(RNS) — The Amish are known for living a simple, idyllic life. Their reputation for forgiveness and community precedes them. And, for the most part, they live outside the rest of American society.
But Torah Bontrager knows Amish life doesn’t always match that ideal. Growing up in an Amish community in the Midwest, Bontrager said, she experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Her story, she said, is not an anomaly. And she’s encouraging other women to speak out.
“We’re in like the pre-Amish #MeToo,” she said. “We still do not have our Weinsteins ... but they do exist."
The Amish Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Bontrager in February that helps ex-Amish transition into American society, hosted its inaugural conference Sept. 28-29 in Lancaster, Pa. The conference, “Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story,” included discussions on sexual assault, education, women’s rights, entrepreneurship and health.
Bontrager has told her story of abuse in her book, “An Amish Girl in Manhattan: Escaping at Age 15, Breaking All the Rules, and Feeling Safe Again,” and on her podcast.
“This is not unique to any single group or culture,” she said. “But within that I want to find the Amish #MeToos.”
When Bontrager was 11 years old, she decided she was going to leave her Amish community because of what she said was years of physical, emotional and verbal abuse from her parents. She said she spent the next four years planning her escape while continuing to endure the abuse.
“That’s pretty common because the Amish religion demands that children are disciplined harshly,” she said.
During her first attempt to leave, she was caught and punished. At age 15 she succeeded, climbing through a bathroom window in the middle of the night.
When many leave the Amish community, they have to figure out how to navigate in a society from which they’ve been largely separated. They may lack birth certificates and Social Security numbers.
There are organizations to help, but Bontrager said the assistance often comes with a religious price tag. She said she wasn’t interested in joining another religious group.
Instead, she arranged to live with a relative who had previously left the Amish church.
“I felt he was the only one that understood me — that he was a safe person and that he would be there to help me,” she said. “Within a month, the only person in the world I thought understood me and was there for me was raping me.”
Once again she found herself plotting an escape.
She moved in with another ex-Amish relative, who was married and had children. This time, she thought, she’d be safe.
More than 20 years later, that relative — her uncle, Enos Bontrager — was charged with multiple counts of child sexual assault involving a different victim, according to the Portage Daily Register.
Women and girls who leave the Amish church and don’t want to join another church can be easily targeted because they’ve been trained to do what men say, Torah Bontrager said, and because they don’t have other people to turn to.
The Amish Heritage Foundation says it’s the first nonsectarian organization to help people transition from Amish life to life in American society.
“We only want to help individuals make the best choices they can for themselves and figure out what is best for themselves, whether they’re inside or outside the church,” Bontrager said.
People leaving the Amish church aren’t the only ones with stories to tell. Bontrager said the Amish Heritage Foundation also works directly with those still in Amish communities.
The solution isn't going to come quickly, she said. “We’re looking at a 30-year plan, a 50-year plan. I’m hoping it’ll go much faster than that, but we’re being realistic.”
She's determined because of the stories she's heard from those who were abused.
Starting at age 5, Mary Byler said, she was raped by multiple people, including three of her own brothers. When she told her mother, she said, her mother told her she didn’t pray hard enough.
When the matter was brought to church elders, Byler’s brothers confessed.
She said they were sentenced to the most extreme punishment the community gave for sexual assault — six weeks of excommunication, which she said only meant not being able to interact with church members.
She was then told to forgive her brothers. Instead, she went to authorities outside the Amish community.
Growing up Amish adds challenges to filing a police report for sexual assault. English is often a second language, and sexual education isn’t part of Amish education, meaning Byler was never taught about rape or sexual assault growing up.
“You don’t understand what happened to you. You literally have no words for it,” she said.
When Don Henry from the Vernon County, Wis., Sheriff's Department spoke with Byler’s brother, Johnny, he freely admitted to raping her, ABC News reported. He only disagreed on how many times it happened.
"He wanted to know how many times she had said, and with him alone she said it happened between 100 and 150 times,” Henry told ABC News. “He thought it was too many and that he thought it was between 50 and 75 times."
All three brothers — David, Eli and Johnny — pleaded guilty.
When Johnny was tried, Byler said, her community sent busloads of Amish men and women to the courtroom to support him.
“Why would they support that?” Byler said, adding she still hasn’t been able to come to terms with that.
Despite raping Mary the most often, Johnny was given the lightest sentence of the three brothers — 10 years’ probation, according to ABC News.
Light sentences aren’t uncommon.
Michael Billig, professor of anthropology at Franklin & Marshall College, credits this to Americans seeing the Amish as a symbol of something idyllic that they’ve lost and wish they still had.
The Amish, he said, care about this image not only for the sake of reputation but also for economic reasons.
In Pennsylvania, a large tourism industry relies on the Amish — and the Amish increasingly rely on this industry as their main source of income, Billig said.
“It is more and more true that their livelihoods depend upon this romantic image,” he said.
Billig believes it’s the job of the social scientists to start looking at what Amish life is really like.
“Speaking the truth about Amish life, warts and all, is difficult,” he said. “We’ve been telling a distorted version of the truth for a long time.”
Sexual assault and abuse aren’t the only aspects of Amish culture that need light shed on them, Billig said.
The conference also spoke about the dangers of the Wisconsin v. Yoder case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1972 that children could not be required to attend school past the eighth grade.
Lack of education, Bontrager said, can create an environment that doesn’t allow children to learn to think for themselves and forces them to stay in a society of abuse.
Today she’s a pilot who traveled to 30 countries before turning 30 years old. But years ago she didn’t think it possible.
“I cried when I graduated from the Amish eighth grade,” she said. “I wanted to know how planes flew, and nobody could explain that to me.”