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Investigation Into Child Sex Abuse In Amish Communities


We're going to turn now to a story that some listeners might find disturbing. It's about sexual abuse - specifically, among the Amish. That's a traditional Christian group based in rural areas in the Mid and Northwest, which many people might know by their adherence to plain dress and a simple lifestyle.

Sarah McClure is an investigative journalist who spent a year reporting on sexual abuse among the Amish. She uncovered 52 cases, which include rape and incest, across seven states over the past two decades. And she says that that does not capture the full picture. McClure's investigative piece is in the February edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. It's called "The Amish Keep To Themselves. And They're Hiding A Horrifying Secret." It's a collaboration with Type Investigations, which is a nonprofit investigative news organization. And Sarah McClure is with us now to tell us more about her reporting. Sarah McClure, thank you so much for joining us.

SARAH MCCLURE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you uncovered 52 cases of sexual abuse across seven states. And by that, I assume you mean that these were cases that were actually prosecuted - would that be correct? - or that they were verified by some sort of process of accountability. Would that be accurate?

MCCLURE: Absolutely. All of those 52 cases were charged and prosecuted sexual assault cases from the Amish community.

MARTIN: But you said that you don't think this captures the full scope of the problem. Why do you say that?

MCCLURE: The majority of my sources never made a police report. They never had a court case. Whenever I spoke with these women, they had dozens of other victims that they told me about, dozens of other cousins and friends and family members that - they told me that this had happened to them, too. And, obviously, I can't put a number out there that's unverified or not supported or corroborated by a court case or a police report. It's very difficult to do a story like this where the evidence is limited. And so just anecdotally, just based on my conversations with these women and men, there are a lot more victims out there in Amish country that we may never know of simply because there is no paper trail.

MARTIN: And here's where I'm going to once again say that this may be very disturbing for some people to hear. But who were the main perpetrators here? Is this mainly within people's own families? Is this mainly fathers and brothers?

MCCLURE: I'm hesitant to say who the main perpetrator is because it varies so greatly between these communities. It's easy to lump all the Amish together. But in my experience with these sources, some of the alleged perpetrators that I have heard of are their own father, their own uncles, their brothers, a neighbor. It is often a situation where it's someone within the family.

MARTIN: You mentioned that a number of the women who report their abuse, women who are or thought to be about to report their abuse are sent away to these special Amish or Mennonite mental health facilities. Why would that be? I mean, this is a theology that upholds, like, the dignity of all persons, you know? Why is it that - it seems that there's kind of a bias toward protecting the men as opposed to protecting the women and the girls. So why?

MCCLURE: This is a story where we can at least look at an example of one Amish woman who was able to speak to a journalist, speak to somebody outside their own communities about what is happening, allegedly, at these mental health facilities. To her account, she says that many, many Amish women are sent away to these facilities and never have a life, again. She calls them zombies because they have been medicated. And in her case, she had gotten off her drug, which was olanzapine, and she was able to speak about her own experiences.

There's no real way to quantify exactly how many Amish people have been affected by this issue. But there are other women who have been allegedly silenced using facilities. And in some of these cases, I've heard that they've been taken across state lines to go for counseling. And keep in mind, there are Amish leaders who are reporting, who are talking to the police. But there are others who are not.

MARTIN: Have you been able to follow up what has happened to women who have, in fact, brought charges, who have brought criminal cases against people who assaulted them? How have they been treated within the community?

MCCLURE: The reaction has not been supportive. There has been a lot of threats made against these victims. Sometimes, they are shamed, even if they've left the community. Their entire lives are just turned upside-down. They don't have support, oftentimes, from their own family members. In many cases, we see charges are downgraded from - you know? I saw a case that was downgraded from rape to sexual assault so that these alleged abusers are able to be charged with probation and a fine versus having to serve time.

MARTIN: Is it in part because there's such a strong emphasis on forgiveness that the feeling is that a breach within the community is best addressed by some sort of reconciliation, even at the cost of the victim feeling that they haven't been supported?

MCCLURE: Absolutely. There - these sources tell me that the forgiveness and repentance is much more of a priority for the abuser in place of any legal action. Once a community is made aware of an abuse case, there - little might be done beyond taking the issue to their bishop, their ministers and deacon. In that situation, what the church often does is has the abuser confess their sin in front of the church. They're given six weeks of shunning. There's no police report filed. There's no rape kit. There's no real follow-up treatment to these victims in this case. There's a really strong preference to keep the family together at all costs.

MARTIN: That is journalist Sarah McClure. Her story "The Amish Keep To Themselves. And They're Hiding A Horrifying Secret" is in the February edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. Sarah McClure, thank you so much for talking to us today.

MCCLURE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.