LEOLA, Pennsylvania — Long linen dresses are common on farms in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, home to the largest Amish community in the United States. For many tourists they are a component of the bucolic landscape, as important as the rural roads and wooden bridges.
But two days in late April, dresses with a very different meaning were put on display in a small show. These were 13 garments that represented the trauma of sexual assaults that occurred in Amish, Mennonite and other similar communities, a reminder that the modest clothing demanded by its members, especially women and girls, does not guarantee anything.
It was the clothes worn by the victim or a replica prepared by volunteers, following the strict dress codes of the affected girls’ churches.RELATED
One was a purple Amish dress with long sleeves and a simple high neck. She had a sign that read: “Victim’s age: four years”.
Next to her was a coat, a green dress and a hat of a five-year-old girl, accompanied by black shoes. “I was never safe. He was an adult,” the girl said, according to the accompanying poster. “Nobody helped me when I told them that he had hurt me.”
There was also a onesie for a little boy.
“You get mad when you get such a small outfit in the mail,” said Ruth Ann Brubaker of Wayne County, Ohio, who helped set up the show. “I didn’t know I could be so irritated. She makes you cry.”Darlene Shirk looks at a display of clothing worn by victims of underage sexual abuse in Amish, Mennonite and other communities at a child abuse prevention seminar in Leola, Pennsylvania. (The Associated Press)
The clothing on display represents various branches of the conservative Anabaptist tradition, including Amish, Mennonites, Brethren in Christ and Charities. These congregations are marginalized from society and place an emphasis on church discipline, forgiveness, and modest attire, including hats and head coverings for women.
The exhibit was part of a conference on sexual abuse in “simple churches,” as they are called because of their attachment to the simple life, held April 29-30 at Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola, sponsored by by the organizations A Better Way, of Zanesville, Ohio, and Safe Communities, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Hope Anne Dueck, executive director of A Better Way and one of the organizers of the show, said many survivors say they are told that “if they had just covered their heads, nothing would probably have happened to them” or “they probably didn’t wear modesty enough.”
“I, as a survivor (of sexual assault), knew that wasn’t true,” Dueck said.
“They can attack you no matter how you dress,” he added.
The people who contributed clothes for the sample “were wearing what their parents and their churches told them to do, and they wore them correctly. But they were attacked anyway.”
The sample was based on similar ones mounted in universities and other places in recent years, on the premise of “how were you dressed?”. They exhibit clothes of all kinds with the aim of putting an end to the myth that rapes can be attributed to the clothes of the victims.
Members of other religious communities that wear modest clothing — not just Anabaptists but others like Holiness, an offshoot of Methodism that emphasizes piety — agreed last year that they should make similar displays.Mary Byler (left), who grew up in an Amish community, and Hope Anne Dueck, a Mennonite, watch a video showing demure clothing worn by sexual abuse victims from those communities. (The Associated Press)
“It never had anything to do with the clothes,” said Mary Byler, a survivor of sexual abuse as a child in the Amish communities in which she grew up.
Byler, who founded The Misfit Amish in Colorado to bridge the cultural gap between the Amish and the rest of society, helped set up the exhibit.
“I hope it lets survivors know that they are not alone,” she said.
Victims of abuse were invited to contribute the clothes they wore or describe them. All except one contributed girls’ clothes and those of a boy, which reflect the age at which they were attacked. The only adult garment belonged to a woman who was raped by her husband shortly after giving birth, according to Dueck.
The organizers plan to produce high-quality photos of the garments to display on social media and at other future exhibits.
Simple church leaders have admitted in recent years that sexual abuse is a problem in their communities and have held workshops to raise awareness.
Activists, however, say much more needs to be done and that some community leaders continue to treat abuses as matters that fall within the purview of church discipline and are not seen as crimes to be reported to the authorities.
Dozens of simple church members have been convicted of sexually abusing children in the past two decades, according to court records from several states. And numerous religious leaders were convicted of failing to report abuse, including a Lancaster County Amish bishop in 2020.
Researchers and conference organizers said they are trying to collect hard data on the issue.
The clothing display, however, is a very strong allegation, according to Darlene Shirk, a Mennonite from Lancaster County.
“There is talk of statistics… but when you have something physical like here, and the fact that they are garments from simple communities, it is like saying ‘look, this is what happens in our community!'” he said.
Activists say that in simple, male-led churches where forgiveness is preached, people are often pressured to reconcile with the person who abused them.
Byler says that in the 18 years since she reported her abuse to civil authorities, she has lost count of the stories of abuse she has heard in simple communities. Survivors are often marginalized and face accusations that “they incited the abuse,” she said.