Last week, journalist Sarah McClure published an investigative report in Cosmopolitan—yes, Cosmopolitan—on the prevalence of sexual abuse among the Amish. Based on a year-long investigation, the report contains disturbing details that are difficult to stomach; I’d call it shocking if we didn’t already have a history of similar reports of abuse in Amish and Mennonite communities going back years.
McClure discovered “52 official cases of Amish child sexual assault in seven states over the past two decades,” but the full extent of the abuse is far worse, she asserts. Virtually every victim she spoke to told her they had been “dissuaded by their family or church leaders from reporting their abuse to police or had been conditioned not to seek outside help.” Victims knew they’d be “mocked of blamed,” and they were told it was “not Christlike to report”; “some victims said they were intimidated and threatened with excommunication.”
For McClure, all of this adds up to “a widespread, decentralized cover-up of child sexual abuse by Amish clergy” and within Amish communities, and she identified “a perfect storm of factors” contributing to this crisis: “a patriarchal and isolated lifestyle in which victims have little exposure to police, coaches, or anyone else who might help them; an education system that ends at eighth grade and fails to teach children about sex or their bodies; a culture of victim shaming and blaming; little access to the technology that enables communication or broader social awareness.” Add to this a wariness of law enforcement and preference for handling disputes on their own.
More devastating still is the religious system in which victims are viewed “as just as guilty as the abuser”—even if they’re children. Victims share in responsibility and are told to forgive; “if they fail to do so, they’re the problem.” For the Amish, their Christian faith “prioritizes repentance and forgiveness over actual punishment or rehabilitation.”
This capacity for forgiveness received widespread attention in the aftermath of the horrific 2006 shooting at a one-room Amish schoolhouse. When the community came together and forgave the assailant, the story inspired far beyond the Amish fold.
In the case of sexual abuse, however, it is clear that there is a dark side to community, and to the religious requirement to forgive.
In the wake of #ChurchToo, it’s difficult to ignore connections between the Amish crisis of abuse and the abuse that has been exposed in recent years within the Southern Baptist Convention and Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. Abuse in evangelical churches reveals patterns that are strikingly similar to those in Amish communities. Here, too, victims are frequently blamed and effectively shunned, law enforcement is kept at bay, perpetrators are shielded and shuttled from church to church. Victims are told to keep quite to protect the church. And, they are told to forgive.
Evangelical activist Rachael Denhollander has offered a powerful rebuttal to this call to forgive. Forgiveness, she insisted in her victim impact statement at the Larry Nasser trial, “comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse…” In her subsequent interview with Christianity Today, she clarified that forgiveness does not mean minimizing or mitigating or excusing the abuse, nor does it mean pursuing “justice on earth any less zealously.” Speaking to her fellow Christians, Denhollander asserted that “the gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection. It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.”
Evangelicals, of course, have long been infatuated with Amish romance novels; given the similarities between patterns of abuse in evangelical and Amish communities, it may be worth exploring this affinity more carefully. It’s not just evangelicals, however, who like to romanticize the Amish. When reading Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, I was struck by Deneen’s own romanticizing of the Amish. Rejecting a reckless liberation from established authority and tradition, Deneen instead wants to recover a “liberty based on self-restraint.” For Deneen, the corrupted modern sense of liberty “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior through informal and habituated expectations and norms.” All this leaves us with an insidious liberalism, one that “ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions, and attractions of freedom, pleasure, and wealth.” Instead, Deneen desires a return to virtue, and to the pursuit of the common good.
As a historian, however, I think it’s fair to ask if this older system of liberty as self-restraint—and the community it fostered—was all it was cracked up to be. I especially wonder about the lot of those who did not wield patriarchal authority.
In other words, how do we reconcile the fact that within conservative religious communities, the very authority structures and customs and bonds that hold the community together may well also facilitate the abuse of women—and provide women who are victimized with little or no recourse.
As Sarah Grimké reminded us long ago, bonds can hold people together, and they can hold people down. They often do both at the same time.
If history teaches us anything, it seems to me that any celebration of community, and any exhortation to forgive, must be accompanied by a rigorous examination of the ways in which power is structured and wielded within those communities.
In the absence of this analysis, talk of restraint, the urge to protect the community, and the compulsion to forgive is likely to do more harm than good. Within a controlled, hierarchical, patriarchal culture, these qualities will only end up reinforcing a power structure prone to abuse.
Regardless of any romantic veneer, the end result will be the opposite of the very virtue and common good the community purports to pursue.