The Backstory: Sarah McClure

Reporting on sexual abuse in insular communities

Sarah McClure spent a year investigating sexual abuse in Amish communities. In “The Amish Keep to Themselves. And They’re Hiding a Horrifying Secret,” published in partnership with Cosmopolitan, McClure reveals how Amish church leaders have covered up child sexual abuse by blaming and intimidating victims. Threats of excommunication or commitment to mental-health facilities further discourage survivors from speaking out. In this conversation, we discuss McClure’s reporting process and the difficulties of covering sexual assault in insular communities.

Nina Zweig: How did you originally find this story, if you can just take us through that?

Sarah McClure: I had actually been looking into drug use among the Amish. I hadn’t even known that there was something like this, that sexual abuse existed in the Amish Country. It wasn’t a hypothesis I came up [with] on my own. In fact, in looking at the drug use among the Amish, the one thing that kept coming up in my conversations with these Amish folks is, “Do you know about this abuse? Have you heard about the sexual abuse?” And so I went back to my editor, who at the time was Alissa Figueroa, and I said, “This is what I’m being told. What do we do?” And she said, “Go back and see what you can find.” And the story just took off from there. So in my original attempt to cover this community, I wasn’t even aware of this kind of problem, that it existed here.

So basically, my fiancé is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He lives out here in Los Angeles, but we actually spend a lot of time out in Lancaster County. And that area of the country is the capital of the Amish. So I had grown accustomed to seeing them, interacting with them at cafés — they go to the same stores — and I just began observing that community and how integrated they were with the English.[1] And I thought, well, I haven’t seen much coverage of this community. Why don’t I just start researching them and see what’s there?

Zweig: You’ve reported on sexual assault on college campuses for Fusion. What difficulties did you encounter in your reporting for this piece that didn’t come up in that previous work covering similar topics?

McClure: [At Fusion] we looked at the unreported rapes happening at fraternities off campus and how universities were failing to investigate sexual assault under Title IX. In this case, I felt that there were other factors at play that were also preventing sexual assault from being reported. The big challenge was the fact that they were Amish, so they’re very disconnected from communications that we use today. They don’t email. They’re not as familiar with technologies that make it easier for someone in California to communicate with them from various states. And I just can’t get into all the states because I want to protect their identities. But sometimes I would have to write letters to these people to basically get conversations started.

When you meet an Amish person, you are given their phone number and their fax number, but they don’t have phones in their house. They usually have phones in an outdoor house, sort of like an outhouse. And it’s just a phone booth, so it’s not in their home. And so what happens is that when I was reporting on these folks and I was communicating with these folks, I’d have to leave a message and then wait a day or two to get called back. And so my communication with some of the Amish sources was delayed in that sense. It was very 1995.

Some Amish don’t have phones. So, for example, I would have to write a letter to somebody and hope that they get it, [and that then] they’d find a phone and they would get back to me. So I had to do a lot of traveling to meet these folks in person just because it’s also really difficult to talk about this topic by phone. You know, you can’t see [the person’s] face and you can’t allow them to open up in a way that I think that they’d want to if you were just in the room with them. So I think communication is the obvious challenge. I tried to just listen and give them that space to be heard. Some of these victims have never spoken publicly about their abuse. They are sometimes so terrified to the point that they appear stoic. They can barely speak. Oftentimes they burst into tears. And so when you ask them these questions, you’re basically putting them right back into that situation. So I really try to listen and give them that space to be heard.

Zweig: Of the three women whose stories you tell in the article — Sadie, Esther, and Lizzie — Esther is the only one who’s still part of the church. Did she feel differently about telling her story than survivors who you talked to who were no longer part of an Amish community?

McClure: Definitely. The situation with Esther is different from someone like Lizzie. Yes, they’re both from the Amish community, in a sense. But Lizzie’s public, she’s gone public with her story. She’s been covered by local news. She’s out of the community. The stakes are high for Lizzie to come forward because she has so many connections and family still within the Amish community in her neighborhood. And the stakes are very, very high for Esther, too. In Esther’s case, what separates her from other Amish women who have left their communities and come forward is that Esther has risked her life, her family’s life, her husband’s life to speak with me, in the sense that she can be kicked out of her community. She can be excommunicated. Once you’re excommunicated as an Amish person, you are no longer allowed to socialize with those people in your community, including your family, your kids. You’re no longer allowed to eat with them. You can’t even take things from their hands. So by talking to me, if she was found out, she would face very, very high consequences. And so we worked really hard to keep her identity protected. I do know that she herself had expressed at some point [that she wanted] to leave the community, but she just she couldn’t do it.

Zweig: Who did you talk to, to the extent that you can speak about it, whose stories aren’t included in the piece? I think the article mentions that you spoke with a few male survivors, too. So what made you ultimately choose to focus on Sadie, Esther, and Lizzie rather than some of your other sources’ stories?

McClure: Outside of my own belief system — believing these men and women — it’s very important to me to also give readers the sense that we’ve done the work and that we’ve actually reported out [survivors’] stories, we’ve vetted their stories. We’ve found supporting documents [and] other people who have been able to support their narratives. And so Lizzie was an obvious choice to include in this story because she had so much reporting and documented evidence to support her claims. It doesn’t really have anything to do with whether or not I believe these people. What was important to me was to be able to show that we’ve reported out these sexual assaults, that we had the proof to show that these are happening. So Lizzie was a good choice in that sense because she also was ready to talk about what had happened to her. Some victims that I spoke to weren’t ready to tell their stories publicly, so I couldn’t include their stories.

I think Esther, she had been introduced to me by a friend and she was just [champing at the bit] to talk to a reporter and never had the opportunity. And so she was another obvious choice because she was capable of explaining everything that had happened to her in a way that [allowed her to feel] comfortable. She was visibly upset by what was happening, what she was seeing happening in her own congregation. She had the support from others in her community who could vouch for the things that had happened to her when she was young. And she also had medical documents which supported her claims. And so in that sense, too, you’re able to kind of point out someone who’s got enough evidence to put their narrative out there.

With Sadie’s story, Sadie does not have her own police report. She does not have her own court case. Sadie doesn’t have the kind of documentation that Lizzie has, that Esther has. And that’s actually the case for the majority of sexual assault victims that I spoke to from the Amish community, simply because these folks just don’t have access to, or they were taught not to go to, the police. And so that’s very, very common. In Sadie’s case, we kept her anonymous to protect her identity, to protect her family, and also because she just didn’t have the documentation that we felt would safeguard her. So what we did instead is that we corroborated her accounts with several family members. I actually found a court case [against] her father that showed that he had a pattern of sexually assaulting his daughters. I found this VHS tape that showed his case happening, and the judge was charging him for incest. And so we were able to corroborate her story.

Zweig: The end of the article talks about a #MeToo movement led by Amish and Mennonite survivors. Beyond growing those types of solidarity networks, are there any specific changes that you’re hoping for on a local level to combat abuse?

McClure: Overall, I think that the stuff that I’m reporting on in the story are things that these local communities are already aware of. It’s not news to them. In Lancaster County, they started a task force already to focus on this issue. Some of these communities already have their own conferences geared toward the Amish to educate the Amish and Mennonites on sexual assault [and] educate them on their bodies. They have Amish liaisons to work with the community directly.

So in the case of my story, I don’t think that it’s going to change those communities in terms of informing them, I think maybe with the exception of the way these alleged medical facilities are treating these victims. [That] might be news, but outside of that, I do believe that people in California — for example, me a year ago — were not even aware that this kind of sexual abuse happened in Amish Country. I really just wanted to inform other people about an issue that I thought was underreported. It was not given the coverage it deserves.

When we talk about Amish #MeToo, [we have to remember that] sexual abuse in the Amish community isn’t news to the Amish, but it is news to the rest of the world. Or when we say Amish #MeToo — that’s a term that is really new to them as well, these women in their groups where they talk to one another, they share their abuse stories. I said something once like, “This feels like a #MeToo movement within the Amish community.” Some of these women raised their hands and they said, “What’s #MeToo?” My hope is that the article will grow this Amish #MeToo movement, this grassroots effort, both inside and outside the community. I hope that more people get interested in reporting on the community. I hope that these women get the justice that they’re seeking and I hope that other people take an interest in just talking to these individuals.

Zweig: Why did you decide to pitch the piece to Cosmopolitan? Why do you think that they were the right partner for this story in particular?

McClure: That’s a good question. I decided with my editor that Cosmopolitan would be the best home for this type of story because I truly felt like they would care about the subject. They would understand the sensitivity of covering a story like this, in a sense because it’s a women’s magazine. You can understand that these are experiences that are so private and so traumatic [that] we wanted to put [the story] in a place where we felt that that the editors would take care of these women’s voices, that they wouldn’t be manipulated in any way. And I truly felt that the readership would also be able to relate to these women’s stories, because they are women.

I think women have an innate ability to connect with one another across worlds, across communities, in the sense that if I were a male and I was trying to report on Amish sexual assaults, I don’t think I would have as many doors open for me. I think it helped that I was a woman myself and I was in these homes and talking to these women face to face. I think that the magazine reflected the tone and the kind of audience that — I think in the same way that when they meet in their groups, you know, they have women’s groups. It’s more comfortable to be able to open up in front of other women. And it just felt like we were [doing the same thing] with the magazine. We were opening it up to another, larger audience of women.

[1] Some Amish refer to non-Amish people as “English.”

Resources for survivors of sexual abuse in Amish and Mennonite communities:

Office of Victim Advocate, Pennsylvania

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Mennonite chapter

Safe Communities
313 W. Liberty St. Suite 242, Lancaster, PA 17603

Mission to Amish People (MAP)
575 US Highway 250, Greenwich, OH 44837

Voices of Hope

The Plain People’s Podcast, hosted by Jasper Hoffman

The Campaign Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE), Lancaster County
Child abuse hotline: 800-932-0313

About the reporter


Sarah McClure

Sarah McClure is an investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles.