Sex Abuse Case Shocks Amish Community

ByABC News

VIROQUA, Wis., Oct. 22, 2004 -- -- Earlier this month, on a crisp autumn morning, more than 100 Amish men and women gathered to witness a rare event: the sentencing of one of their own, 25-year-old Johnny Byler, for rape.

Watch World News Tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET for the broadcast report.

"Johnny Byler is a rapist. He needs to recognize that," said Judge Michael Rosborough. "He is a sexual deviant."

"I am very sorry for what I have done," Byler said during his statement in court.

Byler's victim, his younger sister Mary, left her Amish community earlier this year and went to the police. For much of her childhood, she told them, Johnny and another brother sexually assaulted her more than 100 times.

"You raped me so many times I cannot count them all," Mary Byler said as she read a statement in court. "From the time I was 8 and as far I can remember until I was 14, you raped me."

She would try to protect herself, she says, by locking the doors to her room. But Johnny would climb through a window or take the hinges off the door.

Mary said her other brother, Eli, would chase her down in the barn, throw her in the straw, and rape her. The assaults, she told police, simply became a way of life.

"She had finally reached the point where she was ready to get out of there, and she took that step," said Vernon County Sheriff's Investigator Don Henry.

Had she not reported them, the crimes may never have come to light. In the Amish culture, punishment -- even for serious crimes -- is determined by the church.

"If they have a choice, they are going to handle it within the church," said Ruth Irene Garrett, author of "Born Amish." "It is supposed to be forgiven by the church, and you move on. You forgive and you forget and that's it."

Dan Miller, a local Amish bishop, told ABC News that the Byler brothers received the most severe punishment under Amish tradition. Both were banned from church activity for several weeks and made to publicly ask for forgiveness.

"The sense I got was simply that: 'We've taken care of it. We've addressed it. There really is no need for you to get involved,' " said Vernon County prosecutor Tim Gaskell.

"For them to stand up and say they've dealt out the punishment, that was ridiculous," added Henry.

At the request of the police, Mary Byler agreed to visit her family once more, wearing a concealed microphone.

Mary can be heard on tape asking Johnny, "Would you define what you did as sexual abuse?" He responded, "Yes, I think it was."

Police arrested Johnny and Eli Byler the next day. Eli Byler -- who does not have a family to support -- was later sentenced to eight years in prison.

Police also charged Mary's mother, Sally Kempf, for failing to protect her daughter. Kempf, who is on probation, spoke to ABC News from her home.

"We are used to our way of punishing and handling things, and the law just doesn't make sense," she said. "I don't know what the world thinks of us, but my concern is what God thinks of us."

In court shortly before his sentencing, Johnny Byler asked for forgiveness.

"I have given the Amish a very bad name," he said. "I tell you, Mary, that I am sorry that I ruined your life."

The judge sentenced him to 10 years probation, and one year of nights in the county jail. During the day, he will be free to see his wife and children and to support them while working the family farm.

"I don't have to tolerate the abuse or anything I don't want to anymore," Mary Byler said in court. "I am free."

Mary believes there are more Amish women living in fear and silence. She hopes that, by coming forward, others will follow.

ABC News' Barbara Pinto filed this report for World News Tonight.

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