June 3, 2019 | Part 5 of 6
Stephanie Strasburg and Peter Smith
View all stories
Part 1 | May 20, 2019
Mennonites, Amish leaders acknowledge sexual abuse in their communities
Part 2 | May 22, 2019
After years of abuse, a Mennonite couple reconnects with each other and their family
Part 3 | May 28, 2019
Forced forgiveness: Plain community sexual abuse victims sometimes pressured to take offenders back
Part 4 | May 29, 2019
Officials say communication, cooperation has increased between Plain communities and police, social services
Part 5 | June 3, 2019
Part 6 | June 5, 2019
Never alone: Mennonite and Amish sexual abuse victims find each other and find their voices
Extra: Hear Post-Gazette journalists Shelly Bradbury, Peter Smith and Stephanie Strasburg discuss this series.
As she drove her SUV along a rural Kentucky parkway, passing through an April landscape of lush pastures and blossoming trees, Joanna Yoder began removing her jewelry.
She worked an earring out of her ear with one hand, gripping the steering wheel with the other. As she started on the other ear, Sara Kurtz took notice from the passenger seat.
“What are you doing?” asked Sara.
Joanna stayed quiet, passing Sara the jewelry to put in the glove compartment.
Joanna told her she’d grown anxious about appearing disrespectful as she returned to her long-ago community of conservative Mennonites.
“This is who you are, this is how you wanted to dress today and you shouldn’t change that for anyone,” Sara said, tearing up at the thought of doing otherwise.
“I know. I know,” Joanna said. “I mean I’m not going to put a dress on, I’m not wearing a covering, but I thought de-jewelry-ing myself...”
“Why? did the Lord tell you to take your jewelry off?” said Sara.
“No, no it’s just--”
Sara leaned over the center console and gently looped the earring back in Joanna’s ear. The two had been friends for years, since they met at a church in Mifflinburg, Pa., where Joanna still lives.
“You’re going in with beauty,” Sara told her. “You’re going in with love, you’re going in with shining the light of Jesus that exudes from you because you’re a child of God.”
“Yep. I’ll claim it,” Joanna said as the dutiful female voice of a GPS system interjected:
“In two miles take exit 14 for Kentucky 90.”
With her manicured nails, aviator sunglasses, jeans and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE,” Joanna little resembled the younger self she was seeking to vindicate on this journey -- the 9-year-old in the black-and-white passport image, wearing a conservative dress up to her neck and a white bonnet tied in a bow under her chin, and biting down on her lip to keep from smiling.
That photo stared out from under the clear cover of a binder Joanna would carry with her throughout this road trip through Kentucky and Tennessee, where she would meet with those who make and enforce the law, raising awareness about the reality of sexual abuse among the Plain People, including conservative Mennonites and Amish.
The binder held a timeline of her life, old photos of the places she’d visit, copies of her emails to detectives and lawmakers, notes of encouragement from others.
The binder neatly organized the chaotic details of Joanna’s past -- plastic sleeves protecting the written accounts of her sexual abuse by five members of her extended family.
“That was my life growing up really, ultimately just trying to survive in a world that was very unsafe,” Joanna, 48, said before the trip. Some of the perpetrators were “pillars” of her Mennonite church.
“As a child, I wanted to scream. I remember holding everything inside and thinking, I can't scream, because if I do, I'll get punished,” she recalled.
"Wearing the covering was supposed to be a sign of my submission," she added. "They also said that if you wear the covering, it will protect you. ... There's nothing about the covering that protected me. I wore long dresses, I was modest, I did everything the church asked me to do. And they still sexually violated me over and over and over."
Click through to see pages from the binder that Joanna carried with her on her road trip.
Joanna’s trip was decades in the making.
At age 21, Joanna left her family home in Missouri, where they had relocated.
She moved to Mifflinburg but continued to dress and worship in the manner of the Plain People, believing she would burn in hell if she left them.
She married a Mennonite man and they had three children. But around 2000, the family left the Plain movement for a more assimilated church. The marriage ultimately came to an end. She and her current husband, Jonas, have a 7-year-old boy.
Over time Joanna became licensed as a massage therapist, and as she increasingly came to terms with her sexual abuse through counseling, she began confronting some of her abusers. One, she said, sincerely confessed his deeds and apologized in writing. She fears that two of the others are still dangerous.
Joanna also began speaking before groups of other survivors and has sheltered young women seeking to escape abusive situations in Plain communities. She drove the first leg of her journey to the Southern states where she grew up on April 15, arriving in Louisville, Ky.
Joanna picked up Sara at the Louisville airport and the women drove to Columbia, Ky., where Joanna met with Kentucky State Police investigators to report the crimes that occurred in the years her family lived nearby. She identified one perpetrator in particular as assaulting her numerous times there.
She learned that in Kentucky, which has no statute of limitations for felonies, the prospects for a prosecution were real.
Then Joanna headed to the small community of Mount Hermon, Ky., where she lived from ages 12 to 16.
Jewelry off, jewelry on.
Joanna looks at the rows of desks in her childhood classroom. “Those blackboards – this looks so similar,” said Joanna. “This brings back memories.
Book series titled “God’s World – His Story,” “North America is the Lord’s,” and “Building Christian English” sit covered in wax paper at Monroe County Mennonite Church. The school only goes to eighth grade, when children in Plain communities commonly graduate and begin to work and help support the family.
Emma Kulp pulls down a map of South America in the schoolroom underneath Monroe County Mennonite Church.
A bonneted woman in a long gray dress approached from a greenhouse across the road and introduced herself as Emma Kulp.
She turned out to be from a family Joanna knew growing up, the Showalters.
“I kind of had a feeling maybe it was somebody who went to school here,” Ms. Kulp said, and offered to let them in.
The schoolroom looked frozen in time from when Joanna went here in the 1980s: textbooks wrapped in waxpaper, a yellowing map displaying Kentucky counties, a handwritten chart listing a schedule for math, recess, English and penmanship.
The women climbed the stairs to the church, a small room with wood floors and worn hymnals in the backs of the wooden pews. A rack displayed small pamphlets with titles like “The Plague of Public Immodesty” and “How Can I Be Saved?”
Joanna and Sara drove off to find her grandparents’ old farm nearby.
They pulled up to the large, gabled house, by a faded sign barely holding on to the words, “Wine is a mockery.” No one was home.
Nearby was a small red cottage that Joanna said was once the home of one of her perpetrators.
She knocked on the door.
Answering was a couple who turned out to be a retired Methodist minister and his wife.
Joanna explained why she was there.
“I grew up in this community in Tennessee and Kentucky here, and there was a lot of abuse,” she said. “... And I've come back.”
“I’m not surprised,” said the woman at the door, Laura Curtin, who said that she too is an abuse survivor. She said she has a mentoring ministry for those with addictions, and their stories often include sexual trauma.
“There's a lot of that type of thing that goes on,” added Bob Curtin. "And nobody is taking your stance and become brave enough to come out and say any of that.”
He left a voicemail with the current owner of Joanna’s grandparents’ farm, letting him know the women would be looking around the property. The Curtins asked if they could pray with the women.
“This is an incredible journey, Lord,” said Ms. Curtin. “You hate sin. You hate hidden sin, and exposing it takes bravery and courage. I pray for your truth. I pray for your angels of protection around them.”
Returning to the grandparents’ farm, Joanna peered through a paint-splattered screen into the old concrete dairy barn, where she had milked cows hundreds of times.
It was there that the sexual abuse had happened.
And in the nearby shed.
And in the house.
Over the hill, a bare spot marked the ground where a barn once stood. It was the scene of the worst assault, one so severe that Joanna hadn’t given it its full, ugly name until this day, after her interview with the Kentucky State Police detective.
“So did that rape take place at this address?” the detective had asked that morning.
“I’ve never labeled it a rape,” Joanna said afterward. “I’ve always said abuse.”
But as Joanna explored the farm, her sense of the place transformed.
She and Sara raced through the windswept fields where as a girl she had cut hay for the livestock. The two picked yellow wildflowers. Joanna held out her arms to the wind, lifted up her face and closed her eyes, smiling to the brilliant sun.
“I honestly feel peaceful,” she said. … “I don’t know what’s going to happen with the case, but I feel like for me personally, this is really good for me to be here.”
As the evening sun cut through the trees, the women drove along winding roads and onto a rough, muddy driveway on their way to a farmhouse on the outskirts of Glasgow, Ky.
This was the home of Daniel and Keely Showalter, childhood friends of the family whom Joanna had reconnected with in recent years. Joining them were Daniel’s brother, Silas Showalter, and his wife, Judith. The couples’ numerous children surrounded them in a blur of activity, a mix of play, chatter and helping get the meal ready.
The hosts and visitors had something in common: They were spiritual exiles.
The brothers are now excommunicated from their Mennonite church, though they continue to dress simply and adhere to some of the traditional rural lifestyle of the Plain People.
Daniel and Silas Showalter had been excommunicated after questioning some of the decisions of the congregational leaders, who declared them prideful and resistant to authority. But though their circumstances were different from Joanna’s, they found they had much to talk about regarding their spiritual journeys, late into the evening.
“Culturally, I still value some of what my past is,” Daniel Showalter said. “Everything except for the dark stuff… I want people to know that the people are good, but when you give leadership complete power, then it just runs, there’s no end to it.”
The women drove south to Nashville, Tenn., arriving at mid-day at the Cordell Hull State Office Building.
Rep. Mike Sparks, R- Smyrna, welcomed them into his office. He was co-sponsoring a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecuting many types of child sexual abuse felonies in Tennessee.
Mr. Sparks described the sex-abuse legislation as a part of a larger platform.
“A lot of members of my party, I don’t think they get that as a social issue, whether it’s the fatherless, the drug problem, lack of jobs, incarceration, sexual abuse,” he said. “I call it a conservative issue because all those issues have a price to pay.”
Victims of abuse are likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, which can often lead to costly incarceration. “Somebody’s paying for these things,” he said.
He asked Joanna to help him answer those who say victims should “get over it.”
“I just believe that when there’s crimes committed against children, there should be no statute of limitations,” she said, as Mr. Sparks quietly interjected, “yes ma’am, yes ma’am.”
“I am 48 now, and I feel only now like I have recovered and healed enough to move forward and do this,” she said. Maybe her perpetrators can’t be prosecuted in Tennessee, she said, but “if my story can help someone, I would love to see that bill go through.”
In addition, she said of one of her perpetrators: “I think he’s potentially still a threat.”
In late afternoon, Joanna and Sara checked into an airport hotel, then took a shuttle into Nashville’s Music Row, walking past clubs rattling with live music.
Joanna called her husband afterward. He “has also been a huge part of my journey,” Joanna said later, and made the trip possible both emotionally and financially.
The women then walked up and down Music Row, being serenaded by a street singer and shopping for souvenirs for themselves and the kids.
Joanna answered messages on her phone while organizing the car for the day in the hotel parking lot. She was wearing the spoils of the Nashville souvenir hunt — a long sleeve T-shirt emblazoned with the city’s name and a baseball cap reading “Living the Dream.”
They arrived at the Giles County Sheriff’s Department, a concrete block office, and asked a woman behind the glass for Lt. Shane Hunter.
Lt. Hunter proposed an outline for the day — recording her statement, breaking for lunch and going out to find the old Yoder homeplace — and introduced the women to Sheriff Kyle Helton.
Joanna pulled out her binder to show photos of the homeplace. She wasn’t sure how to get there but knew some of the nearby landmarks. The sheriff called in a woman whose grandparents owned a small country market by Joanna’s grandparents’ farm, and they began to work out the directions.
Several other investigators now stood in the door. This topic of abuse among the Plain People is news to all of them. “How do we get in the community to teach them this is not right?” Lt. Hunter asked.
They don’t even need a full hand of fingers to count the police-involved incidents they’ve had in the county with the Plain communities, all in which they were victims, not perpetrators.
Joanna entered the interview room with Sara and the investigators, and the recording began.
Joanna opened her binder yet again to the neat, glossy pages.
“I was born in a strict Mennonite community,” she said. “I have no recollection of not being sexually abused.”
The abuse lasted until age 21, when “at my grandma’s funeral, one of them attempted to do something to me, and that was the final time.
“The reason I’ve chosen to report it… I’ve seen what’s happening and it’s an epidemic.”
She told of abuse by two perpetrators.
The detective tried to nail down a timeline. “You earliest memories, you said a moment ago, you have very young memories of being abused.”
She recalled she was at a table while her mother was working in the next room. A relative showed up, she recalled.
“I have no idea why he was there. I was standing there coloring. He knelt beside me. He came in and pretended to look at what I was coloring and thrust his fingers in my vagina. I remember wanting to scream and I remember pain associated with that. I mean, I was a little girl.
“I didn’t want to scream because I thought that it was my fault and I would get the blame for it.”
“The message that I got was we would get spanked if it happened again.”
That was just one memory. “It happened all the time and you just lived to survive,” she said.
Assistant District Attorney Emily Crafton entered the room after the recording. Soon she was asking for details to find any way to bring the case despite Tennessee’s statute of limitations. Prosecutions have to occur within 15 years of an action for a Class A felony, except possibly if the perpetrator concealed the crime or lived outside the state.
But even though Joanna was prepared for the news that prosecution would be difficult, it still hit hard. She couldn’t have imagined reporting the crimes when younger.
“We had no access to anyone outside of our own community and I would have never, never ever, I would have been too afraid,” she said.
She feared she spoke up too late to prevent abuse from continuing into new generations.
“Don’t put that on you. This isn’t on you, none of this is your fault,” said Ms. Crafton.
Joanna tilted her head down and wiped her tears with her hand, the light catching her leather cuff saying “Be fearless.”
“It’s just hard to hear,” she said of the difficulty in prosecuting.
“I don’t want to say, there’s nothing I can do,” said Ms. Crafton, adding that she’d talk with her supervisor.
Lt. Hunter said her efforts weren’t in vain. He asked for contacts for local Plain leaders to begin to open lines of communication.
After lunch, the women and a group from the sheriff’s office headed to the Yoder place.
The house looked worn, its paint peeling. No one was home. A stone in the front yard bore a Bible verse in faded paint. The only clearly visible word rose off of the chipped white paint: “die.” Weathered off of the rock, was the rest of Hebrews 9:27 “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”
Joanna stood in the milk barn.
“This is where a lot of abuse happened, in the space right here,” she said.
Inside, the dirt floors were pockmarked with the holes of burrowing insects. Broken pieces of beehive shared space with dried animal feces and abandoned spider webs and termite mounds.
The group took a worn path between flowers back toward the cars parked near the house.
Joanna walks by the kitchen door of her grandparents’ former home in Pulaski, Tenn. Investigators trail alongside as she points out what she remembers about each room in the house from the overgrown yard outside. Linen and lace curtains remain unmoving in the house windows.
Joanna stands in the doorway of the milk barn on her grandparents’ former farm in Pulaski, Tenn. “This is where a lot of things happened, in this space right here.” In Joanna’s words, this was the place where her innocence was first taken from her, her childhood robbed. She stands in the boarded up doorway, staring into the dark dirt floor, and wipes a tear.
Back in the hotel room that night, Joanna and Sara sat on their beds and processed the last few days.
“The mission on this trip was to speak out,” Joanna said. “And that people in power would listen. And I feel like they have.”
As the conversation wound down, Sara said: “Well, I'm so proud of you. You've done an amazing job.”
“Thank you,” Joanna said. “Thanks for being here and supporting me.”
Joanna’s son Ryan Beiler, 23, flew to Nashville to drive his mother home, listening to her account of the intense trip. He’d known about her ordeal from an early age and gradually learned more of its impact as he got older. “I felt like she was part of something bigger, helping others with her story,” he said.
On May 2, the Tennessee General Assembly unanimously approved legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations for many types of sexual offenses against children. The governor subsequently signed it.
Criminal investigations are pending.
If you suspect a child is abused or neglected, call Pennsylvania's ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313. For more information go to KeepKidsSafe.pa.gov.
Design & Development Zack Tanner
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