What they wore: Clothing highlights sexual abuse among Amish and others
Clotheslines with billowing sheets and long robes are commonplace on off-grid farms in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, home to the nation’s largest Amish settlement. For many tourists, they are as emblematic of the bucolic landscape of Amish country as the rural lanes and wooden bridges.
But for two days in late April, a clothesline with a different purpose hung in a small indoor exhibit here. Hanging on it were 13 outfits representing the trauma of sexual assault suffered by members of Amish, Mennonite and similar groups, a reminder that the modest dress they need, especially for women and girls, is not protection.
Each item of clothing on display was either what a survivor was wearing 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 long-sleeved periwinkle blue Amish dress with a simple stand-up collar. The accompanying sign read, “Age of Survivor: 4 years.”
Next to it was a 5-year-old’s thick hunter-green coat, hat and long dress, displayed above sturdy black shoes. “I was never safe and I was a kid. He was an adult,” read a sign quoting the survivor. “Nobody helped me when I told them he made me evil.”
There was also a baby 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 together the exhibit. “I didn’t know I could be so angry. Then you start crying.
The garments on display represented various branches of the conservative Anabaptist tradition, which include Amish, Mennonite, Brethren and Charity. Often called the simple churches, they emphasize separation from mainstream society, church discipline, forgiveness, and modest dress, including head coverings for women.
This was part of a larger Plain Church Sexual Abuse Awareness Conference 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, Pennsylvania.
Hope Anne Dueck, executive director of A Better Way and one of the exhibit’s organizers, said many survivors said they heard things like “If you had worn your head covering, you probably wouldn’t have not been mugged” or “You couldn’t have been dressed modestly enough.
“And as a survivor myself,” Dueck said, “I knew that wasn’t the truth.”
“You can get hurt no matter what you’re wearing,” she said. Those who contributed to the exhibit “wore what their parents and the church prescribed, and wore it correctly, and were still assaulted.”
The exhibit was based on similar exhibits that were staged on university campuses and elsewhere in recent years called “What were you wearing?” They show a wide range of clothing in an effort to bust the myth that a sexual assault can be blamed on what a victim was wearing.
Current and former members of faith communities in ordinary dress — not just Anabaptists, but others like Holiness, an offshoot of Methodism emphasizing piety — agreed last year that it was time to stand 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 the Colorado-based group The Misfit Amish to bridge cultural gaps between the Amish and wider society, helped organize the exhibit.
“I hope this helps survivors know that they are not alone,” she said.
Survivors were asked to submit their outfits or descriptions of them. All but one provided clothing for children, mostly girls and one boy, reflecting their age at the time they were assaulted. The only adult outfit belonged to a woman who was raped by her husband shortly after giving birth, Dueck said.
The organizers plan to have high quality photos of the garments to display online and in future exhibitions.
Single church leaders have in recent years recognized that sexual abuse is a problem in their communities and have held awareness seminars.
But advocates say they need to do more, and some leaders continue to treat cases of abuse as matters of church discipline rather than crimes to be reported to civil authorities.
According to a review of court records from several states, dozens of single church offenders have been convicted of child sexual abuse over the past two decades. Several church leaders have been convicted for failing to report the abuse, including an Amish bishop in Lancaster County in 2020.
Researchers and conference organizers said they are surveying current and former members of the Plain community to gather hard data on what they see as a pervasive problem.
But the display made a powerful statement in itself, said Darlene Shirk, a Mennonite from Lancaster County.
“We’re talking about stats…but when you have something physical here, and because the dress is from the Plain community, it screams, ‘Look, this is happening in our community!’ ‘” she said.
Proponents say that in simple male-led churches, where forgiveness is taught as a primary virtue, people are often pushed to reconcile with their abusers or the abusers of their children.
Byler said that in the 18 years since she reported her sexual assaults to civil authorities, she has heard more stories of abuse at Plains churches than she can count. . Survivors are often isolated from their communities and face “very victim-blaming statements”, she said.
“Child molestation and sexual assault is something that happens…inside communities from all walks of life and all walks of life,” Byler said.