What they wore: Clothes spotlight sex abuse in Amish and similar groups
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 from abuse.
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.
One was a small long-sleeve, periwinkle blue Amish dress with a simple stand collar. The accompanying sign said, “Survivor Age: 4 years old.”
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, Pa.
Hope Anne Dueck, 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 a Colorado-based group called 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.
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 also been convicted for failing to report abuse, including an Amish bishop in Lancaster County in 2020.
Researchers and organizers at the conference said they were 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.
Advocates say that in the male-led Plain churches, where forgiveness is taught as a paramount virtue, people are often pressured to reconcile with their abusers or their children’s abusers.
Byler said that in the 18 years since she reported her sexual assaults to civil authorities, she has heard more stories of abuse in the Plain churches than she can count. Survivors are often isolated from their communities and met with “very victim-blaming statements,” she said.
“Child sexual assault and sexual assault is something that happens ... inside of communities from every walk and way of life,” Byler said.
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