May 20, 2019 | Part 1 of 6
Peter Smith and Shelly Bradbury
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.
Martha Peight stood in the first row of the courtroom, shaking yet resolute, as she held the printout of her victim-impact statement.
In the benches behind her sat members of area Mennonite churches, wearing the traditional plain clothing of a separatist culture she had left behind — the bearded men in work clothes or dark suits, the women in long dresses and head coverings.
Some had come to lend moral support to her father, Daniel R. Hostetler, who sat with bowed head at the defense table, where he awaited his sentencing for sexually violating Ms. Peight years earlier when she was a young teen.
Others had shown up to support Ms. Peight as she sought justice that had been long delayed, in part due to actions of the former minister of the family’s Mennonite church, who was also there in the courtroom Nov. 29 in this central Pennsylvania county seat.
Ms. Peight, wearing a modern long-sleeve dress over jeans and a plaid scarf, began to speak softly yet firmly about her father’s betrayal of trust. She told of how her pastor had persuaded her to keep quiet for years, but how she’s now speaking out in hopes of protecting other girls.
“I will stand up and break the chains of this generational abuse,” Ms. Peight, 29, told the court.
She was talking about her own family, but the words have been echoed by an increasingly vocal network of current and former members of the self-described “Plain People,” who include conservative Mennonites and the closely related Amish communities.
Many who turned out to support her in that courtroom — where Mr. Hostetler received a one- to four-year sentence for indecent assault — saw the case as a milestone in a wider effort. They hope to reform a church culture they say has too often enabled the sexual abuse of children, and covered it up with forgive-and-forget teachings and a shaming of victims.
“You’ve laid the foundation for a lot of victims that have no voices,” one woman in plain dress told Ms. Peight after the sentencing as they stood outside the Huntingdon County Courthouse in the chilly November sun.
As has happened in other religious groups, those victims are increasingly finding their voices, and they’re finding each other.
“Hundreds and thousands are rising up from within and saying, ‘We are done,’” said Trudy Metzger of Ontario, Canada, a former conservative Mennonite who for nearly a decade has investigated, advocated and agitated for reforms within the Plain churches.
“This has got to stop,” she said.
Such narratives can be jarring to outsiders who admire the plain-dressing Mennonites and Amish for their piety, simplicity, work ethic, community bonds and commitment to non-violence.
Plain communities dot the map across Pennsylvania and beyond, with tourists drawn to their large settlements in Lancaster County, Pa., and Holmes County, Ohio.
Nobody knows how widespread the abuse is. Nobody has done a study.
But “the first thing is to acknowledge we have a problem,” said Ms. Metzger, founder of the advocacy and educational group, Generations Unleashed.
“It doesn't have to be exaggerated,” she said. “You don't have to say everybody's the victim. But you do have to say we have a problem. And it is significant.”
Leaders in Plain communities themselves are increasingly acknowledging and responding to the reality of abuse, according to law enforcement and child-welfare officials.
“We don’t feel we Plain People should be exempt from the law,” said one member of a Lancaster County committee of conservative Mennonite and Amish men, formed to respond to the crisis and connect their communities with law enforcement and child-protective services. “We’re as guilty as anybody else.”
Steve Knowling, a former longtime Holmes County prosecutor, said the Plain community’s responses have “changed dramatically” since an early case he prosecuted decades ago, in which a suspect’s Amish community turned out en masse in court to support him against allegations by an excommunicated victim.
“Things are getting a little bit better only because … brave people are speaking out.”
More recently, he said, the community itself reported a serial offender to the law — a cooperation that he said has grown only with years of patient trust-building between public officials and church leaders.
But survivors of abuse say cases are still handled inconsistently and that any reforms have occurred too late for those who are now adults.
“Things are getting a little bit better only because … brave people are speaking out,” said Marc Masoner, a former Mennonite from Lancaster who co-hosts the Plain People’s Podcast, a series of first-person accounts of abuse that has galvanized the survivor community since its November launch.
“The churches are under more scrutiny, but the churches should never be allowed to police themselves,” Mr. Masoner said.
In this series of articles over the next three weeks, the Post-Gazette will tell the stories of abuse survivors from the Plain communities of Amish and Mennonites, whose members are estimated roughly 400,000 and growing in North America, according to various databases.
Survivors of abuse will tell of how an acute emphasis on male authority and female purity and submission has left many vulnerable to abuse — and disbelieved or shamed if they report it.
They will tell of being pressured to forgive those who molested them or their children, and take back into their homes and churches a type of offender often at high risk of offending again.
One former Mennonite couple, still devoutly Christian, will tell of their struggles to overcome a legacy of abuse in their family.
Church leaders, law enforcement and child-welfare officials in Lancaster County, home to the largest Plain population in the nation, will tell of a growing effort to spread awareness in those communities of the need to prevent abuse and report it when it happens.
A Pennsylvania woman will reflect on her return to scenes of her childhood and her quest for a delayed justice.
And survivors, many of whom retain a Christian faith, will tell about about the ways they’re helping others like themselves, from podcasts to books to conferences to legal advocacy.
Variations of Daniel R. Hostetler’s sentencing hearing in Huntingdon County have played out repeatedly in recent years in the rural courthouses of Central Pennsylvania, northeastern Ohio and other concentrations of the Plain communities around North America.
In at least 25 cases over the past decade, members of Amish and conservative Mennonite communities have been convicted or are facing pending charges over child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Court cases aren’t categorized by religious affiliation, but a Post-Gazette review of court documents and news archives also found at least 10 similar criminal and civil cases in other states and Canada.
Another 10 Plain church leaders and members have been convicted or face pending trials for failing to report sexual abuse or similar allegations.
At least three of the Pennsylvania abuse cases reached the courts in recent weeks:
Survivors of abuse in the Plain churches, and their advocates, say the cases that have emerged in court represent the tip of an iceberg.
Some are pursuing charges now that they’re adults. Others are telling their stories in public formats such as the Plain People’s Podcast.
“There is a theme with every story, and it is abuse — abuse that has never been reported, or nothing’s ever come of it,” said Jasper Hoffman of North Carolina, who co-hosts the podcast with Mr. Masoner.
The Plain People: A primer
The Plain People belong to a wider “Anabaptist” family of churches, which emerged early in the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s in Central Europe.
Anabaptists believed that a true biblical church had to follow radical demands of the gospel, including non-violence, unconditional forgiveness, church discipline, and a refusal to bear arms or swear oaths.
Early Anabaptists suffered persecution and martyrdom under Catholic and Protestant rulers in Europe because they rejected infant baptism and its connection to citizenship. They opposed state churches and said only those old enough to profess faith should be baptized. Under a “two kingdom” theology, believers were to obey the law but not participate in government (the worldly kingdom), focusing instead on the kingdom of God.
Critics derided them as “Anabaptists,” meaning they “rebaptized” adults. In time, Anabaptists embraced the name, even though they said they weren’t “rebaptizing” anybody because their original infant “baptism” was invalid.
Early leaders included Menno Simons, namesake of the Mennonites.
Mennonites split in the late 17th century. Jakob Amman, namesake of the Amish, led those who believed a wayward member should be socially shunned, not just denied communion. Current practices vary.
Despite their differences, Amish and Mennonites often cooperated. Beginning in the 18th century, they immigrated to the same fertile lands of Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere.
Culture: As much an ethnic as a religious group, their traditionalist groups preserve German dialect and a separate culture.
The Plain People limit formal education and typically live in rural areas, farming or working in trades. They dress in distinctive plain clothing with women in head coverings, a symbol of submission to God and male authority.
Plain churches are run by lay leaders without seminary training. Transgressors can be excommunicated or put on probation-like “proving,” then restored to fellowship if they repent.
Many but not all children join the church in their teens and are baptized.
Amish and Plain Mennonites have many small, self-governing conferences with varied practices and Bible interpretations. Unlike with the Vatican or other hierarchies, there’s no one headquarters that sets policies in matters such as sexual abuse.
Technology: Most Amish and Old Order Mennonites use horse-and-buggy transportation. But they do not oppose all technology. They choose or reject innovations based on whether they build or harm a tight-knit community life.
Plain or not?: Virtually all Amish are Plain People by definition.
Mennonites vary widely, from Old Order and other Plain churches to non-Plain denominations like the Lancaster Conference and the Mennonite Church (USA), whose members are more assimilated and wear contemporary clothing.
Growth: Amish and conservative Mennonites typically marry young and have many children.
The Amish population in North America, now estimated at 330,000, has doubled over the past two decades. Amish are concentrated in Lancaster County and other Central Pennsylvania counties, in northeastern Ohio and in northern Indiana, though they have spread to 31 states and Canada.
Estimates of Plain Mennonites vary depending on how they’re defined, but an analysis of two directories indicates as many as 85,000 in North America.
Other Anabaptists: Hutterites are Plain People known for large communal farms in western states and Canada. Brethren groups are more socially assimilated.
Non-violence: Plain churches speak of “nonresistance” to violence, whereas more progressive Mennonites and Brethren take an active peace-making role.
Not Baptists: Anabaptists may have influenced the later rise of Baptists, but the two remain distinct.
Sources: Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College; Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites and Mennonites, edited by Donald Kraybill. Mennonite Church Directory, 2019; Mennonite World Conference.
Other religious groups have undergone seismic revelations of sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, which was beset by decades of scandal even before a withering Pennsylvania grand jury report in 2018.
More recently, emboldened #MeToo survivors have called out systemic sexual abuse and misconduct in Baptist and other Protestant churches (including the more liberal Mennonite Church USA, which is not considered part of the Plain people though it shares their theological heritage.)
While Catholic and mainstream Protestant cases typically involve abuses of power by professional clergy, scandals of abuse follow the contours of each religious group’s culture.
Cases of abuse in the Plain churches often occur within families, compounded by how churches handle or mishandle matters internally.
The Plain churches are highly decentralized, with numerous branches of Amish and plain-dressing Mennonites organized into separate and sometimes rival jurisdictions.
“I’ve seen victims who refused to forgive their offenders be excommunicated from the church.”
But they share common roots in the radical edges of the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century German-speaking Europe. They have maintained separatist communities marked by small, tightly disciplined congregations and a distinctive modest mode of dress. Members typically work in farming or trades rather than professions and complete their schooling around the 8th grade.
The Plain communities are legendary for their magnanimous forgiveness, shown most famously when an Amish community immediately forgave a school shooter who killed five girls and wounded five more in Nickel Mines, Pa., in 2006.
Abuse survivors, however, say they can be pressured to offer this forgiveness.
“I’ve seen victims who refused to forgive their offenders be excommunicated from the church,” said Mr. Masoner.
In Plain communities, an active perpetrator can blaze a horrific trail of damage because of the typically large number of children in families and the proximity of extended families.
Ms. Metzger also said that children, after being molested, at times begin molesting.
“It’s a very complex thing,” she said. “They have no idea what this is, they have no concept of sexuality, they have no concept of abuse. They just have this thing that was done against them that is now awakened … this curiosity, and it's just instinctive to go to the person that's younger.”
Ms. Peight’s road to justice began in January 2018 when she told her counselor in Florida, where she now lives, that she had been sexually abused by her father.
The counselor, who by Florida law is mandated to report suspected child abuse, asked for his name. Ms. Peight was reluctant at first, unsure whether she wanted to go through such a public confrontation with her past. But she provided her father’s name after concluding she would have no way of knowing otherwise if Mr. Hostetler was endangering other girls in their family unless he was brought to account.
Within days the report made its way to Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Jonathan Thomas, based at the Huntingdon barracks.
He called Ms. Peight. His readiness to take her account seriously, after she spent years being told to forgive and forget, prompted her and her husband, Dave, to drive from Florida to meet with him on a Saturday for a three-hour interview.
She told of her father abusing her multiple times when she was between 13 and 16 years old, between 2002 and 2006.
Mr. Hostetler approached her from behind under the guise of hugging and would then fondle her breasts, according to the police complaint against Hostetler. When she told her mother she had a lump on her breast, Mr. Hostetler insisted on feeling it himself multiple times over the coming year, the complaint said. On two road trips when he thought she had fallen asleep in the passenger seat, she said, Mr. Hostetler touched her private area over her cape dress, the complaint said.
When Mr. Hostetler learned his daughter had spoken to police, he went to the barracks to talk to Trooper Thomas.
“He explained he was right with God and the church and was willing to talk about it,” Trooper Thomas wrote in the complaint. Mr. Hostetler admitted to molesting her and that it was for “sexual arousal,” the complaint said.
Mr. Hostetler also confirmed something else in Ms. Peight’s account.
In 2007, one of Ms. Peight’s brothers reported Mr. Hostetler’s conduct to David R. Fisher, pastor of their Mennonite congregation, Shaver’s Creek Christian Fellowship near Petersburg, Pa.
The pastor told Trooper Thomas he called a meeting with members of the family and an assistant pastor, according to the police criminal complaint against Fisher.
Ms. Peight recalled that Fisher said her father had confessed his wrongs and that she was “to forgive him and never speak of it again,” according to the complaint. He told her to hug her father, it said. She refused.
Years later, when Fisher himself sat down with Trooper Thomas, he said that at the end of the meeting Ms. Peight “seemed very mad and he thought something was wrong,” according to the complaint, even though he’d “told everyone it was settled and [they] didn’t need to talk about it again.”
Fisher required Mr. Hostetler to confess his sin to the congregation shortly after the family meeting..
A few weeks after that, Ms. Peight wanted to go to a counseling center in North Carolina that had been recommended to her.
Mr. Hostetler was initially willing to send her, but he said “Fisher told him he couldn’t send [her] to the counselor,” according to the complaint. Fisher himself told police the counselor’s views toward Mennonites were such that he “would have done anything to try to get the church into trouble.”
Police filed multiple charges against Mr. Hostetler. And they charged Fisher with one felony count of endangering the welfare of children for preventing or interfering with the reporting of child abuse.
Mr. Hostetler, of Alexandria in Huntingdon County, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of indecent assault of a person under 16 in August. Fisher, also of Alexandria, pleaded no contest in January, accepting a conviction.
Reports from around the country suggest that Fisher’s actions were not unique.
An Amish bishop in Dauphin County, Christ Stoltzfus, was convicted in 2017 and sentenced to three months’ probation for failing to report suspected child abuse, having knowledge of a church member’s abuse of a child six years prior.
The bishop told police he had been told one of the incidents “wasn’t really that bad.” The perpetrator, Daniel Ray Fisher, received a one- to two-year sentence for molesting two girls.
In 2010 in Missouri, four Amish elders pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. They shunned a perpetrator who had molested two children, John Schwartz, but failed in their duties as mandated reporters. They were fined $300 each.
In Idaho, two men filed suit in 2016 against a Mennonite denomination and a congregation, over their sexual abuse by a member, saying church leaders knew of the abuse and failed to report it. Instead, they excommunicated the accused abuser for a few days, after which he professed repentance, resumed church membership — and resumed abusing, the suit said.
In depositions, a minister at the perpetrator’s congregation said he would report abuse to authorities only “on conditions … We would counsel among ourselves to determine [how] to handle the situation.” Another member said: “I would have just as much confidence in our leaders as I would in law enforcement.” The suit was later settled; the denomination says its policies now mandate reporting.
In Wayne County, Ohio, in 2017, a judge imposed a 12-year sentence on Joe E. Zook, who molested six relatives, one of them after she had become an adult and married.
Although church leaders themselves weren’t on trial, the judge noted “there was an attempt to deal with this … in-house, within the Amish community, and someone in that community decided at some point that it wasn’t being dealt with” and reported Zook to the law.
In Canada, at the 2009 sentencing of a father for repeatedly abusing his daughter, a judge chastised leaders of his Mennonite church. They weren’t on trial themselves but had known about the abuse and could have spared the victim years of “horror” by reporting it, the judge said.
“The defendant’s actions were not merely sins … but crimes,” the judge said.
Advocates like Ms. Metzger say they understand some conservative Mennonites’ reluctance to open up to any change, for fear it will unravel the good in their culture.
“There's many things in the Mennonite culture that are incredible,” she said. They form community bonds over years of worshiping together, sharing meals and supporting each other in times of need.
“There's a strength in that, that many of us don't know,” she said. In the wider culture, “loneliness is killing people.”
But in the Plain communities too, victims can be isolated, she said: “There's an inner loneliness that is being missed because of all the abuse and neglect.”
On the afternoon of Nov. 29, Mr. Hostetler walked to the Huntingdon County Courthouse before his sentencing, wearing a workday jacket and pants with a button-down shirt.
Accompanying him were his wife, wearing a long blue cape dress and a head covering, and some other family members.
As Mr. Hostetler entered, he shook hands with a handful of Mennonite men who had come from the surrounding region to observe.
“We’re not in denial” of his guilt, said one, who asked not to be named. They had come “in support of his continued journey” to take responsibility, and to support his wife.
Ms. Peight’s supporters traveled as much as two hours to witness the sentencing.
When Judge George Zanic called Mr. Hostetler forward, the father said: “I do understand what I did was absolutely wrong. I make no excuse for it. … I caused her pain that I greatly regret. I did confess it truthfully and honestly out of my heart 12 years ago and asked for forgiveness. I never tried to hide it, I never lied about it.”
But District Attorney David G. Smith said: “He used her. I hope he has some appreciation for the pain and suffering” he caused.
Judge Zanic said he was ready to hear from Ms. Peight.
“Nothing prepares a little girl for being shoved into a world of sexual abuse by the one person expected to protect her,” she said. “I spent my teenage years wishing I had a daddy to protect me, not a man I had to protect myself from.”
She disputed his account of having confessed years earlier, saying he only admitted outright to one offense because he thought she was asleep during every sexual abuse incident after that.
“You thought you were smart enough to get away with it,” she said. “David Fisher believed you. He even convinced me not to talk because you probably forgot. I defended you for years.”
No more, she said. “This is about protecting other little girls.”
Although Mr. Hostetler’s attorney urged leniency, citing his confession before his congregation years before, Judge Zanic said his “sentence is based on law. It is not based on religion.”
Noting that the crime betrayed a child’s trust, the judge sentenced Mr. Hostetler to consecutive prison terms totaling between one and four years for the two indecent assault convictions. Mr. Hostetler is appealing the severity of the sentence, though not the conviction.
Mr. Hostetler’s wife, who had come in support of her husband, wept loudly in the hallway after her husband was led away. Declining to comment to a reporter, she thanked those who came in support and averred, “God is in control.”
On April 11, Mr. Hostetler’s minister, Fisher, was back in that same Huntingdon County courtroom.
With a thick white hair and beard, wearing a button-down shirt, a dark jacket and pants, Fisher did not give a statement himself, but his attorney cited his previous clean record and his agreement to undergo training on being a mandated reporter.
Judge Zanic said he didn’t believe this case represented an institutional cover-up of a sexual-abuse scandal such as those in the Catholic Church or Penn State University. Still, “he committed a crime. … I’m hoping it sends a message not only to the defendant but to all people who have a responsibility to children.”
The judge sentenced Fisher to 15 months’ probation, plus a $1,000 fine.
Fisher declined comment, but his attorney Justin Miller said he pleaded no contest to spare everyone further court proceedings and that the sentencing was a “good outcome.”
The pastor’s brother, Henry Fisher of Juniata County, said the case was “totally unfair.”
He maintained that Fisher only recommended Mr. Hostetler not send his daughter to the North Carolina counselor but “he didn’t forbid him.” Henry Fisher said he believed authorities made an example of his brother to “get the message out” about the need to report abuse.
He said Mennonites follow biblical teachings that “we’re supposed to deal with things internally, rather than to the legal authorities if we can.” He alluded to the apostle Paul’s asking whether “there are any mature people within the church who can deal with” disputes among believers.
Trooper Thomas said in an earlier interview that helping provide a platform to Ms. Peight “for her voice to be heard is a great feeling as a police officer.”
He added: “Obviously I can't change the past, but I can help … with the closure of it.”
Ms. Peight said later that when she reported her father to police, she never expected her former pastor to be charged as well. But she hopes the case “will do something to where these preachers realize ... your law does not trump” the law of the land.
Ms. Peight recalled an upbringing in which “you're taught your whole life that you have to forgive, and they have figured out Bible verses to throw at you over and over and over and that is what you grow up with.”
She said if one reports such a crime to authorities, the perception in the Plain community is that “you’re not forgiving him, and people will stop talking to you.”
It’s not that forgiveness is wrong, she said, but it’s “a process I have to do over and over for myself. Forgiving you doesn’t mean I trust you.”
Added Ms. Peight: “I would never wish what happened to me on somebody else, but it shaped who I am.”
She hopes that by nervously standing up that day in the Huntingdon County Courthouse, “it’ll give somebody else the courage to stand up.”
Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed.
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