Sexual Abuse in the Amish Community

"20/20" first aired this story on December 10, 2004

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 22-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."

"They feel that the use of force, even legal force, even filing a lawsuit is outside the spirit of Christ, and outside the spirit of Christian faith," according to Kraybill.

Kraybill said individuals who confess to offenses -- regardless of the seriousness -- are banned from church activities for six weeks and only restored to full membership in their community if they are truly penitent.

"The Amish church has a very strong emphasis on first of all, the importance of confession, public confession, if you transgress the teaching, but secondly forgiveness for that and then forgetting it, and letting it go," Kraybill said.

"The funny thing is that they view drinking alcohol until you puke as bad a sin as raping somebody. They get the same punishment for either one," Mary said.

But Amish-style punishment was not going to bring Mary the justice she wanted. And for her, the final straw came when she suspected a younger brother, David, was molesting their then 4-year-old sister.

Breaking Community Ties

Mary recalled, "She said to me, 'You know, Mary, David is bad to me.'" Mary said her sister told her their mom, Sally Kempf, said she shouldn't talk about it and that she should forgive her brother.

So, Mary did something that drew more shock from her community than the sins of her brothers. She called authorities outside the Amish community, and she let them use her to gather evidence against her own brothers. She visited her brother Johnny wearing a wire and he admitted freely that he had sexually abused her.

Don Henry from the Vernon County, Wis., Sheriff's Department said he had enough evidence to make an arrest in the case. When he spoke with Johnny, he freely admitted to raping her. The only question was how many times, according to Henry.

Henry said, "He wanted to know how many times she had said, and with him alone she said it happened between 100 and 150 times. He thought it was too many and that he thought it was between 50 and 75 times."

Greg Lunde, Eli's lawyer, said Eli admitted to more assaults than Mary had alleged. " I think Mary's allegations against Eli were 12 or 13 times. By Eli's own admission, it was 15 or 16." David also confessed to authorities.

All three brothers pleaded guilty.

David, charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child, was sentenced to four years in prison. Eli, charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child, and with a prior misdemeanor conviction on his record, was given eight years in prison. Johnny Byler's sentencing brought out the largest crowd -- and the most tears -- not in support of Mary, but in support of the confessed rapist.

The community's reaction did not go unnoticed by the judge in the case, Michael Rosbrough. "The thought occurred to me," he said, "How many of you have ever cried for Mary Byler? … You may have prayed for her, I don't doubt you have, but how many of you cried for her? For the loss of her childhood."

Viewing Victim as Villain

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.

Ironically, Johnny, who raped Mary first and most often, got the lightest sentence. Now married and with children of his own, he was given 10 years' probation. For the first year he can work in the Amish community during the day but must spend every night in the county jail.

The Vernon County court also sentenced Mary's mother to two years probation for failure to protect her daughter. Her stepfather was sentenced to 18 months probation for battery and disorderly conduct.

Garrett says Mary's case may strike people as particularly startling because the public has an idealized perception of Amish life. "It's like any other society. You have great families, very well-balanced, but you also have dysfunctional ones. Take the Amish off the pedestal. They're just like everybody else," she said.

For some time now, Mary Byler has been living in a radically different world. Her new life has some distinctly not-Amish trappings: a driver's license, a smoking habit and a GED. Just last March, she joined the Army--hoping to pursue a career in nursing. And she's on a mission of her own, to help other abuse victims in and out of the Amish community.

She says her life now has not only new pleasures but new responsibilities.

And she's on a mission to help other abuse victims, in and out of the Amish community.

"If somebody, some girl or some boy or some child who's being hurt by somebody, would get some good out of this story. That would make me feel really good," Mary said.

Also, for Mary, there's an ironic carryover from her former life an abiding faith. She said, "I feel like God helps those who help themselves. You know, there's a verse in the Bible to that effect, and I really believe it's true, because, you know what, if you don't have the strength to stand up for yourself, there's really not much he can do for you."

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