May 22, 2019 | Part 2 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.
The Old Order Mennonite bishop leveled a finger at the unwed, pregnant teenager who stood before him and jabbed it toward her.
“You,” she remembered him saying, “can’t be a church member until after the baby is born.”
Diane Snyder stood silently beside her boyfriend as the bishop made his declaration. She did not protest when her boyfriend escaped the punishment she was to suffer for the baby growing inside her.
And she stayed silent during the ensuing months, keeping to herself the gnawing fear that she’d die before the baby was born — die and go to hell because she wasn’t a church member.
She married her boyfriend, Jim Burkholder, and for years she never protested when he demanded sex, even when she was pregnant with one child, nursing another. It was her duty to satisfy him, and she couldn’t say no. This was what married women had to do, she believed.
But nearly three decades and 13 children later, Diane and Jim Burkholder have had a revelation about their own sexuality, and subsequently about how the separatist Plain faiths handle sexuality among members.
“There is such a lack of knowledge there,” Diane said of the way sexuality is approached in some Amish and Mennonite communities, and the way it worked through much of her marriage. “My sexuality was raped by somebody else who didn't understand their sexuality, and that's how it's working. And then dads and moms come in on the scene and they don't know what to do about it because it happened to them, too. So it's a generational crisis.”
As the Post-Gazette is reporting this month, a growing network of survivors of abuse among the conservative Amish and Mennonite communities, or Plain People, are seeking to reform a culture where they say an ignorance about sexuality is putting its young people at greater risk. They say churches often have handled abuse cases internally without reporting perpetrators to the law, although church leaders say they have improved practices and now cooperate with authorities.
About three years ago, Jim and Diane resolved to break the generational cycle they perceived.
But they faced significant push-back in their horse-and-buggy church community, and eventually concluded they couldn’t create change from within the church. They left, forging a new life and becoming outspoken critics of the way Plain churches handle sexual abuse — even as they discovered recent abuse within their own family and wrestled with the consequences.
“God has laid on both of our hearts to become vocal, and be sympathetic to both victims and perpetrators, to have empathy for both of them,” Jim said. “Not pity, but empathy. ... Because for me, I was a victim. I'm also a perpetrator. I also violated my wife in many, in many ways.”
One day during Diane’s final year of school — eighth grade — a friend pointed to a teenage boy chopping wood on an adjacent property.
“And my friend at school says, ‘Hey, that's Jimmy Burkholder, and he's a good friend of my brother, you need to get to know him,’” Diane recalled. She was 15, he was 16, almost 17.
The pair began an intense relationship, sneaking out in the middle of the night to visit each other, and soon started having sex.
“I didn't have a voice; I felt like I didn't have a choice,” Diane said. In the conservative Mennonite household she grew up in, love was not expressed — no hugs, no words of affirmation. She felt further isolated by the death of her father when she was young, and found that she clung to the relationship with Jim, craving the physical and emotional connection he provided.
Before him, she’d had sexual contact with one of her male relatives and a neighbor boy, she said.
“I think they had kind of conspired together that they were going to try out and get to know what sex is,” she said. “And invited [another girl] and I to engage with them in that, and our search for love was so deep and so intense, I don’t think we ever thought to say no.”
Jim, too, was involved with sexual acts growing up, he said. Once, when he was between the ages of 9 and 13, was with a male relative. Other times, he participated in bestiality.
“I did not know what it looked like to have self control over my sexuality,” he said.
In his conservative Plain culture, sex and healthy sexual practices were never discussed, he said.
As a young boy, Jim used to look at the church’s directory, which listed the names of church members, and yearn for the time that he and his future wife’s names would be listed there, a long list of children underneath.
After he and Diane married, the list of names under theirs grew and grew.
“Eleven of the children conceived out of my own lust,” Jim said.
It was during Diane’s 11th pregnancy that everything began to change. She was depressed and sometimes suicidal, she said. She’d sit in church and wonder who Jim would marry after she was dead.
“What she didn’t know is that I was hurting as deeply,” Jim said. “We lived in our own house, divorced at heart, for 20 years, not knowing how to put this together. Had divorce been an option, we would have walked. But for her it was not, with the horse-and-buggy [culture], there was no way possible for her to get out, to get any help. That just doesn’t happen in that culture.”
And then one day, Diane spotted a book on an end table at a friend’s house. The volume had a dove on the cover, and in big letters said, “Counseling the Sexually Abused.”
Diane borrowed the book. She soaked it up.
“And for the first time, I went to Jim and I said I had been sexually violated as a child,” she said. “And so we began, for the first time in our life, we began to talk in an intimate way about what happened to us as children.”
After that, Diane went to a three-week counseling program and began to understand the trauma of child sexual abuse. Jim went to a men’s group in which the leader challenged the husbands to go home and pray for their wives every day for 30 days.
Beginning that night, they knelt beside their bed together, holding hands, and prayed. They never stopped, Jim said, even after the 30 days ended. They attended counseling. And then they realized their sexuality needed to change.
“One day he looks at me, and he says, ‘Why don't you just get honest with the fact that I raped you?’” Diane said. “And you know, I think something in my heart changed that day with respect and honor for him that I had never felt before.”
“That was part of the healing process, to allow for me to give her space to say ‘Hey, I did this to you. I take ownership of that,’” Jim said.
Diane found her voice.
“[He] began to tell me, ‘You need a voice and you need a choice in this,’” she said. “And you can say, ‘No.’ You know, ‘Honey, if you don't feel like having sex tonight, I can wait till tomorrow,’ or whatever. And it's beautiful to have that voice and that choice. And I'm not sure how many women in that circle actually have that voice and that choice, because of what religion has taught them is right.”
As Jim and Diane began to reconcile in their marriage, Jim started asking broader questions about their Old Order Mennonite faith, first of his father, and then of elders in the church.
“I started to recognize that there is more lying on my shoulders than just following after what the church tells you to do,” he said. “My whole life I have looked up to a denomination to raise my children.”
Jim and Diane began to push back against some parts of the Plain culture, particularly at school. At one point, they met with the school board about their children being bullied. Diane remembers telling the board that they should teach students about their own sexuality.
One board member responded, a blush of red creeping up his neck, that it should be a private conversation between parents and their children, Diane said.
The more she and Jim learned, the more questions they had, and the more feathers they ruffled in the community, they said. The Burkholders wanted to change the church and change the culture from within, but they slowly realized they couldn’t do it.
They began to talk about leaving the Plain world.
One Sunday in February 2016, Jim was one of the lead singers in church. He was given a song to sing, a farewell song in German. The moment felt right.
“On the carriage, we’re going home, I turned to my wife and said, ‘For some reason, there is something very deeply settled, today is the last day we’re going back,’” he said.
That was the last time he ever drove a buggy.
On a recent spring afternoon, the Burkholders’ older daughters flipped flour across the kitchen table and methodically rolled out dough as they prepared dinner for a friend.
The younger kids dashed in and out, chattering. The boys aren’t in suspenders anymore. The girls sometimes wear pants instead of skirts. These days, they play around on cell phones, sing into microphones in the basement and tap away on an accordion.
“When we left the culture, we now took everything away from our children that they knew to be normal,” Diane said.
It was hard on the entire family. They lost friends, the close community of the church, and a way of life.
They also suffered financially. Before they left their church, Jim had grown his agriculture construction business, building silos for farms, to a three-crew operation with nine workers.
After the family left, his workers, all Plain men, quit one by one, Jim said. His Plain neighbors stopped coming to him for their needs too, instead funneling their business to a Plain competitor, he said.
“It has really tested my faith,” Jim said. They’ve heard through the grapevine that they’ve been labeled as blasphemers, as bitter, unforgiving people.
It’s been hard — but they’ve also found some freedom outside the church.
“My wife and I are walking right now in deeper intimacy than we have ever dreamt possible this side of heaven,” Jim said.
They’ve changed the way they raise their daughters, focusing on developing their talents and abilities instead of training them solely for life as married mothers. Jim and Diane have spoken at conferences about sexual abuse among Plain People. They’ve gone to court hearings to support a sexual abuse victims.They attend a non-denominational church.
But they’re also dealing with deep pain within their family. In January, Jim and Diane learned of sexual abuse among their own family members.
Some of the abuse happened when the Burkholders were still in the Mennonite culture, and some happened after they left. The Post-Gazette is not identifying the relatives involved in order to protect the identities of the victims.
When Jim and Diane found out about the abuse, they had to decide whether to contact law enforcement or to keep it secret.
“We’re walking alongside victims of sexual abuse and we’re telling them to report,” Diane said. “And now we are faced with the very difficult question of what we do now. And I think Jim and I both knew instinctively that the right thing to do would be to report it.”
They took the cases to law enforcement and cooperated fully with the legal system. It’s been excruciating to watch their relatives go through the court system, they said. The process feels impersonal and harsh.
In Lancaster County, the Plain community has a board of elders that works closely with law enforcement, child protective services and the district attorney’s office. The elders help facilitate the process and communication between Plain People and the court system.
The Burkholders, who left the church, have no such support, no inside connection.
“It just left us spinning,” Diane said of the court system.
But they’ve also seen a victim of abuse become empowered when she was believed, and watched her feel free of shame or guilt.
If she had to do it again, Diane would report the abuse again, she said, but she’d also be sure to have a defense attorney involved from the beginning.
“I feel in my heart we did the right thing,” she said. “We had the right intentions, we wanted this cleaned out of our family once and for all. What I do wish we would have had is for somebody to prepare us for what we were going to meet in the court.”
As their relatives go through the court system, the Burkholders are working hard to create a healthy environment at home as they raise their younger children, nine of whom still live in the farmhouse.
She and Jim plan to keep on speaking about sexual abuse in the Mennonite and Amish communities.
“I’m starting to grab a hold of the fact that ... the mountaintop experiences, that’s not really life,” Jim said. “It’s in the dark times that you actually grow.”
Photographer Stephanie Strasburg contributed.
Design & Development Zack Tanner
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