The scene was something from a bygone age. The accused, a soft-spoken, unmarried woman of 34, wore a long, blue dress from neck to ankle. She sat in the “prisoner’s box,” an elevated pew in the centre of the splendid 19th-century courtroom. The room was filled with people in Amish dress — men with broad-brimmed hats, women in homemade cotton, little boys with hair cut in the shape of inverted bowls. Except for the closed-circuit camera, it could have been the century before last. Or maybe Salem.
Speaking in a clipped Pennsylvania Dutch accent, the witness — a demure 13-year-old girl in a starched white bonnet — told the jury how her aunt had hit her, suffocated her, and made her and other children eat manure and worms and drink urine. Her aunt had fondled her private parts, and touched them with a knife, and tried to insert insects into her. Sometimes her aunt would put on a fake beard and sing a song she had made up about Satan. “She’d say she was Satan or changed into a man,” the girl said.
This sensational trial began just last week in London, Ont., and it has split the region’s tight-knit rural Amish community. The accused, a woman I’ll call Sarah (she can’t be named in order to protect the identity of the children), has been excommunicated from her church. She and her parents have been forced to move away because of the case against her. The five child witnesses are all her nieces and nephews, and some of her 11 siblings no longer speak to her.
Amish are even more traditional than Mennonites. They’re the horse-and-buggy people. They don’t use electricity or buttons. They fasten their clothes with hooks and eyes. And they are acutely uncomfortable to have the outside world pry into their affairs.
But when the accusations started, they had no choice.
Sarah was a teacher, and she babysat many of her nieces and nephews. Two years ago, one of the boys, age seven, complained to his mother that Sarah had done something to him. The mother quizzed her other children, who said Sarah hadn’t done anything to them, and also confronted Sarah, who denied doing anything wrong. Under immense pressure, Sarah agreed to go away for psychological counselling. Her counsellors were told about the allegations and pressed her to confess, but she refused.
Meantime, the local children’s aid society got involved — the same agency that seized several Mennonite children three years ago because they had been spanked with a strap. The agency called in the police. All the children Sarah had ever cared for were questioned. The upshot was that seven complainants came forward. (The number is now down to five; the little boy who’d started it all recanted to his mother.)
Does this case sound familiar? It should. Without prejudging what happened in this case, it has every element of the mass child-abuse trials of the 1990s, which have now been exposed as a hysterical witch-hunt. It has a villain with a blameless past, bizarre stories elicited after repeated questioning, physical improbabilities (one boy said Sarah had cut the bottoms of their feet with a kitchen knife, but no one noticed), and, as it transpired, extremely shaky memories. It even has a nice Satanic touch.
Child abuse is such a political hot potato, the Crown is always under heavy pressure to prosecute. But this case should have set off everyone’s alarm bells. Why didn’t it?
When Sarah returned from counselling, she turned herself in to the police. She spent several months in jail before she was let out on bail. A witty and intelligent young woman, according to those who know her, she even began to doubt herself.
Then came a revelation that should surprise nobody. During her testimony, the 13-year-old niece volunteered that she had “blocked out” the abuse until her family went to a counselling centre. And the boy who said his feet were cut confessed, “Sometimes I get mixed up and I can’t remember it.”
The theory of blocked and recovered memories has been widely debunked in recent years. And so the defence, saying it needs time to prepare a case that will address this issue, asked for a mistrial. The judge agreed, and sent the jury home. Everyone will go back to court next month and start all over.
By then, perhaps the Crown will drop the case.
Or perhaps Sarah will go back in the prisoner’s box. Either way, she can’t go back home. They don’t want her now.