The Gentle People

Respecting the Amish's desire to live apart shields sexual predators from the law

| January 13, 2005

Mary Byler and Anna Slabaugh endured years of sexual abuse by their male relatives. When Byler, now 19 years-old, locked herself away from her brothers, they removed the door to get to her. When Slabaugh was an adolescent, she sought protection from the outside world and her mother had all of her teeth removed to keep her quiet.

Slabaugh, fearing for her life, withdrew her complaints to authorities and eventually ran away.

Byler went first to her mother, who addressed the problem with an herb meant to reduce the boys' sexual appetites. When that failed, Byler lived with the abuse until she left the community. Suspicious that another brother was hurting her little sister, Byler wrote her minister and threatened to go to the authorities if something wasn't done. The two brothers who abused Byler were punished with the traditional shunning by their community for four and six weeks. Byler went to the police and was excommunicated.

The Amish punishment meted out to Byler's brothers is rooted in the sect's belief in the primacy of forgiveness. Like Jesus, they are expected to turn the other cheek. But the state isn't. Byler's three brothers, including the one she suspected of molesting her sister, eventually went before a secular court. They received sentences ranging from eight years in prison to spending a year at the county jail, mostly at night.

In a time when sexual predators are being given increasingly dramatic sentences, including indefinite civil commitments, the punishments allotted these men seem shockingly mild. And that begs the question of why.

Legal Affairs writer Nadya Labi traces the state's inaction to the myth of the Amish as 'The Gentle People.' Seen as a pious and benign religious community, the Amish ethos of 'you don't bother us, we won't bother you' has kept society at bay, but robbed some of society's most defenseless citizens of the law's protection.
-- Hannah Lobel