Amish, Mennonite survivors of childhood sexual assault join others to fight for a chance for justice

Patriot-News, Pennsylvania/June 7, 2023

By DaniRae Renno

As survivors of child sexual abuse gathered on the front steps of the Pennsylvania Capitol to advocate for the passage of legislation allowing legal action against sexual abusers, Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, offered a fitting opening remark: “Here we go again.”

He was alluding to the long battle that he and others in the General Assembly have fought to pass legislation which would open a two-year “window of justice” for survivors to bring civil lawsuits against their abusers, regardless of whether the statute of limitations expired.

Survivors from Mennonite and Amish communities attended the Monday rally to speak about sexual abuse they said is quietly spreading through their communities.

Mary Byler, who was featured in the Peacock documentary “Sins of the Amish,” shared the story of her sexual abuse in an Amish community in Western Pennsylvania.

“In those churches, I endured approximately eight years of childhood sexual abuse that is indescribable,” Byler said. “There are hundreds of thousands of survivors right here in Pa, and who are we, as a commonwealth, as a people, to turn our backs on the most vulnerable people, our children?”

Plain sect communities often teach against reporting crime to law enforcement, and the punishment of perpetrators is handled within the church. Misty Griffin, author of “Tears of the Silenced,” a memoir of her Amish childhood filled with sexual abuse, said that for some sexual abusers, their only punishment is six weeks of shunning.

When Audrey Kauffman, who was Amish at the time, realized that her husband was abusing her daughters, she reported the abuse, filed for divorce and got a restraining order. Her life became what she called a living hell, while her ex-husband continued in the Amish community.

“When I came forward with the truth, and I reported the abuse, the harassment from the community was shocking. They did everything they possibly could to silence me, to shut us down, and to invalidate our truth,” Kauffman said. “We can do better. We can do a lot better. And for as progressive as we are as a state, we should’ve done better a long time ago for the sake of innocent children in subcultures of religion who have no voices. For their sake, I ask you today to pass these bills. "

Often, when Mennonite and Amish survivors are ready to report abuse, they are told that the statute of limitations prevents them from seeking justice against their perpetrator, allowing more children to fall victim to sexual abuse, Griffin said.

“Right now, what’s happening? We’re failing children,” founder of CHILD USA Marci Hamilton said. “Parents do not know about the predators in this state. Organizations are happily supporting the abusers. The cost of the abuse right now in this state is being worn by the victims, their families and Medicaid.”

Hamilton is a law and religious studies scholar, in addition to her involvement with CHILD USA, a nonprofit advocating for child abuse victims’ rights.

Rozzi, who has been outspoken about his experience as a survivor of clergy sexual abuse as a young teen, has worked with CHILD USA and other organizations to raise awareness of this quest for justice for childhood sexual abuse survivors.

His openness led Lydia Rendon, a former member of a plain sect community, to seek justice against her father, who sexually abused her for more than a decade. She contacted Rozzi’s district office after reading his story in the newspaper, and the office put her in contact with law enforcement. For her, the statute of limitations had not expired and her father was incarcerated for 63 to 155 years.

“I still have nightmares. I still wake up terrified, but I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t know that he wasn’t going to break in and kill all of us, if I didn’t know that I was safe now, if I had to wonder what other children he was still abusing,” Rendon said. “This is what we survivors need. We need justice, we need safety so that we can begin to start healing, and we need to know that our predators will never again harm another child.”

Various bills to help survivors have been approved by the House and Senate separately, but they have been unable to agree on the language.

A constitutional amendment was slated to be on the ballot for voters to approve in 2021, but the Department of State failed to correctly advertise the proposal.

Already this year, the Democratic-controlled House passed five bills providing relief for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. One of them included a Senate-passed package of proposed constitutional amendments that also included a proposal to change the regulatory approval process and another that would require voters to produce identification at every election. The House stripped out those other proposals before passing it last month.

All five bills are now sitting idle in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana County, has said the standalone “window” bills are dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled chamber. He said the package of proposed amendments that the Senate passed, which reflected two other of his caucus’ priorities, was the final time he intends for the chamber to deal with the issue.

But on Monday, advocates for this amendment indicated they are not giving up.

“This is not just some idea or some policy, but this is about real people’s lives,” Rep. La’Tasha Mayes D-Allegheny said. “It’s a new day in Harrisburg. It’s a new day in the House of Representatives where we prioritize the safety of children.”

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