Oct 10, 2011

The Dark Side of Amish Forgiveness

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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When I first noticed a headline about Amish being attacked by a roving band of hair-cutters I thought it must be some horrible hate crime. So I was a little surprised to learn that, in fact, it was a case of Amish on Amish violence. The story behind the headline seems like something hatched from the mind of a comedy writer. A splinter faction called the Bergholz Clan, under the leadership of a Bishop Mullet, has allegedly taken up scissors against other Amish, escaping on a truck with a horse trailer in tow. Two Mullets and a third man have been arrested for the crime. But they weren't giving their former brethren achy breaky haircuts. They've been lopping the beards off of male victims and the hair off of female victims as young as thirteen. And to the Amish that's anything but funny.

Donald Kraybill, an expert on Amish culture, explains:

Cutting the victims' beards is degrading and insulting in the Amish culture.

"Wearing a beard is a common and required practice for all married Amish men," Kraybill said. "Likewise, women do not cut their hair based on biblical teaching. These appear to be malicious assaults on symbols of Amish identity by a renegade little group of Amish origin who, for whatever reason, have been estranged from other Amish groups."

Says Kraybill of the unusual and surprising attacks:

"This story is very odd and clearly outlier behavior, an aberration in Amish society," he said. "Amish-on-Amish violence is extremely rare. In some cases, it happens when someone has a psychological disorder and/or during Rumspringa, when some youth engage in mischief or pranks that can go awry."

But this statement ignores one very salient point. There is a form of violence that is by some accounts rampant in Amish communities and its practice appears to have been an underlying factor in this spate of hair-cutting attacks. That crime is sexual abuse.

The conflict surrounding the Bernholz Clan traces back to an incident four years ago. The same Sheriff Abdalla investigating this case made headlines then for calling a SWAT team to a tiny Amish schoolhouse to remove two small children from Bishop Mullet's daughter Wilma Troyer. He defended these unusual actions by explaining that the Mullets had made death threats over a heated custody dispute.

"I don't care if it's a school or church. I'm going to take whatever action is necessary," he said. "Based on threats to my life and on my deputies' lives, based on the threats (Mullet) has made on his own family, surely Mr. Bryan Felmet doesn't think I should approach that situation with sticks in my hand."

. . .

Abdalla also said there are "some very serious allegations" of molestation and attempted rape in that Amish community. The sheriff's department is also investigating the death of a 2-year-old Amish boy who lived in the community. An autopsy on that toddler was never performed though required by law, Abdalla said.

He showed a stack of letters from people he claims left the Bergholz community and are begging him to step in. Further, he said the Amish in that community are being threatened psychologically.

A recent court document explains the court's later decision to prohibit contact with four Mullets in the custody arrangement between the divorced Troyers. In addition to a number of violent and psychotic episodes involving the Mullet family, one Christopher Mullet is now a convicted sex offender.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion in prohibiting Christopher Mullet from having contact with the minor children. There was uncontroverted testimony from witnesses for both sides that Christopher Mullet sexually molested several young children in the Bergholz community. Plaintiff's Exhibit A includes written statements made by I.T., A.T., D.T., and R.T., in which they state Christopher sexually molested them when they were children.

Further, there was testimony that Christopher Mullet confessed his abuse to the Bergholz Amish church and was forgiven and permitted to continue to reside in the community. As of the time of the hearings, Christopher had not been prosecuted. The Guardian ad Litem expressed serious concerns about Christopher Mullet having contact with the minor children. Thus, there is certainly competent credible evidence supporting the trial court's decision that it was not in the best interests of the minor children to have contact with Christopher Mullet.

Wilma also challenges the trial court's refusal to hear additional evidence regarding Christopher Mullet. In her December 5, 2008 Request for Oral Hearing and Request for Consideration of Additional Evidence, Wilma sought to introduce evidence that Christopher Mullet had subsequently been prosecuted for his crimes, convicted, found guilty, sentenced, and classified as a Tier II sex offender. Wilma wanted the trial court to consider this evidence when ruling on her objections to the magistrate's decision. [typographical errors corrected for clarity]

Rejected by the court was a confession by Aden Troyer that he had had an incestuous relationship with his mother. This statement, he said, was coerced by Bishop Mullet who made reconciliation with his wife and family contingent on this confession.

Allegations and counter-allegations of incest and abuse amongst the "Gentle People" seems incongruous but it's alarmingly common. When news-making violence erupts among the Amish, sex abuse is a common theme.

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In 2006 an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania was the site of an horrific mass murder. Charles Carl Roberts IV, who was not Amish, entered the unprotected schoolhouse and took ten young girls hostage. A showdown with local police ensued but it ended badly. He shot the girls execution style, killing five, and then killed himself. His primary motivation appears to have been a preoccupation with fantasies of sexually abusing young girls.

Roberts reportedly contacted his wife while still in the schoolhouse and stated that he had molested two young female relatives (between the ages of three and five) 20 years ago (when he would have been 12), and had been daydreaming about molesting again.[7] Both of the relatives in question have denied these claims. Among the items he brought to the school was a tube of KY Jelly, which investigators surmised he might have intended to use as a sexual lubricant.[7] His suicide notes stated that he was still angry at God for the death of a premature infant daughter nine years prior.[8]

The incident brought an incredible amount of media attention to the typically private Amish community but what captured the public imagination more than anything was their readiness to forgive the assailant who had taken five young lives and left other girls with permanent injury. A Booklist review of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy is emblematic of the reaction.

The crime—shooting innocent schoolchildren in a one-room schoolhouse—was shockingly vicious. More shocking, virtually incredible, was where it happened, in the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish country, commonly associated with bucolic tranquility, not gun violence. This remarkable book explains, exceedingly well, Amish reaction to the horrific Nickel Mines shootings. The outside world was gravely taken aback by the Amish response of forgiveness. Some in the media criticized the Amish as naive and hypocritical (didn't they shun members of their own community?), but most simply couldn't understand the Amish concept of forgiveness as unmerited gift. How could they forgive humanly embodied evil? The authors, all authorities on Amish culture, emphasize that the Amish response reflected the sect's heritage and deeply embedded faith. They distinguish forgiveness from pardon and reconciliation. Forgiveness relinquishes the right to vengeance, while pardon forfeits punishment altogether, and reconciliation restores the relationship of victim and offender or creates a new one. They discuss the shooting mercifully straightforwardly before exploring the broader perspectives of forgiveness and concluding with reflections on the meaning of forgiveness. At times difficult to read, this anguished and devastating account of a national tragedy and a hopeful, life-affirming lesson in how to live is itself a marvel of grace.

People everywhere marveled at the Christian kindness of the Amish in their ability to live the Biblical admonition to turn the other cheek. Their compassion is certainly admirable. But there is another side to Amish forgiveness and it has caused inestimable harm in their communities. There is nothing new about Amish forgiving, pardoning, and reconciling sex abusers, most of whom don't shoot their victims or get mountains of press attention. Sadly, in the urgency to forgive any publicly repentant sinner, the victims of abuse do not get the help they need and are not sufficiently protected from repeat offenders within their communities.

The case of Mary Byler who had been repeatedly molested by her father, who died when she was a small child, and later by her brothers and cousins, also achieved some public notoriety. Frustrated by her community's unwillingness to protect her, she did the unthinkable. She went to the police. Her brothers confessed and were convicted of sexual abuse of a minor. Yet the sympathy from her community was not for Mary but for her brothers.

The community viewed Mary, not Johnny, as the villain, because they had already punished Johnny within the church, according to Garrett. "He went through that process. He was sorry for what he had done, so to the Amish he was forgiven and it should be forgotten," she said.

That had long been the response not only from her community but from her own mother.

In an Amish culture unaccustomed to women speaking up, Mary felt she got more scolding than sympathy when she told her mother what was going on.

She said her mother told her, "You don't fight hard enough and you don't pray hard enough." Mary said her mother made her feel as if the assaults were her fault. "Every time I would talk about this she would say that they have already confessed in church and you're just being unforgiving," she said.

Mary had been molested by just one of these brothers over a hundred times by her count. (He puts the total closer to 75.) The total count of assaults by Mary's male relatives, who were repeatedly forgiven by the church and community, is inestimable.

There is a growing tension between civil authorities and Amish communities as what may be epidemic levels of sex abuse are coming to greater awareness. The largely autonomous Amish insist on handling the problem internally and reintegrating repentant abusers, but numerous repeat victims and recidivist offenders are forcing the problem into the open.

In some church districts, which encompass only two or three dozen families scattered along back roads, there appear to be many crimes like Johnny and Eli's to forgive. No statistics are available, but according to one Amish counselor who works with troubled church members across the Midwest, sexual abuse of children is "almost a plague in some communities." Some police forces and district attorneys do their best to step in, though they are rarely welcomed. Others are slow to investigate or quick to let off Amish offenders with light punishments. When that happens, girls like Mary are failed three times: by their families, their church, and their state. 

Investigating police encounter a simultaneous community protectiveness and a peculiar openness from the offenders themselves. In the case of yet another abusive Byler -- a prolific pedophile into old age named Norman -- an "English," meaning non-Amish, neighbor sought help from authorities. The reaction from the Amish community included death threats against the accuser, yet the old man was perfectly open with police when he was confronted.

Deborah Love, an English neighbor who lived next to the Yoders, saw Norman take his 3-year-old granddaughter into his woodshed on a fall day in 1999. She knew that one of Norman's daughters had recently moved her family to Iowa after saying that Norman had asked to sleep with one of her girls. "He was with me enough. He wasn't going to be with my daughter," Love said the woman told her.

A day after Norman took the 3-year-old into his shed, Love noticed some dried blood on the girl's leg. She called Guernsey County Children's Services. The Amish accused Love of lying, and she said she has felt their anger. When some of the men passed her house, they raised their hats and turned them sideways to avoid looking at her. Love's husband said that one young Amish man warned him during hunting season that, "Accidents do happen, so you'd better be careful." In the spring of 2000, the Loves moved out of the neighborhood.

. . .

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.

Get it? He was getting back at his son by molesting his granddaughter. And therein lies one clue as to the prevalence of the problem. Women and children are the property of men in Amish life. Why wouldn't they be when that is what the only book they take seriously, the Bible, says? Another clue is in the hair-cutting assaults that have put the insular community on a collision course with the law in Ohio. As stated, the attachment to the hair of women and girls is based on their reading of scripture.

"The Bible says women are not to cut their hair, that hair is a blessing and is part of a woman's beauty and it belongs to their husband. To have hair forcefully cut is to be shamed," [Beverly] Cushman said.

"For the men with a beard, you can only begin to grow a beard when you get married. It is a symbol of full status, a symbol of your adult manhood. Again, for it to be cut is to be shamed," she said.

That the Bible says women must not cut their hair is a subject of some debate even among fundamentalists. That women -- and their hair -- belong to their husbands, not so much. The tenet in question came up not long ago when presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's purported submissiveness to her husband did a turn through the news cycle. The primary passage that addresses hair cutting is in 1 Corinthians 11.

3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. 5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. 6 For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 8 For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. 9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

It's just a little unclear whether the covering for the woman's head is her hair or a veil and whether it could ever be cut or if it's being long is sufficient. Amongst the Amish however, the doctrine is clear as is their belief in the power of beard. So the actions attributed to the Mullet gang are a violation of the highest order.

The formerly Amish Seloma Furlong addressed the problem on her blog.

Even though I was born and raised in an Amish community and endured sexual abuse myself, it is hard for me to say just how prevalent sexual abuse is among the Amish in general. But what I do know is that Amish men are dominate in the culture and that girls are taught they should be submissive to the men (and boys) from the time they can understand the concept. Most Amish do not educate their children about sex, so girls can easily fall prey to sexual abuse. They often have no reference to know what is happening to them, even as the abuse takes place. And to make matters worse, the usual avenues for getting help are not available to Amish children. Very often abuses are first noticed and reported by schoolteachers in mainstream society, but even that avenue is blocked for most Amish children who attend their own parochial schools.

When sexual abuse is uncovered among the Amish, they focus mainly on the perpetrator’s repentance, rather than on the welfare of the children, which allows pedophiles to walk freely among innocents. They are simply not equipped to deal with these issues, and their isolation from mainstream society means that public services are largely out of reach, especially for children. Even if people in the community know of abuse, they will usually not intervene on behalf of the children, because they do not want to be seen as meddling in other families’ everyday lives. This leaves those Amish children who are being abused with few or no advocates, just when they need them the most.

It seems a toxic brew of masculine hierarchy, insularity, and a sincere belief in Christian forgiveness as a cure-all.

Much like the Amish, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church long treated sex abuse by its priests as a problem of sin, the answer for which was redemption through confession and prayer. And like the Amish they shunned the intrusion of civil authorities. They are being forced to come 'round to the demands of the greater society and the awareness that spiritual remediation is not sufficient to tackle the problem of sex offenders in their midst. And they have been repeatedly called on the carpet for putting the spiritual well-being of abusers above the needs of the children they abuse.

Lesson for today: There are some problems the Bible can't fix. In fact, Biblical teachings can cause or exacerbate some problems. That's not only because of some of its more regressive elements, like its rules for women, but because of the highest of Christian aspirations like forgiveness and redemption.

Like the Catholic Church, the Amish are being forced by internal events to embrace the knowledge of the secular world where its own system has failed. The case cited by Seloma Furlong in her blog post above is a prime example of the Amish having no choice but to turn a problem over to civil authorities.

Community members say that in an effort to cure Mr. Mast of his affliction, they excommunicated him on three occasions: in 2004 when he returned from Wisconsin amid accusations that he had raped his cousin; and again in 2009, when new revelations surfaced of his alleged sexual misconduct. The third excommunication came this year, when after a tortuous internal debate, the community appealed to law enforcement.

“We seen this coming for years,” said Noah Schwartz, another of Mr. Mast’s uncles. “The church worked desperately to get behind him, but it was a lost cause. I don’t think we realized the seriousness of the crimes.”

Mr. Schwartz added that unlike most Amish children — who are often raised with many siblings — Chester Mast was adopted at 5 days old and raised as an only child, mollycoddled by his parents. Mr. Mast’s father, Albert Mast, declined an interview request on behalf of the family.

“This was a boy who had no discipline,” Mr. Schwartz said. “He didn’t respect authority. That’s why he’s behind bars.”

They came into further conflict with the justice system when their policy of confession collided with Mast's defense attorney's sworn duty to protect her client, in this case by pleading not guilty. The two world views seem largely impossible to reconcile.

The rogue band of Amish hair-cutters is another situation that seems to beg for outside intervention. But many of the Amish are reluctant to press charges or support an investigation, preferring to pray for their assailants.

The reluctance of the Amish community to cooperate with law enforcement agencies has made the investigation more difficult, Abdalla said.

"They sent messages to me to go out and tell the children they're praying for them," he told WJW. "And my response was, 'Pray for them after we put them in jail.' You know, maybe that will be a better time to do that."

But their own internal system apparently failed to deal with the anomie of the Mullets.

The sheriff said the elder Mullet was upbraided four years ago during a meeting of about 300 Amish bishops from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York for his leadership of his group and for ordering the "shunning" of two families.

"They brought him on the carpet, and he told them to go to hell. He thumbed his nose at them," Abdalla said.

I grew up in Trumbull County where some of these bizarre hair-cutting attacks have occurred. The wagons and traditional dress were familiar fixtures in my young life. I found it both baffling and intriguing that people would choose to live without modern conveniences, so foreign in their own country. There is much about Amish life to recommend it: the simplicity, the frugality, the traditional farming, the craftsmanship, the sense of community. But community cohesion is always a double-edged sword. It protects and nurtures but it also stifles and suppresses. In a close-knit community the abnormal can become the norm. It seems that in much of the Amish world sexual abuse is part of a repeated social pattern. And it looks like it may cause the Amish to be dragged, at least to some degree, into modernity.

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