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

The Amish tightly circumscribe their world in other ways as well. For the most part, they don't file lawsuits, serve on juries, run for political office, or vote (despite Republican efforts to enlist them in the 2004 election). The bishop is the highest clergyman in the hierarchy of each church, and he oversees two ministers and a deacon. Men and women propose candidates for minister and deacon, and in most districts any man with two or three nominations is considered. The "elected" clergy is chosen according to a biblical method of casting lots: each man chooses from a pile of identical hymnals, and the one who chooses the book marked with a piece of paper bearing a verse from the Bible becomes a church leader.

The bishop, who is chosen the same way from a field of three ministers, has awesome authority. He interprets the Ordnung, the unwritten rules that govern each church district, stipulating everything from the size of a man's hat brim to the paint color on the outside of a house. When a church member violates the Ordnung, the bishop determines the punishment.

When she turned 17 three years ago, Mary Byler joined the church, as Amish adults must do. Johnny had stopped raping her when he got married in 1998. Mary thinks her new status as a church member protected her from Eli because it meant she had a duty to confess to fornication. She tried to forget what had happened with her brothers, but she couldn't. When she was 19, Mary sought succor from her minister, Sam Mast. As she stood awkwardly in his workshop, Mast said he saw that she was "heavy-hearted." But Mary couldn't bring herself to tell him what Johnny and Eli had done. Mast suggested that she confess her sins in church. "I said, 'Why don't you go to somebody and just empty it out?' " he told me recently.


To some degree, Johnny had confessed his own a few years earlier, when he was 21. But he admitted to fornication without saying that he had committed rape or that his victim had been his sister. The church elders didn't probe. Bishop Dan Miller listened to Johnny's confession, and later Mast gave him the letter Mary had written. But when I spoke with him, Miller said he had "no sense of what was going on." He didn't connect Johnny's confession with Mary's plea for help.

Johnny's punishment for his confessed sins lasted two weeks. During that period, he was shunned, the traditional Amish punishment for serious transgressions. As if sin were contagious, the community erects a metaphorical fence around the sinner. Johnny wasn't allowed to leave his home except to attend church. After his punishment, he returned to working in his harness shop. Mary's punishment, by contrast, lasts forever.

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Nadya Labi
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