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
BY: Nadya Labi
Janice Wilson and I drove through New Wilmington, past a string of buggies heading to the home of a local Amish man, who was marrying off his daughter. The white houses we passed had pale blue doors, the only touch of color allowed by the church. Wilson was despairing over the cases she'd been unable to crack because no victim would come forward. Her supervisor, Lieutenant Peter Vogel, echoed her frustration, saying, "The moment we approach them as police, they shut up, the whole clan."
When the police identify a perpetrator, however, their work in one sense becomes easy. The Amish ethic of confession extends to answering questions asked by outsiders. With little prompting from the detectives who questioned him, Norman Byler admitted to manually penetrating his 8-year-old granddaughter. He said that he hurt the child to get back at her father, who had refused to take Norman to the hospital to treat a torn muscle. (Most Swartzentrubers resort to Western medicine only in emergencies.) Raymond Byler, Levi and Benjamin Schwartz, and Johnny, Eli, and David Byler confessed with similar readiness.
Johnny and Eli were each charged with five counts of sexual assault and pleaded guilty, to two counts and one count, respectively. David pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his little sister. In September, a month before his sentencing, Johnny said he sometimes felt suicidal and couldn't understand why he might go to prison. "Johnny thinks, 'I did a terrible thing but I've tried to make it right,' " said Jack Buswell, his attorney. "He feels let down."
Yet the confessions of Johnny and other Amish offenders haven't elicited heavy penalties. Levi Schwartz got probation and his son has not been prosecuted. The district attorney in Lawrence County said he had not decided whether to prosecute Mary's cousins, Chris and David Wengerd. Raymond Byler was sentenced to four years, even though the judge in his case found that he posed "the greatest likelihood of recidivism." Norman Byler faced a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail, but prosecutor Keith Plummer recommended that he serve no time beyond the two years he had waited to go on trial. The judge set aside the plea, saying he was unwilling to countenance such leniency for an offender who had shown "no genuine remorse." Norman was sentenced to five years; before his release last month, he wrote to the Yoders to say he wanted to come home.
The relatively light sentences meted out to these men stand out at a time when sex offenders are punished with increasing harshness. The fear that many pedophiliacs can't be stopped has led Congress to lengthen sentences for child sex offenders and has persuaded some states to use involuntary civil commitment laws to keep them behind bars indefinitely. Why did these Amish, by contrast, receive only mercy?
District attorneys and judges appear to be quick to forgive in the counties that have the largest Amish populations. The 92,000 Amish who live in Ohio and Pennsylvania generate hundreds of millions in annual tourism revenue. Brent Yager, who prosecuted Levi Schwartz, would never say that he spared Schwartz to protect the appeal of Pennsylvania Dutch country. But prosecutors and judges are as steeped in the myth of the Gentle People as anyone. "Is Schwartz getting a break because he's Amish?" Yager said. "In some ways, yes. Is he going to reoffend? I don't think so."
In Wisconsin, where only 10,000 Amish live, Timothy Gaskell took a harder line in prosecuting Johnny, Eli, and David Byler. Gaskell also brought misdemeanor charges against Mary's stepfather, for beating her, and against Sally, for failing to report the abuse of her daughter. As a result of Gaskell's efforts, the Kempfs were put on probation, David got a four-year prison sentence, and Eli got eight years in prison. Johnny, however, was ordered to spend one year at the county jail, and mostly at night. During the day, the judge said, he could work to keep his farm running. A crowd of 150 Amish turned out to support Johnny at his sentencing.
It is hard to think of Mary Byler as lucky, but in one respect she was: The state responded when she asked for help. Anna Slabaugh has a different story. Anna, who is the eighth of nine children, remembers reading books with her mother as a child. Fannie Slabaugh taught school when Anna was young, and though reading books was strongly discouraged by the family's Swartzentruber district, she couldn't bear to get rid of the books she had found in an abandoned schoolhouse.
Maybe it was the Nancy Drew mysteries, but Anna never felt she belonged with the Swartzentrubers. She got upset when her father cut off the tails of the pigs or pulled out the horns of the goats. She liked to draw, which violated the Ordnung. And she didn't like the constant dimness: The church allowed only kerosene, which gives off less light than gas, and candles had to be kept at a low glow.
Whether for wearing her cap too far back on her head or for "acting around" in church, Anna was often in trouble. Her father was in poor health, because he refused to take insulin for his diabetes, but he knew how to give a good beating. Sometimes he used the strap, a foot-long piece of rubber common in Amish homes; at other times, he took Anna "to the woodpile" and hit her with a piece of wood.
When Anna turned 11, she told me, her 19-year-old brother began molesting her, stopping just short of intercourse. When he moved away, another 17-year-old brother started raping her. (The court documents involving Anna's family are sealed.) Anna didn't try to stop her brothers at first. "You don't tell your brothers, who are so much older than you, No," she said. But when she got her period at 13 and realized she could have a baby, she started fighting back. "He would make sure he put a lot of pressure on my top so I couldn't breathe," she said of the younger brother.
Anna wanted help, but she didn't think she would get it from her church. So she began dropping hints about the abuse to English neighbors. When they didn't pick up on her cues, she got bolder. In 2001, while cleaning house for her family's landlord, Anna used the phone to call a battered women's shelter in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. The counselors on the other end of the line didn't take her seriously. But after a month of calls, the shelter alerted Children and Family Services Division of Knox County.
When a social worker visited Anna's home, Anna told her about the sexual abuse. She also reported that her parents were moving the family to Pennsylvania. Laurie Roberts, one of the social workers on Anna's case in Ohio, said she was taught in training that sexual abuse among the Amish is pervasive, and seldom reported. (The problem is significant enough that the counties near Knox publish a pamphlet to educate the Amish about sexual abuse.) Yet the county left Anna in her home. "Oh Gosh, I wish I could get it in those C.S. people that my parents will absolutely kill me now," Anna wrote at the time to a cousin who had left the Amish. The social workers "say you'll have to be hurt by them before we'll do anything about it," she continued.