Sexual abuse in Plain Anabaptist Churches: An Interview with Rosemarie Miller

Rosemarie Miller is a survivor advocate, speaker, and writer who works to raise awareness about the prevalence of child sexual abuse in faith communities. Raised as a Plain Mennonite, she now works with survivors from a wide range of church backgrounds, including many from conservative and plain-dressing Anabaptist groups.

After publishing Rosemarie’s personal narrative of abuse on Our Stories Untold last November, we knew we wanted to spend more time talking to her about her current work, and particularly about the prevalence of sexual violence and other forms of child and domestic abuse in Plain Anabaptism.  –Stephanie Krehbiel

Rosemarie, tell me about what’s happening in Plain Mennonite churches right now in terms of sexual abuse. Have things changed at all since you were a child?

Stephanie, thank you for asking. I would say that in some small measure, there may be some cases where child sexual abuse is being taken more seriously, here and there. But my general observation is that there are still massive issues with child abuse of all kinds–not just sexual abuse–being minimized and not dealt with transparently,  or very wisely.

How is it dealt with?

In my own story, as you are aware, it was “dealt with” by blaming me, and forcing me to apologize to the abuser for my alleged “part in it”. I have seen similar patterns continuing.

Are there more recent cases that you’re able to talk about?

Yes. I’m aware of other cases that are far more recent than mine where blame has been assigned to the victim as well. In one sickening situation, the church decided that the victim had to have wanted a sexual relationship with the abuser. They were shipped out of the church and community to “get counseling”. The offender was allowed to continue attending the church without any restrictions or accountability from the church, even though there were other minor, vulnerable children the abuser still had access to.

So the victim who was “shipped out” was a minor?

The victim was a minor, at the time of the abuse, yes.

What does “get counseling” mean in a situation like this?

In many instances in the very conservative groups, the only “counseling” is provided by the Bishop or minister. Many of the very conservative groups do not allow any counseling beyond that which is provided by the leadership, who are not trained or educated about trauma, abuse or any other topics of importance like that. Most have nothing beyond an 8th or 9th grade education in their own church run schools. In “less conservative” groups, they may send off a victim to a Mennonite or Amish run “counseling center”. Typically, these are staffed by people who feel “called” to help others. Many times, they have no real counseling background or training. There are frequently issues with the staff understanding the real depths of trauma, abuse and other things that are crucial to really helping victims.

What happened to the victim in this case after they were sent there?

The victim was given a few months of “counseling”. They did not return to live in their home community but relocated to a new area and new church. This is a common thing I have seen–the victim often is who has to find a new life and place, while the abuser is embraced and allowed to remain in their home community. While this is not always the case, it is frequently. In one case I know about, with a teen girl, she continued to live in her home with her parents, and the offender (who was single) was sent to live in a different community with a family. The father of the teen victim wanted to go file a police report for statutory rape, but was absolutely forbidden by the church leaders to do so. The female victim was excommunicated from the church and told to make a public confession, just as the adult, male offender was.

What would have happened to that father if he had defied the church and filed a police report anyway?

The father would have been excommunicated for having been “rebellious”. Because he was employed by a business that was very deeply involved with the church, he would have lost his job as soon as he was excommunicated. He would have also lost the support he had for any medical expenses because in that group, they eschew all forms of health insurance and depend only on the church for help with expenses beyond their own ability to pay. His church run car “insurance” program would have been gone, since he was no longer a member. Any children attending the church run school would have been at risk of being removed from the school, and on the list goes. While it’s easy to say that he should have reported the offender anyway, it’s also important to realize the level of change a decision like that would have entailed for his family, made it hard to make a decision to go contrary to the leadership’s directives.

So what you’re describing, it seems, is a set of church practices that make people economically dependent on their congregations, as well as socially dependent on them.

That’s right, Stephanie! While the level of dependence varies, depending on where a congregation is on the “conservative” spectrum, the very thing that is seen as a plus–the close community and deep involvement in each other’s lives–becomes a horrible weight when abuse exists,  and churches are not doing the right thing by victims! It makes it excruciating to break free and stand by the victims if the church doesn’t take that stand, because you are risking losing everything–your social, spiritual, family, and financial support systems can all be wiped out. If you are a victim, or a victim’s family, you can see how hard it would be to stand up to that level of pressure and fear.

It honestly sounds like the ideal setup for fostering abuse, and the sense I get from you and other current or former Plain/Conservative Anabaptists is that the scale of the abuse in these communities is far beyond what is making it into the public eye. What would you like to see happen?

Yes, the level of abuses that go on in some of the homes and churches is so hard for me to even know how to express,  because it grieves my heart so deeply for those who are experiencing it. I know first hand the amount of damage it can and does do. I think more education could be useful for some situations, especially in the really insular communities who have cut off so much access to others–I think there are people in those communities at times who really may be unaware of the law,  and how abuse cases should be properly handled. I also believe that when it comes to some of the less isolated communities–those who freely listen to the radio, read the news, have the internet etc.–the issues with abuse being badly handled, not properly reported to the authorities and so on, goes beyond a lack of education and into willful hiding of abuse. I don’t think that will stop until either they have a genuine revival of their hearts,  or there are such consequences from legal authorities that they fear to continue hiding and covering for the abuse of children.

With a few exemptions in some states, federal mandatory reporting laws for child abuse usually include religious leaders. Are you saying that leaders in conservative Mennonite communities are willfully and knowingly breaking those laws?

I think it is possible some leaders do not genuinely know. I also know there are some who are willfully putting their heads in the sand and who know what the laws say,  but try every creative way they can to circumvent the law. They make excuses about how they would never report a “repentant” abuser–as if they can determine on the basis of short term contact with an abuser who has been outed that he or she is repentant. Typically they “determine” that the abuser is repentant, based on the tears and statements of the abuser, so there is not a report made. In some cases, a report is made, but is so vague as to be essentially worthless. In other cases, the church members are forbidden to discuss the situation with each other or others outside the church, so the leadership can control the narrative, possibly going so far as to threaten God’s judgement and excommunication if the membership disobeys. There are all sorts of ways that leadership attempts to control the situation that I am aware of, not only in cases I have first hand knowledge of, but also in stories others have shared with me about things they have witnessed in their own congregations.

You talked about your experiences with abuse as a child in your Our Stories Untold narrative. I know that you’ve also experienced the dynamics you’re describing here as an adult whistleblower in your church. Can you talk about that experience at all?

It was a very difficult experience. I fortunately had the full support of my immediate family, as well as a good support network outside of the church, so that helped a lot. But it was still not a fun experience to need to take a stand when there was an attempt to hide abuse in our own church. Some years before, after long soul searching, my husband and I had determined that we would never again sit by while abuse was covered up or hidden. We had seen it happen over and over in churches, and seen the fallout for the victims and their families. So in that sense, when it came to the test, there was no decision to make, and that made it easier. We knew we couldn’t be complicit, and we weren’t. We lost a lot due to our decision, but as things work in God’s economy, we gained more than we lost. We don’t regret our decision to take a stand at all.

And now you’re part of a larger network of people, both inside and outside of churches, who are trying to bring more attention to abuse in Plain communities. How did that start?

Well, that would be a LONG story! But in short, because of my own history, I obviously had a huge interest in supporting victims and learning to understand better what the dynamics were for abuse situations. I’d done a lot of self education, and learned to know others who had a heart and passion for protecting children and helping victims heal over the years. Fortunately, I was able to identify and connect with safe people who are also working in this field. They are a blessing to stand shoulder to shoulder with, working on this important task! And I find the connections just continue to grow as awareness about child abuse grows! I think the more we connect, the greater strength we are gaining as we join our voices together. We have more ability  to network, and create changes that are for the good of victims! And I can’t emphasize enough that what are “best practices” for stopping abuse, and protecting and healing victims, are ALSO for the best good of our churches, homes and communities! While they may seem to create “more pain” in the short term, in the long run, these are best for everyone.

One small example would be supporting a victim in getting effective counseling and genuine support for healing. The ripple effects from that one person becoming more personally healed and healthy will ripple out to affect so many, many more people. For example, co-workers, a spouse, children, the church and on it goes. On the other side, the effects of a hurting, broken person also ripple out to impact others in negative ways. So which do I want to be a part of? Healing and wholeness, or dysfunction and pain? If we want to empower our families, churches and communities, we need to stand against abuse, practices which enable abuse, and start the process towards health and wholeness.

What you’re saying sounds so incredible and needed, and yet I know you’ve faced some pretty intense pushback. You have a movement here that isn’t dependent on instruction from church leaders. How are church leaders responding to that?

Well, it depends. It ranges from church leaders (some plain, some not) blessing me, to some in leadership positions, and some who are not, really pushing back. I’ve been told I’m going to face God’s “judgement”, people have been warned about me and so on. I think some people feel very threatened by what I am doing. On the other hand, many people are eager for information, education and support! I know what God has called me to do, and my heart’s desire is to follow Him no matter the cost to me personally. Children’s lives are at risk, the future of our churches and communities are at stake, and I cannot stand idly by.

When I look at the movements against sexual abuse in evangelical and Catholic contexts, it’s pretty common to see church leaders who seem to understand that some gigantic ship has sailed, but don’t seem to understand that it’s too late for them to get control of the ship. So they end up organizing big events to educate about sexual abuse, talking about the importance of helping survivors to heal, and positioning themselves as experts for congregations seeking help with abuse prevention. But I also see lots of survivors critiquing those actions. Do you see similar patterns in conservative Anabaptist circles?

For years, what I saw mostly was individuals here and there in some of the “mid-level” conservative groups (for lack of a better term) position themselves as people with a desire to help people heal. Some have done some great good. Others (based on survivor stories being told to me personally) have done some good, and some great harm. Many times these individuals have very little understanding of trauma and the long term impacts on the brain and body, and feel that some specialized prayers are going to heal the victims. When it doesn’t work as they think it should, they blame the victims. I know of one “healer” who has gone so far as to state that he wishes he could give these balky, unforgiving victims (as he views them) a good sound spanking to cure them.

More recently, there has been a bigger movement by some in the plain community to bring “awareness” to the sexual abuse crisis among plain churches, and some of the patterns you referred to, with people positioning themselves suddenly as “experts” and wanting to hold big events. However, I’m also noting that the voices of survivors are so far very lacking in events like that–and the survivors are the real experts, truth be told. Concerns which have been expressed about the omission of survivors at events have been met with a plethora of excuses, ranging from the alleged inability to find survivors who are “healed enough” to speak at events, to remarks about “overly emotional victims” who would cause more harm than good and so on. So it’s clear that there are still real issues with those who profess to want to help, not having a clear understanding of what best practices in this type of work look like.

Do church leaders ever listen to you? Do they ever consult you as an expert?

At this point, there has been a limited amount of that. I would say victims, those concerned for victims,  and other victim advocates are where the bulk of my time and energy are going currently. I also spend a lot of time educating on prevention of abuse with parents who are concerned that they do an effective job protecting their children, as well as others concerned about child safety. And that is an area I am very passionate about, so I enjoy that work.

Are there other cases that you’re dealing with right now that you can talk about?

As you know, in work like this, discretion and confidentiality are extremely important, so I can’t talk freely about any case generally. However, I do have permission to share the following. A former victim who has been emotionally impacted by hearing about a current case, recently reached out to me for support and a safe place to talk. I can share that this was a case of abuse of a minor, who is now an adult, and they initiated a lawsuit against the man who abused them as a child, and the church the adult was a member in. There is allegedly a very wealthy church member who was able to take legal action, which resulted in the church itself being dropped from the suit. However, the suit against the individual is still ongoing. I am definitely keeping an eye and ear on the case, as well as seeking to be a safe place for this former victim, who needs a place to talk about the emotional impact on them of the legal proceedings.

Wow. That’s horrifying. In my experience as an advocate, it’s really difficult and scary for survivors to pursue lawsuits, even outside of closed communities like this. There’s all the public judgment that comes with suing, and then there’s the retraumatizing aspect of the legal proceedings, and the financial risk. I can’t imagine how much some of these things would be amplified for someone going up against a separatist Anabaptist community. Do you think there will be more abuse-related lawsuits against Plain churches?

I don’t know, but it would not surprise me. I believe as survivors are realizing more and more that they are not alone, that there are large numbers of us who were abused as children in one way or another, whether by older juveniles and/or adults, and the abuse has been repeatedly ignored at best, or actively covered up by churches at worst, and that some of us were abused further by the church in one way or another, there is a bigger and bigger outcry rising up. As The Plain People’s Podcast is making clear, these cases of abuse are not isolated incidents here and there. They are happening over and over in a variety of plain communities.

While you and I both know that child abuse is NOT just a problem in Anabaptist communities–it’s very present in all kinds of communities and churches–what I personally am very knowledgeable about is the Anabaptist communities. And while my heart breaks for any child being abused, I know first hand how unable to access any outside support and help I was as a child. I was surrounded in every facet of my life by the same people–I went to the church run school, my friends were part of families who went to the same church group, my father was employed at a business that was church affiliated, and on it went. It made accessing help to escape the abuse very unlikely, and as you know from my story, it did not happen.

Rosemarie, thank you so much for sharing with us and for the incredible work you do. I have one last question for you: If you could share any advice with Anabaptist church leaders, what would it be? Pretend you have a captive audience!

First of all, I would like to tell them there is incredible freedom in walking in the Light of God and honesty. That Satan is who brings fear–which leads to control, and then to abuse. God’s love sets us free and empowers us to walk with integrity and honesty in our relationship with Him and others. When we are living in a right relationship with Him, and know how much He truly loves us, and feel that love in the depths of our hearts, we are equipped to love people wisely and to relate to them without behaving in controlling and abusive ways. Secondly, I would like to tell them that strong people understand that they can only truly control themselves, not others. By setting others free to be who God wants them to be, we most empower them. And third, I would like to point out to them that children thrive best in safe, loving and gentle environments, and children who grow up thriving, become adults who thrive. If we want to see our churches, homes and communities strong and healthy, we must take seriously stopping this toxic cycle of abuse and control. This is my genuine heart cry for the Anabaptist homes and churches–and for all homes, churches and communities.