The Gentle People

Courts have permitted the Amish to live outside the law. But in some places, Amish women are sexually assaulted with no recourse

Reprinted with permission from Legal Affairs.

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.

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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."

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Nadya Labi
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