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Amish not immune to #MeToo, victims say

Amish girls eat snacks near the end of the school year in Bergholz, Ohio, on April 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott R. Galvin)

(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.”

Torah Bontrager speaks at the “Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story” conference in Lancaster, Pa., in late September 2018. Photo courtesy of the Amish Heritage Foundation

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.

She wasn’t.

A silhouetted Amish man in Lancaster County, Pa., on Aug. 9, 2014. Photo byMark Makela/Reuters

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.

Abuse survivors Mary Byler, left, and Torah Bontrager pose at the “Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story” conference in Lancaster, Pa., in late September 2018. Photo courtesy of the Amish Heritage Foundation

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 addresses the “Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story” conference in Lancaster, Pa., on Sept. 27, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Amish Heritage Foundation

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.”

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Heather Adams

16 Comments

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  • Even Beverly Lewis, one of the most celebrated authors of gentle Amish novels set around Lancaster County, has hinted in some of her books that large numbers of “The People” (the Old Order Amish) are not necessarily saved in Jesus and that their local bishops may not be either. A pair of her books, “The Postcard” and “The Crossroad”, from 1999, explored this in some detail—–in fiction, of course. The issue in those stories was dabbling in the occult for medical healing, not sexual assault of adults or children. But the upshot in those books was that a bishop and a bunch of other old people finally received Christ after not knowing how or why to do so for decades—–odd as that might sound to outsiders who idolize these people as somehow mega-spiritual, when in fact they are mega-habitual and mega-isolated. (I just happen to have read both of these to my wife not long ago while she was sewing. They were sweet love-story books on one level and troubling on another level.)

    OBVIOUSLY, wherever the family members are doing the little girls, something is far, far out of whack in the patriarchy stuff.

  • That sex crimes are on the rise in both religious & atheistic communities, is proof that the world rejects Jesus & the church is dead. He offers the only solution to both the #MeToo victims & the #MeToo criminals, and yet they crucify Him. Or rather He can never be crucified again for them. Once was enough, because that was once for all.

  • You call “a 30-year plan, a 50-year plan” “to break free from oppression”, freedom?! Only THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation can set you “free from oppression”!

  • Hello HpO. I did not refer to any 30 or 50-year plan. I referred to Mary Byler who broke free from an oppressive and abusive family. This kind of situation can arise in groups and communities, whether they are religious or secular.

  • “He offers the only solution to both…”
    Beyond victim shaming and blaming, what is this solution you say is offered? I mean, the abusers target the weak within the church. What solution does the church and your Jesus offer?

  • Both the #MeToo victims & the #MeToo criminals must turn into born-from-above, fired-up and die-hard followers of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation: whereby and thereby enduring the crosses that they carry in their lives of faith in response to the ransoming Fatherly love of God through the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of His own beloved Son, Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the savior of the rest of the world.

    Easier said than done, I know, especially when the world rejects Jesus, and the church is dead. But there it is, nonetheless. It’s the only solution to both the #MeToo victims & the #MeToo criminals. As they are right now is totally unACCEPTable. So why not ACCEPT this Messianic Proposition? is all I’m saying.

    Thanks for asking, sister Navy Lady.

    Otherwise, what’s your alternative, if you don’t mind me asking?

  • Mandatory conversion to Christianity? Seriously? How the heck does that pay for the costs physical and mental treatment? How the heck does that cover the costs of job loss? How the heck does that cover the cost of lawyers to exact justice?

  • Not a must. Strictly voluntary. Dividends paying off, however. Should be incentive enough. Who wouldn’t wanna transform 100% the personhood of the #MeToo victims, and the personhood of the #MeToo criminals after each #MeToo crime? And yet all you worry about (worry = faithlessness) are “the costs”. But Jesus has got that covered, see. Hence my reference to “enduring the crosses”. Very “cost[ly]” crosses to bear, indeed. If you want to, that is. It’s not for all. Only the few faithful, although many are called to carry their “cost[ly]” crosses. True meaning of The Elect, if you wanna know.

    I know you’re scratching your head right now. Now, see, this is the True Christianity Jesus has been talking about, but no one listens. Too bad. And so the next #MeToo crime shall take place, and with that another #MeToo criminal, and with that another #MeToo victim.

    And God & Jesus looking at this, going, We tried, didn’t We?

    Fast forward. The #MeToo victim faces her Maker on J-Day. Then the #MeToo criminal, too, faces his Maker.

    And God & Jesus looking at them both, going, We tried, didn’t We?

    And they go, … well, you know the ending to that same old, same old, pathetic story.

  • “Fast forward. The #MeToo victim faces her Maker on J-Day. Then the #MeToo criminal, too, faces his Maker.”

    In other words, wait until you are dead to receive relief or justice. Is that how you want your “message” to be received? Keep suffering on earth until you choke through your last breath and band-aids will fall from heaven.

    Not sure how well that goes over during a rape kit collection process. My aunt, a devout Christian, was a rape crisis counselor. The LAST thing she would bring up was religion of any sort unless the rape victims requested it.

  • No, neither the #MeToo victims nor the #MeToo criminals must “wait until [they] are dead to receive relief or justice.” I already told you, they’ll receive it – guaranteed! – once they engage in a “life of faith in response to the ransoming Fatherly love of God through the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of His own beloved Son, Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the savior of the rest of the world.” Beware, however, that such “life of faith” means “enduring the crosses” that they are to carry, from post-conversion until J-Day. Question is, do they want that in exchange for “receiv[ing] relief or justice”? You & I know the answer to that: No, thank You. Hence the reminder of a scene from J-Day that I passed on earlier, is most appropriate to this inquiry.

  • You offer up no tangible relief, merely continued suffering …”Beware, however, that such “life of faith” means “enduring the crosses” that they are to carry,…”
    “Sorry you were raped. This is your lot in life for choosing this brand of faith. Carry this cross until you die so you can get a reward.”

    This is no different than the BS Christians offered me when they learned that I’m suffering from an incurable disease. Suffer and pray, you will be rewarded with health…after you die. I stopped missionaries dead in their tracks when I pointed out this flaw in their advice. They could offer up no defense. No justification beyond flipping through tattered bibles trying to locate a single verse as a rebuttal. Pray for a cure but too bad you have to deal with horrible side effects from meds. Read some bible stories to distract you.

  • Good, you do get it, but you reject it. Your call. Just sink this one final thing I wanna say to you in, then, because it separates THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation from all the other Jesuses being pitched to you by the Christian Right, Left and Center:

    (1) God “offer[ed] up no tangible relief [either to Jesus, but] continued suffering”!

    (2) Jesus’ own “‘life of faith’ mean[t] ‘enduring the cross’ that [He did] carry’ all the way to Golgotha, and that hung Him on it to a brutal and agonizing death!

    (3) Yet through it all, He remembered and believed God’s promise: “Carry this cross until you die so you can get a reward” – this: the first human to undergo a process of glorious resurrection, then to be seated at the right hand of God, on a throne next to His, to reign over the kingdom of God on earth and in heaven!

    (4) When Jesus did “suffer and pray, [He didn’t get] rewarded with health … [but] ha[d] to deal with horrible side effects … [and] read some bible stories to [stay the course of faith]”!

    (5) If neither the #MeToo victims nor the #MeToo criminals nor you, for that matter, don’t want this Way of the Cross of Christ, so be it; leave it at that, then see ya on Judgment Day – even if that can’t possibly happen in the minds of unbelievers!

    That’s my closing statement. Give me yours, and let’s call it NOT EVEN BUT JUST a day.

  • Once again, YOU offer nothing but hollow words to victims. Absolutely NO physical effort on your part to ease any suffering for anyone. No, I will never call it even.

  • It’s pretty retarded that women are still treated as objects to be misused and discarded rather an equal partner to men.
    Where ever there is evil, twisted, warped people it is only right they should be exposed and put to shame.
    Women have rights too.

  • Metoo is a joke. Most of these women just plain hate men. I am a victim of rape from a random man in a parking garage. I am married now. It does not make me hate my husband or male relatives. We treat each other with respect and in the same know our roles and place.

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