‘This is happening in our community’: Clothing display spotlights sex abuse among Amish, others

By PETER SMITH, The Associated Press

LEOLA, Pa. (AP) — Clotheslines with billowing linens and long dresses are a common sight on the off-grid farms of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, home to the nation’s largest Amish settlement. For many tourists they’re as iconic a part of Amish Country’s bucolic scenery as the rural lanes and wooden bridges.

But for two days in late April, a clothesline with a different purpose was strung in a small indoor exhibit here. Hanging from it were 13 outfits representing the trauma of sexual assault suffered by members of the Amish, Mennonite and similar groups, a reminder that the modest attire they require, particularly of women and girls, is no protection.

Each garment on display was either the actual one a survivor wore at the time they were assaulted or a replica assembled by volunteers to match the strict dress codes of the survivor’s childhood church.

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One was a long-sleeve, periwinkle blue Amish dress with a simple stand collar. The accompanying sign said, “Survivor Age: 4 years old.”

Dresses donated by sexual assault survivors from Amish and other plain-dressing religious groups hang on a clothesline beneath a description of each survivors’ age and church affiliation, on Friday, April 29, 2022, in Leola, Pa. The exhibit’s purpose was to show that sexual assault is a reality among children and adults in such groups. Similar exhibits held nationwide aim to shatter the myth that abuse is caused by a victim’s clothing choice. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)AP

Next to it was a 5-year-old’s heavy coat, hat and long, hunter green dress, displayed above sturdy black shoes. “I was never safe and I was a child. He was an adult,” a sign quoted the survivor as saying. “No one helped me when I told them he hurt me.”

There was also an infant’s onesie.

“You feel rage when you get a tiny little outfit in the mail,” said Ruth Ann Brubaker of Wayne County, Ohio, who helped put the exhibit together. “I didn’t know I could be so angry. Then you start crying.”

The clothes on display represented various branches of the conservative Anabaptist tradition, which include Amish, Mennonite, Brethren and Charity. Often referred to as the Plain churches, they emphasize separation from mainstream society, church discipline, forgiveness and modest dress, including head coverings for women.

It was part of a larger conference on awareness of sexual abuse in the Plain churches held April 29-30 at Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola and sponsored by two advocacy organizations: A Better Way, based in Zanesville, Ohio, and Safe Communities, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Sex abuse, Plain, clothing display

Sexual assault survivors Mary Byler, left, born Amish, and Hope Anne Dueck, whose background is Mennonite, look at a video taken of their exhibit, which displays articles of clothing from sexual assault survivors in the Amish, Mennonite, and similar plain-dressing religious groups, on Friday, April 29, 2022, in Leola, Pa. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)AP

Hope Anne Dueck, the executive director of A Better Way and one of the exhibit’s organizers, said many survivors report being told things such as “If you had been wearing your head covering, then you probably wouldn’t have been assaulted,” or “You couldn’t have been dressed modestly enough.”

“And as a survivor myself,” Dueck said, “I knew that that was not the truth.”

“You can be harmed no matter what you’re wearing,” she said. Those who contributed to the exhibit “were wearing what their parents and the church prescribed, and wearing them correctly, and were still assaulted.”

The exhibit was based on similar ones that have been staged at college campuses and elsewhere in recent years called “What Were You Wearing?” They show a wide range of attire with the aim of shattering the myth that sexual assault can be blamed on what a victim had on.

Current and former members of plain-dressing religious communities — not just the Anabaptists but others such as Holiness, an offshoot of Methodism with an emphasis on piety — agreed last year that it was time to hold their own version.

“At the end of the day, it was never about the clothes,” said Mary Byler, a survivor of child sexual abuse in the Amish communities where she grew up. Byler, who founded the Colorado-based group The Misfit Amish to bridge cultural gaps between the Amish and the wider society, helped to organize the exhibit.

“I hope it helps survivors know that they’re not alone,” she said.

Survivors were invited to submit their outfits or descriptions of them. All but one provided children’s attire, mostly girls and one boy, reflecting their age when they were assaulted. The lone adult outfit belonged to a woman who was raped by her husband shortly after giving birth, Dueck said.

Organizers plan to have high-quality photos made of the clothes to display online and in future exhibits.

Plain church leaders have acknowledged in recent years that sexual abuse is a problem in their communities and have held seminars to raise awareness.

But advocates say they need to do more, and that some leaders continue to treat abuse cases as matters of church discipline rather than as crimes to be reported to civil authorities.

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Dozens of offenders from Plain church affiliations have been convicted of sexually abusing children in the past two decades, according to a review of court files in several states. Several church leaders have been convicted for failing to report abuse, including an Amish bishop in Lancaster County in 2020.

Sex abuse, Plain, clothing display

Darlene Shirk looks at the clothes of sexual assault survivors from Amish, Mennonite and other plain-dressing religious groups on display at a child abuse prevention seminar, on Friday, April 29, 2022, in Leola, Pa. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)AP

Researchers and organizers at the conference said they are surveying current and former Plain community members to gather concrete data on what they believe is a pervasive problem.

But the display made a powerful statement on its own, said Darlene Shirk, a Mennonite from Lancaster County.

“We talk about statistics … but when you have something physical here, and because the dress is from the Plain community, it shouts, ‘Look, this is happening in our community!’” she said.