of the
Amish upbringing she had left behind—no plain wood furniture or chamber pot. Nothing
except a stuffed doll that had belonged to her 6-year-old sister. The little girl had put
the doll's bonnet on backward.
Mary fingered her long brown hair as she thought of her sister. And she thought about her
older brother, Johnny, and his refusal when she'd asked him to go to therapy the day
before. She started writing. "When I was 4 years old, I was molested, when I was 6, I was
sexually abused (rape) from then on till I was 17," the 19-year-old put down. "There was
nothing I could do about this abuse as it was incest."
Mary gave the letter to a friend, who drove 30 minutes northwest of the house where Mary
was staying in the Wisconsin town of Viroqua, past a couple of dirt roads, a string of red
barns, and frozen cornfields. He waited until nearly midnight on a cold evening last
February, and then put the letter in the mailbox at the white shingled home of Sam Mast,
an Amish minister in the community where Mary's family lived during her teenage years.
Mary's father was killed in a buggy accident when she was 5; she remembers him pulling her
onto his lap and fondling her at their home in the small town of Sugar Grove, Pa. After
her father's death, Mary's family moved 100 miles south to New Wilmington, Pa., another
small town, where the back roads are filled with brown buggies and white shingled homes.
There, Mary's two older cousins and brothers began molesting her. Johnny told the police
that his cousins encouraged him, "as far as breaking her in." (The cousins denied that,
but admitted to molesting Mary.) By the time Mary was in her teens, she was being raped
regularly by Johnny, who is seven years older, and her brother Eli, who is four years
older. Once, Eli climbed on top of her while Johnny held her down.
There was no escape. Mary was grabbed in the bedroom, in the barn, in the outhouse,
milking the cows in the morning, and on her way to school. "It did not matter how hard I
tried to hide," Mary would explain in her letter to Mast, which she also sent to other
Amish clergy. "If I ran upstairs to go to bed or to hide because I was at home with the
boys, I'd be locking my door and turn around and there was someone crawling through my
window. So my windows were always locked . . . Then they started taking off my door."
To the hordes of tourists who travel to Pennsylvania Dutch country each year to go to
quilting bees and shop for crafts, the Gentle People, as the Amish are known, represent
innocence. They are a people apart, removed in place and arrested in time. They reject the
corruptions of modernity—the cars that have splintered American communities and the
televisions that have riveted the country's youth. The Amish way of life is grounded in
agriculture, hard work, and community. Its deliberate simplicity takes the form of
horse-drawn buggies, clothes that could have come from a Vermeer painting, and a native
German dialect infused with English words.
The myth of the Amish is amplified in movies like Witness and television shows like Amish
in the City. It's also fed by a series of practices that reinforce the group's insularity.
The Amish want to be left alone by the state—and to a remarkable extent, they are. They
don't fight America's wars or, for the most part, contribute to Social Security. In 1972,
noting their "excellent record as law-abiding and generally self-sufficient members of
society," the Supreme Court allowed the Amish to take their children out of school after
The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police
itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping
order comes hard to church leaders. "The Amish see the force of law as contrary to the
Christian spirit," said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in
Pennsylvania and an expert on the group. As a result, the Amish shy away from sending
people to prison and the system of punishment of "the English," as the Amish call other
Americans. Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every
member of the Amish community must forgive him.
This approach is rooted in the Amish notion of Gelassenheit, or submission. Church members
abide by their clergymen; children obey their parents; sisters mind their brothers; and
wives defer to their husbands (divorce is taboo). With each act of submission, the Amish
follow the lesson of Jesus when he died on the cross rather than resist his adversaries.
But can a community govern itself by Jesus's teaching of mercy alone? It is sinful for the
Amish to withhold forgiveness—so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the
Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner.
"That's a big thing in the Amish community," Mary said. "You have to forgive and forgive."
In some church districts, which encompass only two or three dozen families scattered along
back roads, there appear to be many crimes like Johnny and Eli's to forgive. No statistics
are available, but according to one Amish counselor who works with troubled church members
across the Midwest, sexual abuse of children is "almost a plague in some communities."
Some police forces and district attorneys do their best to step in, though they are rarely
welcomed. Others are slow to investigate or quick to let off Amish offenders with light
punishments. When that happens, girls like Mary are failed three times: by their families,
their church, and their state.
KATHRYN BYLER, WHO COUNTS MARY AND HER FAMILY AS DISTANT KIN, lives more than 600 miles
from them, in Morrow County, Ohio. The Amish don't own phones (some use them only for
emergencies). Still, news gets around. Kathryn knew Mary's story.
Before her father's death, Mary told her mother, Sally, that he was molesting her. At
first, Sally didn't believe her daughter. Mary said that her mother told her, "He says
he's sorry and you have to forgive him." After her husband's death, Sally raised Mary and
her eight sons on her own. Her household wasn't the tidiest, and the children didn't
always listen to her. Sally got particularly frustrated with Mary, who had inherited her
large almond-shaped eyes and tendency to talk out of turn.
When Mary's brothers began raping her, she turned to her mother again. Sally scolded the
boys and gave them what Eli described as a light "mother's tap." She also gave them an
herb that she hoped would reduce their sex drives. When the abuse resumed and Mary went
back to her mother, she said Sally responded, "You don't fight hard enough and you don't
pray hard enough."
"The boys were doing bad things and the mother knew," Kathryn said. "What mother would
allow that to happen in her house?"
And yet, it happened in her house as well.
When I knocked on her screen door on a recent autumn afternoon, Kathryn was boiling two
large pots of water for her husband Raymond's bath. His white shirt hung near the
wood-burning stove, along with his spare straw hat. Raymond was out doing carpentry work.
Kathryn tied on a black bonnet as she came to answer the door.
I had already encountered Kathryn in court documents. This was the mother who had tried to
shield her husband from prosecution, after the boyfriend of one of her three daughters
reported to the Ohio police that Raymond was molesting two of the girls. The abuse began
when the older girl was 5 or 6; it lasted more than a decade, and included repeated rapes.
(The girl grew up in Pennsylvania near Mary Byler, and told Mary that her father was
"I may have been to blame, too," Kathryn Byler said in court at her husband's sentencing
in December 1998. In earlier interviews with detectives, Byler faulted herself for failing
to sexually satisfy her husband. Like Sally, she talked about administering an herbal
remedy to reduce his sex drive. "She knew what was going on. It was almost, 'Take my
daughter by the hand and let's go to the barn,' " said Sergeant Paul Mills, who helped
investigate the case. " 'So sayeth her husband,' and whatever he says is the way it has to
While we talked, Kathryn sat in a rocking chair, which she'd polished to a high shine. She
wore metal-frame glasses and a dark green dress, pinned together because her church
doesn't allow zippers. Beneath her black bonnet, her face was plain and open. As her
religion dictates, she wore no makeup or jewelry. Though she was afraid to talk and spoke
softly, fear didn't stop the words from rushing out of her. It felt good, she said as she
settled into her chair.
Kathryn doesn't see her husband as a bad man. She smiled when she showed me a picture of a
lighthouse that Raymond had painted, and she praised him for coming home early that day to
help can tomatoes. Still, he has a nasty temper. Kathryn hates the foosball table that
sits in the middle of her living room, an eyesore of miniature yellow and black men that
was a gift from an English friend. But she has stopped asking Raymond to take it away.
When he gets upset, he shouts, and then she cries. She has learned to be careful with him.
Years before his arrest, Raymond confessed to molesting one of his daughters and, as
Kathryn put it, "made things right in church." Kathryn said that she believed he had
stopped the abuse, though when her husband sent her out of the house on errands, a part of
her wondered. "I knew he wanted me to go away a lot, but I trusted him," she said. "I
guess I trusted him too far."
When their trust is betrayed, women like Kathryn and Sally see themselves as having little
recourse. In 1996, Sally remarried a man named William Kempf, whom she'd met on a bus
ride. The cabinetmaker, who is now 78, had a mean streak, and he took to hitting Sally,
Mary, and Mary's younger half-sister. "Sally lived eight miles from the nearest police
station," Sally's lawyer, Russell Hanson, said to explain why his client, who declined to
be interviewed, didn't report her sons. "I was told by one of the elders that women are
not permitted to take their horses to town."
Yet in a shed one door down from the Kempfs' house sits a white phone. It's registered in
an English neighbor's name but is used by the Amish. Sally didn't call the police because
she'd been taught to defer to the men in her household, even if they were her sons, and
because she belongs to a community that believes the greater threat comes from without,
Kathryn, for her part, has borne her husband six children. Four older sons and daughters
have left home—the oldest girl got married and the middle girl lives with her—but their
mother works hard to take care of Raymond and the young son and daughter who still live
with them. Even if the church allowed divorce, Kathryn wouldn't want one. She'd like
Raymond to take medication to help calm his temper. He won't, though, so she takes pills
to ease her own sadness. "We're supposed to forgive, but that's hard to do," Kathryn said.
"The only way I can ever truly forgive him is when he dies. Those were our children, and
look what he did."
THE AMISH CHURCH TRACES ITS ROOTS TO THE 16TH CENTURY, when a group of Swiss dissidents
decided the Protestant Reformation was moving too slowly. They embraced baptism of adults
rather than children, a practice that was seen as a threat to the civic order and punished
by execution. The Amish faced persecution and torture, which they relive in their prayers
and hymns every other Sunday, when they worship in each other's homes.
Today, most of the church's 200,000 members live in the United States, and about half of
them are in Pennsylvania and Ohio, concentrated in rural counties that are the heart of
Amish country. There is a sameness to much of the region, with its white shingled homes,
dark buggies, and repeating surnames.
As Donald Kraybill explains in his book The Amish and the State, there are two kingdoms in
Amish theology: the kingdom of Christ, inhabited by the Amish, and the one in which
everyone else lives. To maintain the boundary between the two worlds, the Amish hold
themselves apart from the secular state as much as they can. In the mid-1900s, dozens of
Amish fathers went to prison rather than agree to send their kids to public schools with
non-Amish children. The community opened its own one-room schoolhouses, where the
curricula ignored subjects like science and sex education. A woman who now lives near the
Amish in Ohio's Guernsey County reports that many of her neighbors weren't taught that the
earth was round. "A lot of Amish will tell you they don't want their kids to be educated,"
she said. "The more they know, the more apt they are to leave."
The Amish tightly circumscribe their world in other ways as well. For the most part, they
don't file lawsuits, serve on juries, run for political office, or vote (despite
Republican efforts to enlist them in the 2004 election). In 1993, Martin France, the
district attorney in Wayne County, Ohio, prosecuted a case against a driver who killed
five Amish children. France got little support from the victims' families. "They didn't
want anything to do with me. They would just say, 'This was God's will and we're not going
to interfere,' " he recalled. An Amish woman who lived next to the site of the accident
told France that while she was pinning up her laundry, she saw the driver's car race down
a hill and hit the children, who flew as high as a nearby telephone pole. But the woman
refused to testify; her bishop wouldn't allow it.
That bishop was a man in his late 20s who worked in his family's chair factory. Amish
church leaders are chosen by lot—or, as the faithful believe, by the unseen hand of God.
The bishop is the highest clergyman in the hierarchy of each church, and he oversees two
ministers and a deacon. Men and women propose candidates for minister and deacon, and in
most districts any man with two or three nominations is considered. The "elected" clergy
is chosen according to a biblical method of casting lots: each man chooses from a pile of
identical hymnals, and the one who chooses the book marked with a piece of paper bearing a
verse from the Bible becomes a church leader.
The bishop, who is chosen the same way from a field of three ministers, has awesome
authority. He interprets the Ordnung, the unwritten rules that govern each church
district, stipulating everything from the size of a man's hat brim to the paint color on
the outside of a house. When a church member violates the Ordnung, the bishop determines
When she turned 17 three years ago, Mary Byler joined the church, as Amish adults must do.
Johnny had stopped raping her when he got married in 1998. Mary thinks her new status as a
church member protected her from Eli because it meant she had a duty to confess to
fornication. She tried to forget what had happened with her brothers, but she couldn't.
When she was 19, Mary sought succor from her minister, Sam Mast. As she stood awkwardly in
his workshop, Mast said he saw that she was "heavy-hearted." But Mary couldn't bring
herself to tell him what Johnny and Eli had done. Mast suggested that she confess her sins
in church. "I said, 'Why don't you go to somebody and just empty it out?' " he told me
To some degree, Johnny had confessed his own a few years earlier, when he was 21. But he
admitted to fornication without saying that he had committed rape or that his victim had
been his sister. The church elders didn't probe. Bishop Dan Miller listened to Johnny's
confession, and later Mast gave him the letter Mary had written. But when I spoke with
him, Miller said he had "no sense of what was going on." He didn't connect Johnny's
confession with Mary's plea for help.
Johnny's punishment for his confessed sins lasted two weeks. During that period, he was
shunned, the traditional Amish punishment for serious transgressions. As if sin were
contagious, the community erects a metaphorical fence around the sinner. Johnny wasn't
allowed to leave his home except to attend church. After his punishment, he returned to
working in his harness shop.
Mary's punishment, by contrast, lasts forever.
When she wrote to Mast, Mary hoped that he and Miller would protect her younger sister,
who had said things about another brother, David, then 17, that worried Mary. "It was
little things like, 'David is bad to me, but Mom tells me he's sorry and I have to forgive
him,' " Mary said. "I said, this is my voice coming out of her." Mary warned the ministers
that she would press charges unless something was done. Nothing happened. So Mary went to
the police. After the detectives came knocking, the community voted unanimously to
Mast took a break from hammering in his workshop to explain the concept of excommunication
to me. When Mary left her home, she broke her vow to uphold the Ordnung. The Amish believe
that anyone who breaks that vow is damned and must be shunned. Church members may talk to
her only to admonish her to repent and return, Mast said. He stroked his full beard as he
struggled for the right English words. "We would tell Mary that we think she done wrong
and tell her to come back," he said. "We couldn't take her word for anything. We would
have nothing to do with her."
As for Mary's brothers, Miller declared that Johnny and Eli would be shunned for periods
of four and six weeks. "They told us they wanted to quit and were sorry about what
happened," the minister said.
IN THE SHADOW OF A PEELING WHITE HOUSE IN GUERNSEY COUNTY, OHIO, sits a rusty shed. Its
wooden door had swung open on an afternoon in October, revealing black letters that
spelled out the name N-O-R-M-A-N B-Y-L-E-R.
Now 72, Norman was diagnosed a few years ago with depression and the beginnings of
dementia. A photograph of him at the time reveals thin features accented by a coarse white
beard and dark, penetrating eyes. Norman has a history of pedophilia that dates to the
1970s, when he allegedly molested several of his eight daughters and at least one young
woman outside his family. During that period, he confessed in church, repented, and was
banished for four weeks.
Aware of her father's problem, Norman's youngest daughter "went to great lengths to make
sure he wasn't alone" with kids, said his public defender, Diane Menashe. In 1995, the
daughter and her husband, Tobie Yoder, let Norman move onto their property. Four