The Gentle People

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

Go there >>

The Gentle People

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne
magazine

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.