Sarah McClure's yearlong investigation on the widespread sexual abuse in Amish communities began with a phone call with a formerly Amish woman.
McClure had been working on a different story about the Amish, she said. She was "completely ignorant" to rape, incest and abuse in the Plain community.
Then a formerly Amish woman she was interviewing mentioned sexual abuse, and McClure's story changed.
Her report, published by Cosmopolitan magazine and Type Investigations, identified 52 official cases of child sexual assault in communities throughout seven states, including Pennsylvania. Her article includes comments from Lancaster County Judges Dennis Reinaker and Craig Stedman (then district attorney), as well as input from the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies in Elizabethtown.
LNP | LancasterOnline spoke with McClure about her reporting process and with Amish scholars about their response to the article, which you can read here.
How did McClure start her reporting process in Lancaster County?
McClure started by talking with Linda Espenshade, a former Intelligencer Journal reporter, who worked on a 2004 series titled "Silenced by Shame" which reported on church leaders silencing the voices of abused women and children.
You can read the original Silenced by Shame series below:
She visited Lancaster County several times throughout her year-long investigation, she said.
"I felt that Lancaster was at the front line of this issue," McClure said.
Lancaster County has an Amish population of more than 39,000 and is the largest Amish settlement in the world, according to the Young Center in Elizabethtown.
McClure said Lancaster County was a unique Amish community compared with many others she visited during her investigation: no other community had resources for Amish survivors of sexual abuse quite like Lancaster County.
She cited the task force run by Stedman when he was district attorney as an example. The task force connects law enforcement, social services and local Amish leaders.
McClure also mentioned Lancaster County Conservative Crisis Intervention, an effort to increase Amish cooperation with law enforcement and encourage reporting.
How did McClure find survivors of sexual assault?
McClure said never aggressively approached an Amish person. She spent months building relationships with Amish women who would then introduce her to others. She sat with the women, ate cake and drank coffee. She asked them about their children.
"You want to look at these individuals — these survivors — beyond just that one thing that they went through," she said.
The process of reporting on such a sensitive and vulnerable topic took patience, she said.
McClure said she spoke to a wide variety of sexual abuse victims: men, women, young, old, formerly Amish and those who are still a part of the church.
"I was able to get a real well-rounded perspective from from these folks," she said.
The response from local Amish scholars
Chuck Jantzi, a Messiah College professor of psychology and researcher of the Amish, said he was thrilled to see McClure’s report in a national magazine.
But there are some things about the article that make him — and other Amish scholars, he said — wary.
“Abuse does take place,” Jantzi said. “I know it takes place.”
But because of the sensitive subject and the privacy given to subjects, it’s difficult to understand what McClure heard firsthand and what was hearsay.
When asked how she identified the 52 official cases of child sexual abuse in Amish communities across the country, McClure said she "obtained these cases through a variety of methods, including through district attorneys' offices."
McClure also said that she spoke to about three dozen Amish people who had been sexually assaulted, some of whom had not reported their abuse.
When asked about McClure's article, both Jantzi and Steve Nolt, senior scholar and professor of history and Anabaptist studies at the Young Center, said that most Amish in Lancaster County don’t deny sexual abuse and put effort toward preventing the sexual abuse.
“It’s not the case that Plain churches are doing nothing or ignoring these issues," Nolt said. "The events, publications and trainings (to prevent child sexual abuse) are not publicized outside their circles, which perhaps gives the impression that nothing is being done.”
Jantzi said that none of his Amish friends had read the article.
"It just does not appear to have made a big impact yet in the Amish community," he said.
For more reporting on the Amish in Lancaster County: