Sexual Abuse in the Amish Community

The Amish community is a mysterious world within modern America, a place frozen in another time. The Amish live without automobiles or electricity. Education ends at the eighth grade and life largely centers on farming, family and faith.

Some 90 percent of children raised Amish choose to stay in the community. But one who did not is 20-year-old Mary Byler.

"I would read books and I'd imagine. I had a great imagination that would take me to faraway places, you know, places where I was afraid I would never be, but wanted to be," she told "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas.

Mary says she'd use those fantasies as an emotional escape from what she says was her horrible reality -- a childhood and adolescence of sexual assault and rape.

"If somebody was raping me, I'd look up to the ceiling, count the blocks or count the cracks in the wall, or just I was completely not there emotionally. I would have committed suicide many times over if I wouldn't be strong," she said.

Through the years, by Mary's account, she was raped by several different attackers. But one abused her more often than the others -- her brother Johnny. Johnny, one of Mary's eight brothers, began assaulting her when he was 12 and she was 6. The assaults continued into her teen years, she said.

"I couldn't go to the outhouse because there was always somebody waiting there. I couldn't go anywhere alone. There was just no place I could be alone," she said.

As time passed, another brother, Eli, followed suit.

"He'd rape me down in the milk house when I was cleaning up the milk house. He'd rape me down in the barn," she said.

The violence in Mary's family began with the head of it -- a stepfather who, she says, continually beat both Mary and her brothers.

"He hit them with shovels and hacksaws, fists, halters, anything and everything he could get his hands on," she said.

A Community of Submission

Irene Garrett left the Amish community to marry an outsider and has written several books on Amish life. Sadly, Garrett says, Mary's plight is not an isolated case.

"Overall in an Amish community, women are very quiet, they're very submissive," Garrett said.

Amish women are not taught anything about sex, according to Garrett, which makes it even harder for a girl who's being abused to describe what's happening to her.

Mary said she didn't know how to describe what was happening. "I thought they were being bad to me. That was the only word I had to express it," she said.

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.

Indeed, Mary's brothers had confessed in church. In this closed society problems are handled internally, the church elders are both judge and jury.

And the punishment might be surprising to outsiders.

"The Amish emphasize the simplicity of life, plainness of life. They accentuate several themes, such as pacifism, the importance of community," said Donald Kraybill, professor of sociology at Elizabethtown college and author of "The Riddle of Amish Culture."

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