Relative Evil: Sex abuse in Amish country


On February 16, 2004, Ruth*, a twenty-year-old Amish woman with long brown hair and a rail-slim build, drove off in a friend's dark-green minivan with nothing more than a few books, her diary, the clothes she was wearing and some underwear. In the process, she severed ties with her family and the conservative Old Order Amish community in which she'd been raised.
    Ruth says she was six — maybe younger — when her older brothers, Johnny E. Byler, twenty-six, and Eli E. Byler, twenty-three, first sexually assaulted her. Over the next decade, they raped Ruth more than 200 times in the washrooms, barns and bedrooms of the farmhouses in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where they lived. At least once, her stepfather, seventy-seven-year-old William Kempf, attacked her as well, knocking her unconscious during an argument.
    If the abuse was a secret in the family, it wasn't particularly well kept. Some of the Bylers' Wisconsin neighbors blame Ruth's mother, forty-nine-year-old Sally Kempf, for allowing the attacks. According to the La Cross Tribune, Sally once told her daughter, "You don't fight hard enough, and you don't pray hard enough."
    The family lived in three separate church districts in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin while Ruth

"You don't fight hard enough," her mother said. "And you don't pray hard enough."

was being assaulted. "Apparently, the family was sent from community to community for re-sinning or for outright failure to repent," says Deborah Morse-Kahn, the co-author of Born Amish, who has met with Ruth. "The perpetrators were punished by meidung, or shunning, which is when a church member is shut out of the community. The Amish feel that is the ultimate punishment. But the child was not rescued."
    Last February, after attending a support group for battered women in nearby Viroqua, Wisconsin, Ruth wrote letters to local Amish church leaders, outlining the abuse and asking that they "do something about it."
    As a result, her brother Johnny was barred from religious services for six weeks. Her brother Eli was ordered to apologize for what he had done. At that point, the church probably would have closed the chapter. Except Ruth did something almost unheard of among the Amish: She told the police.

Founded by a Swiss tailor in 1693 on principles that include a strict adherence to the Scriptures and excommunication for church members who violate certain rules, the religious order known as the Amish came to the U.S. in the 1700s and settled in Pennsylvania. Today, more than 180,000 Amish live in twenty-eight states. Wisconsin is home to the fourth-largest community in the country; roughly 1,800 Amish live in Vernon County alone. Through a high birth rate, the Amish have managed to double their population every twenty years, a Mennonite tour guide tells me as we drive through Intercourse, Pennsylvania. (Yes, that is the real name of the town).
    Each of these communities is a world apart from that of the "English," as the Amish refer to the non-Amish. The Amish don't drive cars or use computers. Some don't even ride bicycles. They have their own schools (which end with the eighth grade), church services (every other week, in a different private home), and commerce (many Amish stores cater exclusively to other Amish). Their families are intimately linked.
    It's an insular world, so insular that its residents occasionally seem exempt from the law. "There's almost a double standard," says Linda Nederlo, director of health and human services for Vernon County. "We often get reports of [non-Amish] homes with no running water, no toilets. We go visit. There are Amish homes that don't have these things, and we don't go there."
    Contrary to the austerity of the Amish stereotype, when it comes to sex, they're relatively liberal. "The Amish see sexual activity as a normal, healthy part of living," says Donald B. Kraybill, author of The Riddle of Amish Culture. Young people can be promiscuous, fooling around at Saturday night parties and staying overnight at the houses of their betrothed. They tend to have short engagements; if a girl gets pregnant, she just gets married.
    While sex may be considered natural, incest and rape are considered aberrations. Yet the Amish believe such crimes should be handled internally, within the community. Under these circumstances, the potential for abuse can be high. Says Morse-Kahn: "When a community is hidden away from the eyes of others and it's scripture-based, which means the ministers who interpret the scripture have power over the rest of the people, you have a perfect setup for hidden crimes."

The accused (top to bottom): Ruth's stepfather, William J. Kempf; her mother, Sally J. Kempf; brothers Eli and Johnny Byler.

On a recent Saturday, a sixteen-year-old Amish girl, Susan Miller, stands stiffly behind a table in a store near the family farmhouse on Bakkenstuen Lane, where she and her sisters sell chocolate chip cookies, quilts and cotton dresses designed for American Girl dolls. She lives less than a mile from Ruth's old home. When I ask her about Ruth, she looks at the ground.
    "I haven't heard of her for a while," she says.
    A non-Amish neighbor, seventy-year-old Rachel Wrobel, is a thoughtful woman who has a framed Grant Wood quote on her kitchen wall that reads, "All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow." She tells me how she stopped by the Kempfs' place in July to buy worms for a fishing expedition. Ruth was outside, dressed in her black cloak and bonnet, standing next to a clothesline. She told Rachel that her younger brother, Rudy, had run away.
    "It was the first time I met her," says Wrobel, "and she said her stepdad beat her brother repeatedly. I remember she said, 'repeatedly.' That girl cried. Tears just flowed down her cheeks. I said, 'Why didn't you report it to the authorities?' She said, 'We don't do that.'"
    Rose Landis — a willowy, forty-two-year-old mother of ten with high cheekbones, red nails, hoop earrings and rings on her toes — met Ruth at the support group for battered women in Viroqua. While carpooling to meetings, they would talk. "She said to me many times, 'You're more like a mother to me than my own mother," says Rose, whose ex-husband is serving time for domestic violence. "We'd known each other for only a half a year, so that gives you some sense of what life was like for her."
    "When she started to talk about reporting the crimes, I said, 'The whole Amish will be against you for breaking the code of silence.' I wanted her to be aware of what she was up against. I said, 'I'm not going to tell you to leave, but if you decide on your own, I will give you a place to live. I will feed you. And there will be a lot of other people who will help you.' She's always been totally controlled. I think for the first time in her life she was allowed to make a decision."
    On March 10, Ruth went to the police. Don Henry, a Vernon County Sheriff investigator, made arrangements for her to record a conversation with her brothers. She had to wear a body wire and approach Johnny in person because he didn't have a telephone.
    On March 23, Ruth visited Johnny at the farmhouse where he lives with his wife and three children. She spoke with him for twenty minutes while Ruth recorded the conversation. Johnny sounds calm on the tape, says Henry, and he talks about having sexual intercourse with his sister.
    The next day, Henry pulled up in front of Johnny's place in a squad car and asked for Johnny to follow him out to the car. They sat for a while, then Henry started asking questions.
    "He spilled it out," says Henry. "I asked how many times he did it to her. He said, 'So many times, it was pathetic.' He was remorseful for what he'd done. He said, 'One time was too many.'"
    Jack Buswell, Johnny's lawyer, filed a motion to have Johnny's statements stricken from the record, claiming that because Johnny didn't have a television or a high-school education, he couldn't have known what he was getting himself into when he admitted to the crimes. A circuit court judge dismissed the motion on May 24. He said Johnny's confession could be used in court.

As it turns out, Ruth isn't alone in speaking out about abuse among the Amish. In fact, it has inspired an entire literary subgenre. In Ruth Irene Garrett's memoir, Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape From Amish Life, she writes about her older brother, who "was beaten by our father with leather straps when he was a child." Irene's husband, O.A. Garrett, has published True Stories of the Ex-Amish, a nonfiction book that is clumsily written and sloppily edited but includes several interesting case studies of people who've left the Amish. In one of them, Mattie, a dark-haired woman with hazel eyes and a sad smile, writes about being sexually abused by her father, a preacher, when she was a child.

Abuse among the Amish has inspired an entire literary subgenre.

"He would also manage to be alone with me in the barn, and then he would try to molest me," she says. "I was not going to let him go all the way with me, but I think he would have if I had not fought him off." There's even a website devoted to the topic: amishabuse.com, run by David E. Yoder. One article on the site, titled "Amish Deception," describes adults who abuse children and escape criminal charges, including Eli, who was excommunicated by the church for ninety days for having sex with his daughter but, at least according to Yoder, has never faced a judge.
    Indeed, the Amish are rarely prosecuted for such crimes. Lee Zook, an associate professor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, who specializes in legal issues and the Amish, says he's only come across a handful of criminal cases in the twenty years he's studied the subject.
    Today, state and local officials are working to understand the Amish so they can reach out to them when they're in need and, when necessary, prosecute crimes aggressively. "I hope that, through all of this, everybody learns that the Amish are not immune from our laws," says Tim Gaskell, the Vernon County district attorney. "If they commit crimes, they're going to be prosecuted. And our greatest hope is to bridge the gap between the Amish and our community. I don't want to say 'our community' because the Amish are part of our community. But there is a separation, and I would like us to at least create some kind of liaison between the Amish and the English."
    On June 10 in Richland Center, Wisconsin, Morse-Kahn and Nederlo hosted a one-day conference titled "Amish and English: Building Relationships for Public Health Preparedness." The goal was to help educate social service providers from ten counties about the Amish and how to communicate with them. (It was, oddly enough, paid for with funds from the Department of Homeland Security.) More than 170 people attended lectures on "Amish Culture and Belief," "Amish and English Law," and other topics.
    "We're a little unnerved by the Amish," says Morse-Kahn. "They speak another language, and they can shut us out. At the conference, we talked about the fact that if a social-service provider sees an abuse situation in an Amish home, they must act. Will all the doors get closed against a social service provider after that? My counsel is that we need to take it on a case-by-case basis. If we must act, we may end up looking like bullies. That's very hard on people — especially those who work in social services. We want to be the good guys."

These days, Ruth doesn't want to talk about what happened to her. Her lawyer has advised against it. So when I reach her by phone at her new apartment in Viroqua, we talk about clothes. I learn that she loves strappy sandals, dark eye shadow and colorful dresses, especially one that's "bright red with flowers on it. I guess I could say it covers my butt — but barely." She tells me how much fun she had at an ex-Amish reunion in Missouri over Memorial Day weekend. There, she wore pink lip gloss.
    Besides a flirty new wardrobe, Ruth has a driver's license, a GED and a twenty-hour-a-week job at a

"You know what the Pill is, don't you?" Ruth says. "Bi-i-rth control."

sewing factory. She sees a counselor once a week and hopes someday to study nursing. Still, her experience in the world is limited. At age twenty, she's never been to the movies. She's never gone to a concert. She seems to have just discovered contraceptives. When she tells me about a Loretta Lynn song she likes, for example, she blurts out its name — "The Pill" — and starts to laugh hysterically. After a moment, she says, "You know what the Pill is, don't you?
    "Bi-i-irth control," she explains.
    When an Amish person leaves the church after they've been baptized, as Ruth has, they are shunned by their community — even their parents. So she has little contact with them. These days, her best friend is her brother, Rudy, who has also left the Amish. He wears a leather jacket and lives in a nearby town. When she talks about him, her voice is tender.
    "I don't get to see him as often as I'd like," she says. Their relationship is complex. ("Once I asked her, 'What about Rudy? Did he ever do that to you?'" says Wrobel, the neighbor. "And she said, 'If he did, it was just for curiosity.'")
    That night on the phone, Ruth slips in and out of different characters — silly, affectionate, enraged. She plays a Johnny Cash album softly in the background as she talks about Rudy, and how he was recently turned down for a job at a horse stable.
    "To tell you the truth, he's very good with horses, and he had a job lined up to train them at a stable," she says. "So he drove three hours — three hours — to get there. And this guy says, 'I won't give you the job because there's some scandal associated with your name.' I just don't want them to think they can get away with that. To me, that is not acceptable because it's so stupid!"
    All of a sudden, her voice is deep and gravely. In the next instant, she is high-strung and desperate. Then, her voice is calm, almost contrite. The horror has passed. For a long moment, she's quiet.
    "I'm happy all the time," she says. "Just being me and being true to myself instead of being a hypocrite. You know the Loretta Lynn song, "Hey Loretta"? I think that song was written about me."
    She belts it out, loud and off-key:
     Hey, Loretta, it's lonely bein' alone. Hey, Loretta, swear I'm a-gonna treat you better. Goodbye pots and pans. Ain't gonna wash no windows, ain't a-gonna scrub no floors. When you realize I'm gone, I'm gonna hear you roar . . .

On June 15, Sally Kempf pleaded guilty to "failure to protect" her daughter in Vernon County Circuit Court. She was sentenced to two years' probation. William has been charged with second-degree sexual assault and battery. Johnny has been charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child, dating from June 1996 to October 1999. Eli has been charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child and second-degree sexual assault, dating from October 1999 to March 19, 2002. If convicted of all charges, Johnny and Eli could spend the rest of their lives in prison. Additionally, eighteen-year-old David Byler was charged with first-degree sexual assault of a child. Last week, Eli and David tried to skip out on their court dates. They were picked up by the police on Sat., June 26, in Onalaska, Wisconsin, carrying knives and "a whole raft of ammunition," according to a Department of Human Services official. On June 30, Eli pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault of a child and bail jumping. He will be sentenced on Aug 18. David has a preliminary hearing on July 7. Johnny will appear in court for a plea hearing on Aug. 4.
     In recent weeks, weeds have sprouted in a cornfield next to the farmhouse where Ruth used to live. The front porch sags, and the milk truck that once came every morning to pick up milk doesn't stop here anymore, says the fourteen-year-old boy who lives next door. The heifers that grazed on the field grass alongside the road are gone, he says, and the grass has grown waist-high. Most of the farmland has been rented out to neighbors. Visiting the property on a recent Saturday, I watched a stocky woman with a pinched face move quickly across the road — as if she were in a hurry to get away from something.  

* - not her real name. Photos of the accused courtesy of the Undersheriff, Vernon County, Wisconsin.

Tara McKelvey is a senior editor at The American Prospect.

©2004 Tara McKelvey and Nerve.com


Commentarium (24 Comments)

Jul 02 04 - 8:10am

when iread this i was shocked and dissmayed to say the least that this kind of abuse was allowed to take place whithin those families and the comunity until that girl was willing to stand up and tell what ad been done to her and who had done it i hope it inspires others to say no you cant do that to me or anybody else

Jul 02 04 - 10:28am

I don't see what's so shocking about any of this. All is means is that the Amish families are no different from the rest of us.

Jul 03 04 - 11:17am

I applaud the girl for speaking out against her beothers and stepfather.

Jul 04 04 - 12:45pm

to the one who said " don't see what's so shocking about any of this." I applaud you. Why society believes that the Amish, or any other so called "sect of society" is immune to sexual deviation makes me crazy. We are human, and all humans are infallable to the same diseases of the mind and body. Does tucking yourself in a corner of rural america and creating a gate around your community make you exempt? We as Americans only delve as deep as our conscience allows.

Jul 04 04 - 2:32pm

A sad and insightful report. I hope all individuals have an opportunity to leave an oppressed and abusive community to live a life of choices.

I have returned from Operation Iraq Freedom last 12 May 2004. I spent 12 months living in the Kuwait desert in a tent and an out house. I trained as a truck driver 88M in the National Guard. In another reality, I was a Registered Nurse who cared for sick, dying and the demented. I fit perfectly in Kuwait as the company medical coordinator for 266 souls of a Combat Het transportation company. I tracked the sick and the wounded of my company. I scheduled ortho, dental, eye, pelvic, pshchiatric, cardiac appointments. The Guard are an aged population. I have grandfathers and grandmothers in their 50's driving trucks in Iraq in 120'F heat and performing drive by shootings. The tough old farts endured our year in country. A few pooped out ie. cardiac insufficency. The military is desperate for troops. It was don't ask or don't tell. My orders were to mobilize as many soldiers as possible. I tried to med board 7 soldiers that were unfit for duty. I was told " At Ease" The 91st Unit adminstrator said, " they will limp on to the plane and limp off the plane" It was a waste of resources. Why send troops already broken to become worse. Only one of the seven finised the one year deployment. I was a RN trained to care for people not to destroy them.

When my company arrived to Camp Victory, Kuwait on May 17, 2003. We heard news of rapes on camp. I thought that it was from the third world nationals. But it was our own troops raping our own women. It was pretty fucked up. The mayor's cell had a standing order that all females be escourted after 18:OO. The lesbians of my company were armed with knives and personal guns. They were meaner and tougher than me. I worried about the 20 year old female soldiers.

To my knowledge and here say, the sex within my company was consensual. Hey John, are you with so and so. He replied, "I have been replaced". Adultery ran rampant. The leadership chose not to charge soldirs with sexual misconduct. I sent one soldier back for endermitrois. She came back to Kuwait to see her married boy friend. I read her report. She had an ectopic pregnacy. It is about ten male soldiers to one female soldiers ratio in Iraq from my opinion. We call them desert queens. Even the ugly ones get lucky. At Camp Doha, the Marble Palace, We would stare at the women in bikinis. My friend called it eye fucking. I was coming off guard tower watch at 2 AM. I and another were driving the hummer back to our tents. I see a couple with red,white and blue blanket holding hands running between the tents. Is that so and so. I am too tired to investigate.

In April 2004, One of our sister companies were going home to the US. The entire flight was stopped for an alleged rape. Criminal Investigation Division from Camp Doha came to investigate. The story goes she was drunk and was sexually assulted at the farewell party from Kuwait. CFLCC order no alcohol in Kuwait. When the investigation was complete, she was embarrassed at her sounds of passion that her soldiers heard that she claimed rape. The sex was consensual. The flight was released to return to the US. A lot of crazy shit will continue in Kuwait and Iraq. Any time the two sexes coexist intimately will result in polictically nuclear fallout. It contaminates everything. Only the water of truth and full disclosure will remove the stain of secrecy and denial. Thank You for listening to my story.

Jul 06 04 - 10:09am

the point isn't that sex abuse happens in amish country. the point is that it's such an insular community that the abuse goes unreported and it's hard for authorities to investigate and prosecute. the community encourages people to stay within itself, so abused amish kids have more trouble getting help than abused English kids.

Jul 07 04 - 12:18am

The headline draws attention to the fact that there IS sex abuse in Amish country. Sure, the piece is about how this specific culture makes it all the more difficult to report and uncover, but the hit of the headline seems to be claiming (in case any one of us did not know) it does happen. But the tragedy of the piece is that it exploits the girl at the center; this is only just happening to her right now and what she says is heartbreaking. To show her heartbreak seems exploitative. She's been living through a trainwreck, and now you've shown her at her most raw: just out, lost, and not aware, really, of what she's saying, how it sounds, and how she'll feel about it later.

Jul 06 04 - 1:39pm

English kids?

Jul 06 04 - 6:12pm

did you read the piece? English is what the amish call non-amish.

Jul 10 04 - 10:05am

I am a therapiist that works with victims of sexual abuse and sexual offenders. A man by the name of David Yoder has been attempting to get senators and others to pay attention to this problem. He and his wife are also ex-Amish and he has a website set up about his own abuse experiences as well as those of his wife. All of us need to assist these children and get assistance for their perpetratos as well. I would request as many people as possible support Mr. Yoder. His website is amishabuse.com

Jul 13 04 - 12:51am

it was informative,i thought shit like that went on .
it is a crime any time and ashame it gets swept under the rug
charles overgaard

Jul 15 04 - 9:44am

This article was very interesting. I'm a reporter with the Intelligencer Journal, the morning daily newspaper in Lancaster, PA. I learned about this case as I researched abuse and the way the church deals with it or doesn't deal with it, as the case may be. I dealt with marital abuse as well as child abuse, highlighting the church's ineffectiveness and its propensity to reabuse because of its beliefs that women are to submit and children are to obey, while men are forgiven (aka let off the hook). If you have any interest in reading the 4-part series, I'll be glad to send it to you. My e-mail is lespenshade@lnpnews.com

Oct 03 06 - 7:14pm

Oct 3, 2006
While Googlizing the

Feb 23 07 - 1:29pm

Get your facts Straight they were at the time of being arrested twenty six and twenty three not at the time of the beginning of the assaults.

Ruth says she was six

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Nov 07 10 - 11:03pm
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Feb 18 11 - 4:09am

Bless them. And bless you, for initiation the thread.

Mar 06 11 - 10:55pm
Visitor to Oshkosh

I visit a friend of the family at Oshkosh from time to time and we have seen creepy Eli and his family in the visiting room. So I googled to find out what he might have done. I nearly vomited in my mouth when I read this. I have seen the mother and step dad as well. It makes my skin crawl to know that I have seen these evil people in the flesh. I hope he is suffering the same fate his poor sister did!!!

Jun 17 11 - 6:08pm

I was informed recently that a practice among Amish people (families) is that if a girl does not marry by the expected age, that the family declares her open territory and allows any and all elligible men who would have sex with her to come to their house and do so. I simply cannot believe this. Can you respond with some verifible information?

Sep 20 11 - 8:38pm

"Verifiable" is the key. There is a societal element that rejoices with reports of conservative Christians behaving despicably. And they don't get more conservative than the Amish. Such cloistered groups make convenient targets for those willing to misrepresent the facts for the purpose of bashing Christ-followers.

There are a few social service workers who are as guilty of abusing the defenseless as any evil cultist, only their power trip is not as blatant as sexual abuse. All abuse of power or authority is equally wrong, but it has always been the world's way.

Tragically, despite the false and misrepresented reports, some truth resides in these stories of blatant abuse. Where a community's privacy is a higher priority than its women, it cannot in truth be called Christian. That indictment includes those who turn blind eyes to the horror, as well as the abusers themselves.