Fighting sexual abuse in the Amish community

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.