Fighting sexual abuse in the Amish community

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Sexual abuse is a serious problem that far too often is kept hidden, and when it happens in a community as isolated as the Amish, it’s even more difficult for victims to be helped and offenders to be prosecuted.

FOX 43’s Trang Do has the story of a former Amish family and community leaders who are trying to break the culture of silence through outreach and education.

“I grew up Amish, not knowing any different. And I loved it, I loved my parents. Yeah, I loved it. I never dreamed that I would not be Amish,” said a former Amish woman whose name we are withholding.

But one difficult day, she and her husband made the decision to leave the only way of life they’d ever known, after discovering their children had been sexually abused.

When they brought up the issue with leaders of their church, they said they were told to forgive and forget, something the couple just couldn’t bring themselves to do.

“Just because you forgive them doesn’t make it right what they did,” she said. “And you don’t just leave them out there to go do some more.”

“It gets to a point where I was like I cannot agree with your system any more,” added her husband. “So they were like, ‘Well, if you don’t agree with the system, I guess you’re going to have to leave.'”

For Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas Judge Dennis Reinaker, presiding over the case of Jonathan and Melvin Smucker was a hard lesson.

The Amish father and son were convicted of sexually abusing young girls in 2010.

But the victims would only agree to cooperate with prosecutors if they were promised that the two men would not face any jail time.

“That’s been the Amish community’s approach from the very beginning, is to just get the victims to forgive the abusers and then there’s a sense that everything has been taken care of, and we know that’s not the case,” Reinaker said.

That’s why the judge decided to form the Plain Community Task Force in early 2011, to deal specifically with educating Lancaster County’s Amish about sexual abuse, the need to prosecute offenders and provide victims with the necessary support and counseling.

Linda Crockett of Samaritan Counseling Center is a member of the task force. Through her “Safe Church” Program, she trains clergy and lay leaders in child sexual abuse prevention and response.

“Amish communities are no different from ours, in that they have the inclination to hide this when it goes on,” she said. “They probably do a better job because they’re more insular. But I don’t want people to think that the Amish don’t have it figured out and we do in this community because we have a lot of work to do here too.”

But Crockett said the nature of Amish culture makes it that much more difficult for victims to speak out and communities to seek outside help.

“For anyone to speak outside of the Amish community would be seen as bringing shame to them and nobody wants to bring shame to their community,” she said. “So they tend to try and handle everything internally.”

In the two plus years since the task force was formed, members have been able to make some inroads into the Plain community to get a discussion started. But Judge Reinaker admits, progress isn’t moving as quickly as he hoped.

“You’re really dealing with centuries worth of practices and traditions and to expect that in a very short period of time, you’re going to be able to get those folks to put that aside and just work with us in ways that we’re used to dealing with, that really has been an eye-opener,” he said.

For the former Amish couple, they have no doubt that leaving their Amish lives behind was the right thing to do their family.

“It was surprising how the Lord just up and brought people right out to help us and stood behind us, supported us,” the husband said.

Though they’re proud of their heritage, they say the Plain community has a long way to go when it comes to addressing sexual abuse.

“I just knew that we needed help beyond what they were able to support us,” said the wife. “They don’t have the knowledge to deal with things like that. So they’d rather not have them exposed.”

The Plain Community Task Force is continuing its work on this issue.

Members say they’re in it for the long haul.

They hope to eventually get into Amish schools to educate children on recognizing inappropriate behavior.

Now, in some districts, Amish couples are being trained so they can reach out to members of their own communities.


  • Saloma Furlong

    This report is so important on so many levels. It is good for the victims among the Amish to know that they can break the silence (though it may be that they will need to leave the fold if they do) and it’s important for the perpetrators to know that their abuse may be exposed. It is imperative for law enforcement, counselors, or health professionals who may be involved in these abuse cases to know that Amish victims (and perpetrators) should be treated just like they would for anyone else. I applaud the people who advocate for the children, even if that means going against the “Amish way.”

    Thank goodness that the parents of these children became advocates for them. Too often the parents go along with the church elders in trying to cover up the abuse. It speaks to their love for and commitment to their children that they changed their whole way of life for the well-being of their children.

    It is admirable that Judge Weinaker has set up the Plain Community Task Force. Too bad that not more progress could be made since it was created, but knowing the inner workings of at least one Amish community as I do, I cannot say that I am surprised. Amish children are taught not to question, to be stoic, and to obey their parents above all else. If they are abused they often have no one to go to, which can lead to the feelings that what is happening to them is their fault and also the feeling of having no advocates.

    Linda Crockett is right in that those in mainstream society do not have all the answers. But most people educated in secular culture do have some understanding of basic psychology, which the Amish do not. Because of their refusal to educate their children beyond the eighth grade, they become dependent on the mainstream culture in many aspects of their lives, which includes mental health treatment. The Amish often do not recognize that there can be a psychological basis for deviant behavior. They believe that if someone has sinned, they need to make a public confession, and their sin will be forgiven. Once the confession has been made, all members of the church are then required to “forgive and forget.” If they do not, they can be punished in the church in the same manner as the perpetrator, which often adds to the cycle of abuse. The Amish way and modern psychology are inherently at odds, so it is very difficult, if not impossible, to advocate for Amish abuse victims without breaking Amish rules. Some things about the Amish culture need to change — how they deal with abuse happens to be one of them.

    Thanks to Trang Do and everyone involved in this report for presenting the issue of child sexual abuse among the Amish in such a balanced way.

    • trangfox43

      Hi Saloma,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I hope you are well. Doing that interview with you when your book came out planted the seed in my head. I'm so glad to have been able to tell this very important story and hope it helps to bring awareness and action. Warm regards, Trang

  • Christine

    Trang… thank you for a wonderful portrayal of my brother & his wife … it was not easy for them to leave the culture… amish or non-amish, I love them the same

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