NEVER ALONE: Men­non­ite, Amish sex­ual abuse vic­tims find each other — and their voices

COV­ER­INGS Sex­ual abuse among Men­non­ites and Amish

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By Peter Smith and Shelly Brad­bury Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette

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

Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette

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.

Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette pho­tos

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.”

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