NEVER ALONE: Mennonite, Amish sexual abuse victims find each other — and their voices
COVERINGS Sexual abuse among Mennonites and Amish
The last of six parts.
Raise your hand if you want your children to have the same experience learning about sexuality as you did,” the speaker said.
Not one hand went up.
That wasn’t surprising, given that the aim of the conference held here in April was helping people recognize and respond to child sexual abuse.
The conference, sponsored by a group called A Better Way, drew a modest crowd of about 30, but almost everyone there had a story. Either they or a loved one had suffered
sexual abuse, and the trauma was aggravated by the way their churches mishandled the abuse.
Some of the crowd included women wearing veils, signifying their roots in the churches of the self-described Plain People. Those churches, including conservative
Mennonites and Amish, are now facing a reckoning over their handling of child sexual abuse. Other speakers and attendees wore contemporary clothing and were from churches of other denominations.
“We’re equal-opportunity,” said Hope Anne Dueck, of Zanesville, founder of A Better Way. “We minister to anybody who is willing to learn or who needs help, but a lot of our clientele does seem to come from the Amish and Mennonite and other Anabaptist-type groups.”
Mrs. Dueck, 48, a mother of five who until recently attended Mennonite churches, launched the organization to provide everything from public education to behindthe-scenes advocacy for abuse victims among the Plain People.
She said that since childhood — when she went to a small Mennonite church school in Kentucky, where she counted as many as seven families with victims of sexual abuse — she has seen too many cases covered up by churches. Too many cases where victims were shamed, where girls were blamed as temptresses despite wearing the prescribed coverings and long dresses, where the abused were told to forgive the abusers who made a show of repentance.
She said she started this work “because I am a survivor. I knew that something had to change.”
She’s not the only one.
Former Mennonites Jasper Hoffman, of North Carolina, and Marc Masoner, of Lancaster, Pa., launched a podcast filled with stories of abuse and survival.
Torah Bontrager, of New York City, started a foundation and wrote a memoir of abuse in her Amish community, from which she fled at age 15.
Trudy Metzger, of Canada, launched an organization and wrote a memoir of surviving a Mennonite upbringing marked by horrific sexual abuse and other violence.
They work with survivors and others both within the Plain churches, where quiet efforts to raise awareness of abuse have grown in recent years through conferences and publications, and with those who have left the churches.
Although these activists have left their childhood Plain church movements, with their renowned social bonds, they are finding new community as they find one another. They’re discovering what Ms. Metzger discovered as an adult when she learned how many abuse victims were in her own small Mennonite network:
“I never was alone. I only felt alone.”
Trudy Metzger, 49, now of Elmira, Ontario, grew up in Mennonite communities in Mexico and Canada, experiencing brutal corporal punishment in addition to sexual abuse by adults and other children. She also witnessed terrifying domestic violence and threats.
As she increasingly came to terms with these traumas as an adult, she began to tell others. “I never shared detail. But as I shared that little bit, even in the Mennonite community, what started to happen is that little whisper of, ‘It happened to me, too.’”
She began keeping a list of victims that reached 61 women, from young to middle age. “And that is when I started to say, we have a problem, but I didn’t know what to do about it.” She asked her church to hold a conference for survivors, but the minister only wanted the names of perpetrators so they could be disciplined, she said.
“I said, ‘But what about the victims?’” she recalled. “We’re suffering, we’re hurting, and these stories need … to be told, and we need to heal.”
In 2010, she started an organization now called Generations Unleashed, originally focused on helping women who were sexually abused, regardless of background.
But her work resonated most with victims from within the Plain People, men and women.
On any given day, Ms. Metzger might be organizing a conference, connecting survivors with one another, relentlessly investigating a tip about a serial abuser, trying to find safe shelter for a young Amish woman or rallying social media followers with memes such as: “Exposing sexual abuse is not an attack on the church. Hiding it is.”
She believes churches need to help not only victims but also abusers — but to hold them strictly to account, with transparency, and not to shield them from prison or to trust them around children.
“It has to be the community and the law working together,” she said. “The law is going to deal with the crime part of it. And that’s very important. But we as a community are going to be those who surround both the victim and the offender to stop this thing … What happens between the time that [offenders] are arrested and in prison, and what happens after prison? Who is there to make sure that the kids are safe, to make sure that this doesn’t just carry on?”
Ms. Metzger, a mother of five, is now pursuing a doctorate in sociology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
Her studies focus on the nexus of crime and religion. Even though she has seen too much of a mixture of the two, she retains a Christian commitment while understanding those whose trauma has caused them to abandon theirs. Her memoir’s title, “Between 2 Gods,” reflects her struggle to separate her vision of a loving, nurturing faith with the abusive one she grew up with.
Although no longer in a Plain movement, she attends an Anabaptist church with a strong peace commitment. She tells fellow survivors, religious or not, that although their past can’t be changed, it doesn’t “have to rule your life.”
“You have value, you have purpose, you have something to offer this world. Nobody can take that away from you,” she said.
Atop a blustery hilltop beside a busy highway in Lancaster County, Marc Masoner peered through the doors of his former church and marveled at how little had changed inside since he was last there years before.
One side for men, one for women, blank white walls and long wooden pews.
He remembered how proud he’d been to become a church member as a teenager, how someone had taken a picture of him in his first Plain suit up against the red brick wall.
“I was really proud. I was like, ‘I’m in the club,’” said Mr. Masoner, now 32.
But just two years later, he felt betrayed by the same community when he met with church leaders and told them he’d been sexually abused by a man in the church.
“I was a kid; I didn’t have a witness,” Mr. Masoner said. “I know they did talk to him about it and he denied it, so I was branded as a liar. I appealed to the bishop and he wouldn’t do anything about it.”
He added: “I felt all alone, like there was no advocate, no one to stand for me.”
He was alone because he’d been sent at age 12 to Pennsylvania from Washington state. He said church leaders told his single mother she couldn’t handle all of her children and insisted he be sent across the country to a church member’s home, entirely outside the public system of foster care.
He still looks back tearfully at his arrival at the Harrisburg airport that day. He considered telling a police officer he didn’t want to be there, which would have brought child welfare services into the picture. But having been indoctrinated that “the world is evil,” he walked through security and into a setting where, he said, he was physically and sexually abused.
Mr. Masoner’s childhood churches were in the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church. A man listed in its directory as the Eastern denomination’s contact person referred a reporter to a bishop, who declined to comment for this story. A reporter’s letter sent in mid-May to his former congregation, Rheems Mennonite Church in Mount Joy, Pa., did not receive a reply.
Mr. Masoner suffered in silence for several more years before joining the Army, leading to his excommunication for violating the church’s stance against military participation. After 4½ years as a soldier, Mr. Masoner went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. He hopes to become a social worker, helping other victims of abuse.
He moved back to Lancaster County, and in November 2018, he and a former Mennonite woman, Jasper Hoffman, launched The Plain People’s Podcast, in which survivors of Amish and Mennonite sexual abuse tell their stories.
It’s an intimate show, alternating between lighthearted banter and horrifyingly dark stories, and it has spread among Plain communities and survivors.
The hosts said the podcast has been downloaded 100,000 times since November, with CD recordings circulating among Plain People who lack internet access.
Back in 2004, Mr. Masoner had read a series in the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal newspaper on sexual and other domestic abuse in the Plain communities. It helped him find the courage to report his own abuse, he said. Now, he hopes the podcast can play a similar role for others.
Because of the passage of the statute of limitations with his own abuse, “there’s nothing I can do about that except move on and share my story in the hopes that other people will hear it and will be moved to report their own abuse or to report the abuse that they see.”
He now goes to a non-Mennonite church. “I kind of ran from God for a very long time,” he said. “Since then I have rededicated my life to Christ. And now I know that the abuse that happened to me was not God’s plan, was not God’s intention.”
Ms. Hoffman, 35, who had met Mr. Masoner when both were youths in Mennonite churches in Washington state, hopes the podcast lays groundwork for what she envisions as the Plain People’s Project. It would connect people leaving their communities to housing, trauma therapy and educational assistance.
People “feel stuck and they don’t have anywhere to go,” she said. But she hopes reform happens from within the churches as well.
“If people want to stay, stay,” she said. “But stay because you want to and it’s a healthy thing, not because you’re abused or scared.”
Mrs. Dueck began volunteering about 20 years ago, joining a nonprofit with other women that offered books, a newsletter, mentoring and other support for Amish and Mennonite women and girls who had been sexually abused.
It was so discreet that it was operated out of a post office box in a town where none of the organizers lived.
“Quite a few of those who were involved had been abused personally and were very aware that it was a huge issue, and we could see nothing significant or serious was really being done to really meet the needs of the women who were struggling,” she said.
Her work tapered off as she was busy raising her young children.
She started A Better Way in 2017 after an abuse case arose in her congregation that prompted her to report the matter to police.
In the process of that case, she found an ally in Knox County, Ohio, Detective Sgt. Dan Bobo. He served as one of the speakers at the Zanesville conference, helping guide listeners through mandated-reporting laws and how authorities today structure interviews to be as child-friendly as possible.
Mrs. Dueck said such connections help her to advise Plain families dealing with abuse.
“Essentially, I’m an educator and a victim’s advocate,” Mrs. Dueck said. She still identifies strongly with her Mennonite tradition even as she now attends a church from a different denomination, Zanesville Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, where the April conference was held.
Among the things she advocates: better education for young people in Plain communities about sexuality and abuse, and replacing “brutal” corporal punishment with a more “grace-based” approach to discipline.
She also calls out publications geared to Plain populations, many still in print, that say females need to dress modestly lest they not tempt males to assault.
“You were taught to keep your dress down over your knees . ... But were you ever taught what to do if you were not allowed to keep your dress over your knees? A specific teaching, ‘Keep your dress over your knees,’ is so ignorant. It does not acknowledge that much sexual abuse happens through clothing.”
One victory occurred in recent months. After she and others spoke out, a publication geared to Anabaptist women retracted an article by the wife of a convicted abuser. The author had forgiven her husband, but her article gave no consideration to the injury to the teenage girl he’d repeatedly sexually assaulted.
“It’s not just the sexual abuse” that’s a problem, Mrs. Dueck said. “It’s the fact that frequently all the teaching we were subjected to additionally makes us think it was our fault. Even when we know it wasn’t. The church’s own teachings make us twofold more victims than even the sexual abuse does.”
Torah Bontrager echoed that. “There wouldn’t be any sexual abuse in the Amish if the clothes really stopped it,” she said.
But there is, and “I don’t know what to do but to speak out as loudly as I can.”
Ms. Bontrager, 38, wrote in her memoir, “An Amish Girl in Manhattan,” of how she suffered sexual assaults repeatedly as a child, before and after running away from her Amish home in Michigan at age 15.
She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and has founded and directs the Amish Heritage Foundation.
She and others with the foundation are organizing a multistate speaking tour this summer with a focus on a campaign to repeal Wisconsin v. Yoder.
That 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows the Amish to limit their children’s education to around the eighth grade, saying state mandates for secondary-school education were “in sharp conflict with the fundamental mode of life mandated by the Amish religion.”
The ruling is often hailed as a landmark for religious freedom.
But Ms. Bontrager said it gives religious rights precedence over basic child welfare. She said it fosters a culture of abuse because children aren’t adequately taught about sexuality and may not understand what abusers are doing or how to get help. And those who decide to leave their communities when they’re old enough, as she did, find
their education has limited their opportunities in the outside world, she said. The foundation is LGBT-affirming and secular, she said, not asking people to keep or change their religious faith. Ms. Bontrager acknowledged that Plain church leaders deem her foundation to be hostile. But some abuse victims seeking a way out do contact it seeking help, she said. There are lots of positive things about Amish culture,” she said. “I am very grateful I know how to grow my own food, I know how to communicate without a phone, I know how to start a fire without electricity and sew my own clothes. Just the general work ethic I was taught, that was hugely valuable. Those are the positive things I would like to see retained. But that’s a cultural thing. That’s not religion necessarily. The religion can’t be about covering up crime and hurting children. If that’s what the religion is, it needs to change.” She’s found grassroots efforts toward change from within the Plain churches. There are some Amish women inside the church, baptized, in their 60s,” Ms. Bontrager said. “I sat in a room with a handful of them several months ago. I heard them say it’s not enough to send these perpetrators to Amish counseling. They need to be reported, they need to go to jail. I did not think I’d hear any member of the Amish church say this until I was on my deathbed, if I were lucky.”
“I said, ‘But what about the victims?’
We’re suffering, we’re hurting, and these stories need … to be told, and we need to heal.”
— Trudy Metzger, executive director and speaker for Generations Unleashed
Hope Anne Dueck, left, of Zanesville, Ohio, co-founder of A Better Way, talks with Brenda Gerber, of New Hamburg, Ontario, at the A Better Way conference April 6 at Zanesville Alliance Church.
The center photo center photo shows activists and educators Patricia Lewis, left, and Hope Anne Dueck. The archival photos are courtesy of Mrs. Dueck.
Trudy Metzger, of Ontario, Canada, is founder of Generations Unleashed. “We as a community are going to be those who surround both the victim and the offender to stop this thing,” Ms. Metzger says of her mentoring of sexual abuse victims.
Hope Anne Dueck, standing at center, laughs with fellow educator and activist Patricia Lewis, second from righond from right, of Mount Gilead, Ohio. Ms. Lewis says her first priority for change in the Plain churches is to teach healthy sexuality to children.
Former conservative Mennonite Marc Masoner stands in front of Rheems Mennonite Church, one of his childhood churches, on March 14 in West Donegal, Lancaster County. “No one wants to suffer,” he says. “No one wants to be an outcast, especially for something that they didn’t do, in the case of sexual abuse.”