May 29, 2019 | Part 4 of 6
Shelly Bradbury 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.
Top photo: A man and a boy ride a cart on Monday, April 22, 2019, in Earl Township, Lancaster County.
For decades, the neat white farmhouses with their lines of wind-blown black-and-blue laundry denoted a community where Lancaster County law enforcement and child welfare workers were often not welcome, particularly in cases of sexual abuse.
The Amish and Old Order Mennonite homesteads were closed to outsiders, and Lancaster County officials had little access to the Plain communities, few relationships and scant trust. Reports of child sex abuse were handled within the church — just like most everything else in the separatist Plain faiths. Traditionally Plain communities maintain separate school systems and informal foster care systems and even handle their own crime and punishment.
“Typically they handle the issues in house, in their community,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said in March. “So to let us in, and we’re going to be judging ... it doesn’t resonate as easily in their community as it does in the rest.”
But that’s begun to change during the last decade, he and other local officials said, as Lancaster County officials have made a concerted effort to build relationships with the local Plain communities and emphasize that state law requires sex abuse be reported to authorities outside the church.
Several years ago, Amish and Mennonite elders created a Conservative Crisis Intervention Committee to serve as a liaison between the Plain community, Lancaster County law enforcement and child protective services. The board of elders was to be a tool to help outsiders gain access to the community, and to help educate Amish and Mennonite people on sexual abuse reporting.
Local officials say it’s been a critical part of gaining additional access to the Plain communities, opening doors that have been slammed shut in the past. The idea has been replicated in at least one other county with a large Plain population.
Although some critics worry that the intervention committee creates a bottleneck, local officials say they’re receiving more reports of abuse now than ever.
“I give them a lot of credit that they've come a long way,” Strasburg Borough police Chief Steven Echternach said. “Now, there's still a long way to go. But, we're much better today than we were 25 years ago, much better even than 10 years ago.”
On a chilly afternoon in Lancaster County, two members of the Conservative Crisis Intervention Committee sat down with a reporter in a conference room in a medical clinic that specializes in care for Plain people.
A patterned quilt rested near one wall; a large photo of smiling young Amish girls adorned another. The committeemen, who wore traditional dark-colored Plain clothing, spoke on the condition that they not be named because of their faith’s focus on humility, and because they said the committee was a group effort, not to be credited to any one individual.
Sexual abuse should be reported to law enforcement, they said, and the Plain community is “as guilty as anyone else.”
“Our goal is to not sweep anything under the rug,” said an Old Order Amish man.
But some former Plain church members in Lancaster County say the committee can be a barrier to reporting abuse.
Some Plain people, they say, believe they should report suspected abuse to the committee of elders instead of directly to state authorities, which allows the committee to decide whether the report should be passed along to state authorities, the critics said. That can create a situation where reports of sexual abuse reach the committee, but go no further, they said.
“I am gravely concerned that the Conservative Intervention Committee is not working,” said Diane Burkholder, a former Old Order Mennonite who left the sect three years ago.
She pointed to a document created by the committee in which Lancaster County Plain school teachers were instructed to report suspected abuse to a designated committee member — the document did not specifically instruct the teachers to report abuse directly to the state, as state law requires.
But members of the intervention committee said that document has been updated and now instructs teachers to report directly to the state, although they refused to provide a copy of the revised document. It’s not the job of the committee to vet reports of abuse, they said.
“The nice thing about that is we do not need to be the judge,” the Amish man said. “We are working as liaison and not the law.”
County officials say they have confidence the committee is not suppressing reports of abuse, although they acknowledge that confidence is based largely on trust.
“Obviously, I don't have 100 percent guarantee,” said Crystal Natan, executive director of the Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency. “But, you know, I think with the inroads we've made and the relationships that we've built, that we have very high confidence that those reports are being made.”
She added that while some reports reach the agency through the committee, others come directly from the community, or from doctors and police officers.
“I didn't want to leave you with thinking we have the elders involved in everything; we don't,” she said.
However, the committee’s role extends beyond facilitating reports — the elders are sometimes involved in cases even after criminal charges have been filed, Mr. Stedman said.
The elders on the committee know members of the district attorney’s office personally, and they meet on a regular basis to discuss the way local agencies handle crime in the Plain communities.
“To the extent that we can, we'll talk about specific resolutions on specific cases,” Mr. Stedman said.
Those resolutions, often but not always built into plea agreements, are crafted with the best interests of the victim and community in mind, and are also based on the strength of the evidence in the case, he said.
Mr. Stedman exercises the same flexibility in Plain cases as in non-Plain cases, he said, and his office always considers what options are best for the community and victim when considering plea deals and housing arrangements.
The Plain faith does tend to focus more heavily on repentance and forgiveness than other communities, Mr. Stedman said, and church elders may push for offenders to avoid jail time in favor of reconciliation.
“Typically, there's much more likelihood in the Plain community that there's an acceptance and admission [of guilt],” he said. “...We try to come to some common ground if possible, and sometimes we can't, sometimes, there's cases where I just say, ‘Look, this is too bad, or there's too many kids or whatever it is, and I appreciate where you're coming from. But this person needs to go to jail, and they need to go to jail for a long time.’”
In March, a 74-year-old Lancaster County Plain man, David Smucker, was accused of molesting four girls and charged with 24 counts of indecent assault, incest, corruption of minors, rape and related charges. The report was made to law enforcement from within the Plain community. He was booked into jail on a $2 million bond on March 8.
Less than three weeks later, Mr. Smucker’s defense attorney successfully petitioned for bail to be reduced so that Mr. Smucker could be released from jail into a Plain residential housing site called Whispering Hope.
The rural homestead at 2182 Pine Road in Newville, Cumberland County, is not licensed by the state and is not a secure facility. Rather, it is a registered nonprofit organization that provides “a Christian home with a Bible-based counseling program for those who are emotionally disturbed, depressed, having spiritual and marital problems, moral obsessions and mental illness,” according to a business filing with the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Staffed by about seven Plain people, Whispering Hope can house up to 12 men at once, said Wilmer Martin, 61, who helped to found the organization in 2001 and remains on staff as a mentor and teacher. He is also a minister at an Old Order Mennonite church.
None of Whispering Hope’s employees are state-licensed psychologists or psychiatrists. Rather, the day-to-day counseling centers on Bible studies, group discussions, discipleship classes and one-on-one mentoring, Mr. Martin said in April. The men read faith-based books on sexual addiction and purity written by Christian authors. Some afternoons, the men build wooden furniture in an on-site workshop.
Most men stay at Whispering Hope for around six months, Mr. Martin said. Sometimes, they are joined by their wives, and the couple lives in a small cottage that is separate from the main farmhouse, where the rest of the men live with a set of round-the-clock “house parents.”
If the men need psychiatric help or have been ordered by the state court system to attend counseling sessions with a state-licensed psychologist, they visit professionals outside Whispering Hope, Mr. Martin said. The men make the hour drive to a state-licensed facility once every month or two, he said, depending on when their prescriptions need to be refilled.
Amish and Mennonite child sexual abusers have lived at the rural homestead on and off since its inception, Mr. Martin said, although those men are not its exclusive clientele. The men accused of child sexual abuse almost always arrive at Whispering Hope after the abuse has been uncovered by law enforcement, Mr. Martin said.
“When a person is under investigation or has been charged, they’re still free, but they’re not permitted to live with or have contact with their victims or their families, and so this is a place where they can be in that time period until the court proceedings have finished,” Mr. Martin said.
Children aren’t allowed on Whispering Hope’s property, and the men who are there while their cases are pending in court must follow the court’s rules.
On Sundays, some men attend a local church, Mr. Martin said. Those who aren’t allowed to leave the compound will listen to a service on the phone.
If a man confesses to abuse that has not previously been reported, Whispering Hope’s policy is to report that abuse, he said.
Mr. Martin said it’s sometimes difficult to tell when a man is ready to leave the program, but said Whispering Hope staff work with the man’s family and home church to evaluate their progress.
“It still depends on the individual, if they are willing to make changes in their life that need to be made,” Mr. Martin said. “Their cooperation here and their attitudes are strong indicators.”
The Lancaster County district attorney’s office did not object to Mr. Smucker’s move to Whispering Hope, Brett Hambright, a spokesman for Mr. Stedman, said, in part because Mr. Smucker had medical needs that the local prison could not accommodate.
“We approved of this arrangement, but under certain conditions and restrictions, to include absolutely no contact with children or the victims involved in the case,” he said. “Also, we contacted social services and the victims [and their] families for their input prior to our response.
We feel, with these conditions imposed, there is minimal threat to children and the community.”
The 12 beds at Whispering Hope are usually full, Mr. Martin said, estimating at least 450 Plain men have visited Whispering Hope since its inception 18 years ago.
Defense attorneys for Plain men who are facing charges of sex crimes across the state have requested their clients be housed at Whispering Hope.
In Clearfield County, an attorney for Wallace Schmucker, a 55-year-old Amish man charged with molesting four girls, requested that his client be released from jail and sent to Whispering Hope. The attorney said Mr. Schmucker had been receiving “inpatient treatment” there for seven weeks before he was arrested on March 27. Clearfield County Senior Judge James Hawkins denied the request because Whispering Hope is not a secure facility.
Even with the use of facilities like Whispering Hope and the role of the Conservative Crisis Intervention Committee in the criminal process, Mr. Stedman said law enforcement does not give special treatment to Plain communities when investigating and prosecuting criminal cases. The tourism dollars brought by the Plain communities has no impact on the court system, he and others said.
“This is a nation of laws, and it doesn't really matter what your religious background is, or where you're from, you can't sexually abuse a child,” Mr. Stedman said.
“We hold them to the same standard,” Chief Echternach said.
But Mr. Stedman said it does make a difference when defendants confess to their actions; the U.S. criminal justice system typically draws a distinction between those who confess to and acknowledge the consequences of their crime and those who don’t. Plain people, who believe in absolute honesty, are more likely to confess to wrongdoing than others.
“I'm going to look at a case differently if somebody has actually accepted what they did and is asking for forgiveness, they're not putting the [victim] through a trial,” he said. “I'm going to look at that case a little bit differently than somebody who said, ‘That kid or kids, they're liars, they're making this whole thing up, I didn't do anything wrong.’”
Mr. Stedman also acknowledged that the closed nature of Plain communities means outsiders have to walk a line between access and accountability — if the community feels wronged by law enforcement, community members may withdraw, and hard-earned lines of communication and access may disappear, he said.
“You don't want to get to the point where you're just cutting someone a break just for that reason,” Mr. Stedman said. “But you do have to be sensitive to the way it's going to be received with the community, because you want them to cooperate. And if they feel like we've treated somebody unjustly or unfairly or persecuted them, that will kill the ability for somebody else to come forward. And the way you defeat that is by what we're doing — with understanding, listening and communication.”
Photographer Stephanie Strasburg contributed.
Design & Development Zack Tanner
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