Clotheslines with billowing linens and long dresses are a common sight at the off-grid farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is home to the largest Amish settlement in the country. For many tourists they are an iconic part of the bucolic scenes of Amish country in the form of rural alleys and wooden bridges.
But for two days at the end of April, a small indoor exhibition here had a cloth string tied with a different purpose. 13 organizations representing the trauma of sexual assault by Amish, Mennonite and members of similar groups were hung from it, a reminder that they require modest dress, especially for women and girls, with no protection.
Each garment on display was either the actual one a survivor was wearing when they were attacked, or a replica assembled by volunteers to match the strict dress code of the survivor’s childhood church.
was a long-sleeved blue Amish dress with a simple stand collar. The accompanying sign said, “Survivor age: 4 years.”
Next to it was a 5-year-old’s heavy coat, hat and long, hunter green dress, displayed over sturdy black boots. “I was never safe and I was a kid. 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 the laugh of a newborn.
“You feel anger when you get a little dress 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 represent various branches of the Orthodox Anabaptist tradition, including Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, and Charity. Often referred to as plain churches, they emphasize separation from mainstream society, church discipline, pardon and modest dress including head coverings for women.
It was part of a larger conference on sexual abuse awareness in Plain Churches held April 29–30 at Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola and sponsored by two advocacy organizations: A Better Way, located in Zainsville, Ohio, and Safe Communities. . Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Hope Anne Dueck, executive director of A Better Way and one of the exhibition’s organizers, said that several survivors reported that “if you had covered your head, you probably wouldn’t have been attacked” or that “you weren’t dressed decent enough.” could wear.”
“And as a survivor myself,” Dueck said, “I knew that wasn’t true.”
“Whatever you’re wearing can hurt you,” she said. Those who contributed to the exhibition, “they wore what their parents and the church had prescribed, and wore them correctly, and were still attacked.”
The exhibition was based on similar performances that have been staged on college campuses and elsewhere in recent years. what were you wearing? They show a wide range of costumes aimed at shattering the myth that sexual assault can be blamed on the victim.
Current and former members of plain-dress religious communities – not only Anabaptists but others such as holiness, a branch of Methodistism with an emphasis on holiness – agreed last year that it was time to have their own version.
“At the end of the day, it was never about the clothes,” said Mary Baylor, a survivor of child sexual abuse in the Amish communities where she grew up. Baylor, who founded The Misfit Amish, a Colorado-based group to bridge the cultural gap between the Amish and the wider society, helped organize the exhibition.
“I hope this helps survivors know that they are not alone,” she said.
Survivors were invited to submit their attire or descriptions. All except one provided children’s clothing, consisting mostly of girls and a boy, indicating their age when they were attacked. The duke said that the only adult dress was that of a woman who was raped by her husband soon after giving birth.
The organizers plan to have high quality photos made of the clothing to display online and in the future.
Plain church leaders have acknowledged in recent years that sexual abuse is a problem in their communities and have organized seminars to raise awareness.
But advocates say they need to do more, and that some leaders continue to view cases of abuse as cases of church discipline, not crimes to be reported to civic authorities.
Dozens of perpetrators of Plain Church affiliation have been convicted of sexually abusing children over the past two decades, according to a review of court files in several states. Several church leaders have been indicted for failing to report abuse, including an Amish bishop in Lancaster County in 2020.
Researchers and organizers at the conference said they are surveying current and former Saada community members to gather solid data about a wider problem.
But the performance itself made a powerful statement, 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 screams, ‘Look, this is happening in our community! he said.
Advocates say that in men-led plain churches, where forgiveness is taught as a paramount virtue, people are often pressured to reconcile their abusers or abusers of their children. .
Baylor said that in the 18 years since she reported her sexual assault to civic officials, she has heard more stories of abuse in 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… within communities from every region and lifestyle,” Baylor said.