Plain community abuse victims feel pressured to forgive

Forgive-and-forget philosophy makes it hard to hold offenders accountable

PITTSBURGH — Church leaders pulled Kay aside one Sunday and told her she was excommunicated for failing to forgive her husband.

Her conservative Mennonite church demanded that she take a registered sex offender back into her home, that she forgive and forget what he had done to their 1-month-old baby and her sibling who followed.

But Kay had tried that blind forgiveness before, and she couldn’t do it again.

She’d gone to counseling with him, brought the kids to him for supervised visits, eaten meals with him. But this time, he needed to prove to her that he was trustworthy, and in the year since he’d been off probation, he’d ignored her rules and pushed the boundaries and pointed fingers at her for breaking up the marriage.

And so she didn’t welcome him back, despite pressure from the church and his family.

And then, on that fall day in 2007, she was kicked out of the only community she’d ever known, suddenly facing a future as a single mother of four because she wouldn’t let an abuser raise her children. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is identifying Kay and her husband only by their middle names to protect the identity of their children, some of whom were victims of sexual abuse.

The Sunday after Kay was excommunicated, her husband was welcomed back into their Lancaster County church, Kay, now 47, said in a February interview. She was ostracized.

“Everyone just turned their backs on us,” she said.

Forgiveness is paramount in many Amish and Mennonite communities.

“In a setting like that, if it’s confessed and forgiven, you are supposed to forget it.”

Those conservative Plain faiths take literally the words Jesus spoke in the Lord’s Prayer — “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” — and believe a person who fails to forgive will not receive forgiveness from God but rather eternal damnation.

Pastors in Plain communities expect church members to offer complete forgiveness to anyone who has wronged them — and once the matter has been dealt with in the church, true forgiveness means never speaking of the issue again, former members said.

To many, such complete forgiveness and restoration is a beautiful ideal. But some say the Plain faith’s forgive-and-forget philosophy makes it next to impossible to hold offenders accountable or warn others about their behavior — particularly people who have sexually abused children.

“In a setting like that,” Kay said, “if it’s confessed and forgiven, you are supposed to forget it.”

The radical forgiveness of the Plain faiths has made headlines for decades.

In 2006, a 32-year-old man burst into an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, and shot 10 girls; five died. The attacker then killed himself as police closed in. That evening, Amish elders visited the man’s family to say they held no grudges. They went to the shooter’s funeral and offered condolences to his widow, making news worldwide.

The Plain faiths frequently cite examples of extreme forgiveness in the Bible, like Jesus and the martyr Stephen, who both forgave their killers.

And while many Americans view forgiveness as the end of a long emotional healing process, many Amish and Mennonite churches view forgiveness as the start of that process. Forgiveness must be granted, and with forgiveness comes reconciliation and restoration.

“If we do not forgive, how can we expect to be forgiven?” a group of Amish wrote in response to inquiries about their response to Nickel Mines.

The Amish and Mennonite practice forgiveness in countless small ways every day, so forgiving major calamities is a natural extension of a well-tuned habit.

Darker side

to forgiveness

While Plain communities are often lauded for their radical forgiveness, there is a darker side to the deep-rooted belief, former church members said, in which it is used to silence anyone who continues to discuss another’s forgiven sin.

A forgiven sin is “a dead topic, it can absolutely never be mentioned again,” said Hope Anne Dueck, co-founder of A Better Way, an Ohio-based Christian organization that combats child sexual abuse. “If it is mentioned again — let’s say (a wife) went to the church and said my husband needs long-term counseling, he needs long-term accountability — she would be told she’s bitter, she’s unforgiving and she’s the one who needs dealt with. Because he’s said he was sorry, and this is not to be mentioned again.”

A man who confesses to church leadership that he sexually abused children might be required to go through a period of “probation” or “proving” in which he loses his full rights of church membership and receives additional supervision and mentoring. At the end of that time, the man often makes a general confession before the church, said Trudy Metzger, a former Mennonite and sexual abuse survivor.

“The apology will sound possibly something like, ‘(I) have struggled with immorality,’ so we’re not calling it out for what it is,” Metzger said. In some churches, the nature of that immorality — child sexual abuse — is never discussed.

There’s often no system for separating that offender from children after he is forgiven, Metzger said.

“That wouldn’t be reflective of a forgiving spirit; that would look like we don’t believe that they’ve really repented, that they’re actually forgiven,” she said. “Now, parents who are aware, some will be very proactive, and there will be the whispers, you know, in the crowd, and they will know — but in some cases, there’s really no awareness.”

Today, some Plain leaders say they’re learning from their mistakes, learning that forgiveness can be coupled with ongoing accountability and protection for children. In Lancaster County, a committee of Old Order Mennonite and Amish elders works closely with law enforcement and child welfare officials on abuse cases.

One elder on the committee, who asked not to be named because of the Plain aversion to self-promotion, said during a March interview that he and other committee members visit church leaders to impart the importance of reporting abuse to law enforcement.

When a molester confesses his sin to the church and claims he can stop, “We know that is not the truth,” said the committeeman. “They need more than just a confession.”

‘Hard for people

to forgive’

When Kay refused to forgive more than a decade ago, the church welcomed her husband back and kicked her out for failing to forgive him.

“I was dumbfounded,” she said. “I was like, ‘Seriously?'”

Kay returned from grocery shopping one day in 1994 to find her husband, Shirk, sexually abusing their 1-month-old daughter, according to the criminal complaint that led to his guilty plea.

Kay doesn’t remember what she said to him, just that the baby was crying, so she picked up the infant and comforted her.

Afterward, Shirk apologized and said it would never happen again, Kay said.

“I believed him,” she said.

She dropped it, and they had two more children together as the years slipped by. She never witnessed any additional abuse, and she thought her husband had stopped. But then, in April 2000, he suddenly confessed to her, and to church authorities, that he was still sexually abusing the children.

“They held a seminar, and they talked about how that is sin, and I did want to be free before God and confess it and get freedom,” Shirk, now 50, said in an April interview.

He told church leaders at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Ephrata what he’d done; they told him to confess it in front of the congregation.

“I did confession in church and made the confession in church and everybody stood and said they forgave me,” Shirk said. “I thought it was all good, but I found out that doesn’t make everybody happy.”

He laughed.

“After that, I found out a lot of people carry a lot of hatred for that sin and it’s hard for people to forgive.”

Kay tried to forgive and forget. She became pregnant with their fourth child that summer. And then Shirk started to unravel and ended up in a psychiatric hospital, Kay and Shirk said.

Kay soon went to visit. She wondered if Shirk’s mental breakdown could be connected to his abuse of the children. She asked a nurse if that was possible.

The nurse, mandated by state law to report child abuse, alerted the authorities.

‘God’s way’ protects

Kay tried to bring the kids to visit their father the next day, only to discover the children weren’t allowed near him.

“I was confused,” Kay said. “I was like, ‘What is going on?’ And this whole time I was so brainwashed that I was still defending him.”

Now, she sees that moment as “God’s way of protecting us and preventing more abuse.”

The Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency became involved, and the kids spent a few weeks staying with relatives until a Mennonite family within the church was approved as a foster family, Kay said.

After he was released from the hospital, Shirk came home to live with her — which was allowed as long as the kids weren’t present.

The church’s pastors began an intense time of mentoring and training with the couple, giving them sessions on child rearing and marriage, all designed to keep them together.

The pressure to stay together did not fade when Shirk was charged with child sex crimes in October 2000. He confessed during an interview with police and pleaded guilty the following month to four misdemeanor charges. He was sentenced to five years of probation and 15 years on Pennsylvania’s sex offender registry.

Church leaders did not return calls for comment on this story.

‘There is no forgiveness’

“I never knew there was anything like this that you could get into so much trouble,” Shirk said. “I never knew it was so much trouble in all my life.”

He was appalled by the court system, law enforcement, child services.

“This got way out of hand,” he said. “For a little bit of touching that I did wrong. I know that it can be a big emotional thing for the girl, and it can affect their life ever after and stuff like that, and I don’t want to belittle what I did.”

But, he said, the state doesn’t know how to handle “these things.”

“There is no forgiveness for one thing,” he said. “The state has no forgiveness, and therefore the church has no forgiveness, because the state is on their case that they’ll put the preacher in jail if they don’t report it.”

Some men in the Mennonite community have told Shirk they’re sorry for what he’s gone through, he said, and confided that they’ve committed similar acts.

Shirk said he stopped molesting children after his confession in the church. But if he could do it over, Shirk said, he would not confess in church. Instead, he’d find a friend to confide in, and he’d ask that man to help him stop, to hold him accountable without triggering the state’s justice system.

“I believe what they’re doing to men is way far worse,” he said. “I mean, my daughters that I molested, yeah, as far as I know, they are living a normal life. But I sure am not.”

After his conviction, Shirk was banned from seeing the children.

Making a choice

Kay, due to give birth to her fourth child, faced a choice. She could continue to live with Shirk and give all four of her children to the foster family, she could move in with the foster family, or she could take her children back and kick Shirk out.

“I knew what the church wanted, and that’s not what I chose,” Kay said.

She told Shirk he had to move out. For the next five years, Shirk was legally required to stay miles away from the children.

“We had boundaries and that felt good, that felt safe,” Kay said.

But on the day his probation ended, he sent her a dozen roses.

“That day, I was so ticked off,” Kay said. “I was like, ‘No, you’re not walking back into my life.'”

Shirk expected to reconcile.

“There is no room for a man molesting his children,” he said. “But there ought to be forgiveness in the way (that) a man can live his life normal if he has confessed and had victory over it, there ought to be a way out.”

Kay ran afoul of the church, she said, when she refused to reconcile with Shirk after his probation ended.

A new life

A few months after she was excommunicated, she picked up and moved with her children to a new town for a fresh start. She found work at the meat counter of a grocery store, found a new Mennonite church and a private school for the kids.

Shirk, who works as a carpenter, kept trying to reconnect with Kay and the children. He feels she is obligated to forgive him.

He worries that Kay’s salvation is in jeopardy because they haven’t reconciled.

“I just don’t understand how that is going to work out on Judgment Day,” he said.

“I’m done,” Kay said.

She wants all of it to end — the back and forth with Shirk, the silence in the Mennonite community about sexual abuse, the crimes that are passed from one generation to the next.

Kay said she was herself sexually abused by a family member when she was between the ages of 12 and 14.

She hopes that by speaking out, and by moving the kids away instead of reconciling, she can help prevent additional abuse, both in her own family and in others. She’s found a strength within herself that she didn’t know she had, and she’s reconnected with God at a new church, a place where sex offenders aren’t allowed.

Kay is hopeful for the future, and knows God has plans for her, good plans, free from abuse.

“Since I was abused, and my kids, I was all the more determined to put a stop to it,” she said. “The Bible talks about generational sins and I said, ‘It is stopping right here.'”