Friday, September 3, 2010

A Crisis in Amish Country

A Crisis in Amish Country
CURRYVILLE, Mo. — A troubled young man from this remote stretch of eastern Missouri, Chester Mast had traveled north in the summer of 2004 to stay with his extended family in Wisconsin. Mr. Mast, a member of a conservative Amish community here that eschews conveniences like electricity and telephones, was meant to apprentice with his uncle, a carpenter.

His uncle opened his home to the young man but, according to court documents, soon began having doubts about Mr. Mast. The uncle later told investigators that while traveling in Michigan he had observed his nephew, then 20, place his arm around his 13-year-old daughter. In the evenings back in Wisconsin, Mr. Mast and his cousins would open the windows and play cards in his bedroom. And it was there, investigators allege, that as the frogs croaked one summer night, the girl complained of a pain in her stomach.

“Chester convinced her that he could take her stomachache away,” James Small, a detective with the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department, reported in Wisconsin court filings. He asked her to lie on his stomach, the probable cause statement said. “She recalled being on top of him in his bedroom and that he ultimately penetrated her.”

These are but a few of the accusations that Mr. Mast, now 26, faces in a pair of sexual-assault cases that stretch between two states. The criminal charges, a rarity for a religious congregation that often resolves its disputes internally, offer an unusual glimpse into an Amish community in crisis. They have also laid bare the fault lines that divide this insular society that resides some 95 miles northwest of St. Louis.

“There is no gray area — people are either 100 percent for Chester, or they are 100 percent against him,” said Sgt. Sean Flynn, a detective with the Sheriff’s Department here in Pike County. “Some people are holding it against some of the victims and their families for what they’ve done to Chester; some people think it should have happened a lot sooner. There’s really no middle ground.”

Mr. Mast, who is married with two children and another on the way, stands accused in Wisconsin of incest and the repeated sexual assault of a minor. Meanwhile, officials here have charged him with two counts each of statutory rape and sodomy and one count of sexual misconduct involving a child. Investigators claim that Mr. Mast has victimized at least six girls, ages 5 to 15 — including some outside the Amish community — over the last 10 years.

“There is still the thought that there are other victims out there,” said Sergeant Flynn, the lead investigator in Missouri.

Mr. Mast, who last week pleaded not guilty to the charges here, declined an interview request. He is jailed on a $100,000 bond in Pike County, where his trial is set to begin on Dec. 15.

Since their arrival here in the 1940s, the Amish of Pike County have eked out an existence amid this area’s network of gravel roads and rusting cornfields. Theirs is a deeply private world, conducted mainly in a dialect of German, whose members travel by horse-and-buggy and support their families by working as butchers, farmers and cabinetmakers. As an “Old Order Amish” community, they are among the most conservative of their kind.

The roughly 70 families in this settlement are divided into three congregations, or churches, which are in turn led by bishops — lay members of the congregation who typically have no theological training. Social roles are clearly defined here, and transgressions are swiftly punished, either with the back of a hand, or in more serious matters, with excommunication and ritual shunning.

“We tried to work with it ourselves,” said Joseph Wagler, the bishop for a neighboring church. “We punished him, and he owned up to it. We put him away from the church, as a community.”

Community members say that in an effort to cure Mr. Mast of his affliction, they excommunicated him on three occasions: in 2004 when he returned from Wisconsin amid accusations that he had raped his cousin; and again in 2009, when new revelations surfaced of his alleged sexual misconduct. The third excommunication came this year, when after a tortuous internal debate, the community appealed to law enforcement.

“We seen this coming for years,” said Noah Schwartz, another of Mr. Mast’s uncles. “The church worked desperately to get behind him, but it was a lost cause. I don’t think we realized the seriousness of the crimes.”

Mr. Schwartz added that unlike most Amish children — who are often raised with many siblings — Chester Mast was adopted at 5 days old and raised as an only child, mollycoddled by his parents. Mr. Mast’s father, Albert Mast, declined an interview request on behalf of the family.

“This was a boy who had no discipline,” Mr. Schwartz said. “He didn’t respect authority. That’s why he’s behind bars.”

Community members described Mr. Mast as unsettled and spoiled. They say he talked a lot, was a teller of tall tales who longed to fit in, but who nevertheless experimented with alcohol, could not keep a job and had repeatedly threatened suicide.

“I felt he was never really converted and born again,” said David Eicher, echoing the sentiment of many here. “Maybe that was the base of his problems. But anyone would welcome him back to the church if he would repent and be honest.”

Donald B. Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, said that instead of viewing psychological problems as a form of psychosis or addiction, the Amish often see them as a sign of spiritual failing.

“Some Amish communities aren’t fully aware that a psychological disorder may be underlying devious behavior,” said Professor Kraybill, who has written many books on the Amish. “They may sometimes confuse this kind of an addiction — like an alcohol addiction or a sexual addiction — with a spiritual or moral weakness. They think that if the person confesses the sin, and we bring them back into the church, and they pray about it, everything is going to be O.K.”

Community members say they find it particularly galling, then, that Mr. Mast has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. They say he has confessed his sins to them as part of his ritual reconciliation with the church, and that so long as he maintains his innocence, he is not Amish.

“Chester is lying, and that’s worse than the sex crimes, because no sin is so bad that you can’t recognize it and take total responsibility,” said Mr. Schwartz, 60, as he traveled by horse-and-buggy to buy milk from a neighbor. “We’re concerned that Chester is honest, not how many years he gets. If he lies and gets out of prison, then he’s still a prisoner to his own self.”

Until recently, church leaders had been paying regular visits to Mr. Mast, giving him spiritual counsel and advising him to plead guilty. (Though Mr. Mast is officially excommunicated and shunned by the church, there are ritual means by which church members can communicate with him, essentially shaming him with reminders that he has broken his baptismal vows and urging him to return to the fold.)

“Telling the truth and being honest is a fundamental virtue of Amish faith, and he is directly violating the teachings of Jesus if he is lying,” Professor Kraybill said. “That’s a very serious moral offense for them.”

The elders’ visits came to an abrupt end recently when Mr. Mast’s public defender, Lisa Morrow, prohibited them. Ms. Morrow says she banned the elders after learning they had been sharing important information about the case.

“The legal system doesn’t care about your religious beliefs,” she said. “When it comes to time in prison, I have to look out for my client.”

Her decision has rankled many Amish, who say that by persuading Mr. Mast to plead not guilty, Ms. Morrow is endangering him.

“The public defender is no help to him,” said Mr. Wagler, 38, while taking a break from baling hay in his barn. “She’s keeping him from being honest. If he’s going to act like this and not admit it in court, he’s still going to have to answer to God.”

As Wisconsin officials wait for Missouri to first prosecute Mr. Mast, many in his community say he should take his punishment and come back to the church.

“I would say that 95 percent of the people in this community think he’s where he needs to be,” Mr. Schwartz said. “He’s at the bottom, but how can you build a house if you don’t start from the bottom?”

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