Amish Secret

Two assault survivors share their stories to help others
By Sara Dingmann

The Amish are known for “plain living,” leading lives apart from most modern technologies and conveniences. Still, like any society, problems can be found under the surface.

Now, an open secret in some Amish communities is becoming more well-known—one of rape, sexual assault and incest. Community members know the attackers and the victims, but some turn a blind eye and hide crimes when outsiders or the authorities come knocking.

The sexual violence came to light after an investigation by journalist Sarah McClure that confirmed many cases of child sexual assault in Amish communities across the country. The article, published in “Cosmopolitan” in February, featured the experiences of many survivors, including Southeast Minnesota resident Lizzie Hershberger.

Hershberger is an ex-member of the Amish community by Canton. She experienced sexual assault as child, and as a teen she was raped by her employer. All her abusers were a part of her community. She never spoke of the attacks until she was in her 40s.

SPEAKING OUT

“I was triggered by a local case, and I had children—teenagers at the time—so that’s really what triggered it,” Hershberger says. Being triggered led her to file a report against an Amish deacon who raped her when she was 14. He was her employer, 28 and married at the time.

The local district attorney’s office charged him, and in 2019, he pled guilty to sexual crimes against a minor and was sentenced to 45 days in jail and 10 years of probation. 

“Many other cases don’t make it to court; my case is so rare that it made it that far,” Hershberger says. Filling a case against her abuser was never about the sentencing, it was to build a case to help others who might report similar abuse. 

Reporting the crime was also meant to let the Amish community know she was going to use her voice. Hershberger began writing her book, “Behind Blue Curtains,” around the same time she filed her report. She hopes it will be published this year.  

“I have talked, and that I can keep talking is what I want them to know,” Hershberger says.

SISTER SUPPORT

Through the whole process, Hershberger’s sister Rachel Hawley was one of the few people from the Amish community who stood by and supported her, while the rest of the community sided with her abuser. Hershberger even received threats, leading both her and her sister to take up self-defense measures. 

Hawley was also assaulted by Amish community members as a child—something she didn’t share with her sister until three years ago.

“I think we both sat there with our jaws dropped for a little bit,” Hawley says about when they realized they had both experienced sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

The sisters are now committed to helping other survivors of assault from the Amish community. 

When Hershberger first filed a case against her abuser, she knew she wanted to volunteer for Victim Services. She had to wait until her case was over, and when she could start training, she recruited her sister to get trained too.

As Hershberger’s case was publicized, both Hershberger and Hawley were being contacted by other Amish sexual assault victims seeking help. Both of them realized how much they needed the training to help victims.

HELPING THOSE LEFT BEHIND

The sisters were able to volunteer for Victim Services as soon as their training was completed in September.

To further help Amish victims, Hershberger plans on becoming a certified interpreter in Pennsylvania Dutch, the Amish language. Many children are not able to speak anything except Pennsylvania Dutch, preventing them from talking about abuse with police or other outsiders.  

“The young children, especially women, even if they say they speak and understand English, they really don’t,” Hawley says.

Amish children only go to school through the eighth grade, and there isn’t any sex education. Even if victims were able to speak English, they wouldn’t be able to describe the sexual assault. Hawley wants Amish children to be taught good touch and bad touch, and for everyone, especially women and children, to know they have a voice to say no and report any abuse.

The sisters want to see law enforcement holding local Amish leadership responsible for reporting cases when they know something. Both sisters attest that there is great motivation by the community to hide the crimes, especially when they involve incest. 

SUPPORT FROM THE OUTSIDE

Laura Southerland, program director for Victim Services of Dodge, Fillmore and Olmsted counties, knows they have to work harder to build trust to help the Amish community.

“We recognize that in any community that is a bit more closed, it is going to take time to build trust,” Southerland says. Advocates will make more home visits than with other victims, because of the lack of phone or internet access and not being able to make a trip out to their offices. 

Southerland emphasizes that Victim Services is there to assist victims with counseling, education about legal operations, crisis intervention and support through legal proceedings. They meet every victim at whatever level they need them and never start with assumptions. 

Since the Amish may not have access to the internet, many hear about Victim Services through word-of-mouth or are referred by another program.

HOW TO HELP

People can help any victims of assault or other crimes by knowing how to connect them to Victim Services. For Olmsted county, the main office number is 507-328-7270. You can also call on someone’s behalf to learn how to connect them. “Be vigilant and report something if you really think something is going on. And have it investigated,” Hershberger says.

If you or someone you know is the victim of sexual assault, rape, sex-trafficking, abuse or other violent crimes, a 24/7 Victim Service crisis line is available at 507-289-0636.