In a rural county in southeast Ohio, a quiet Amish community has been thrust into the public limelight because of the criminal behavior of one of its own. Instead of church members meting out private justice - as is the norm within the insulated community - a secular court did.
Or did it?
Initially, Norman Byler, a 63-year-old Amish man, was charged with raping two children in his extended family. But - and here's where justice seems to have taken a back seat to faith-based concerns - Byler was allowed to cop a plea to stay out of prison and remain a practicing member of his Amish congregation.
Public defender Dianne Menashe argued, “If he were to go to prison and have to shave his hair and wear prison garb that would pretty much kill Norman.” Guernsey County Prosecutor Keith Plummer said the case was made difficult by the Amish community's insistence on dealing with a member's transgressions solely within the church.
An Amish bishop has ordered Byler to be shunned - a shaming ritual short of excommunication - as punishment for his sex offenses. The penance is fulfilled through public confession and repentance and eventually church forgiveness.
While it is all well and good that the Amish prefer to discipline the misdeeds of members without outside worldly interference, that consideration should have no bearing on the right of the state to enforce its laws.
The man was charged with raping two girls, ages 3 and 5, in 1999. Initially he pleaded innocent to the charges and at first was ruled incompetent to stand trial. A year ago, while confined to a psychiatric hospital, Byler wrote to Judge David Ellwood, repenting for his actions and claiming to be in need of treatment for a “nervous condition.”
In July the judge ruled him competent for trial. But a few days before the Byler trial was to begin, he was allowed to plead guilty to five lesser charges of sexual battery. He had originally faced 11 counts of rape and gross sexual imposition. The deal was in exchange for a likely sentence of five-years participation in a non-residential sexual offender treatment program.
So Norman Byler, while ostracized within his Amish community, will be free to find his way into its good graces again. His adult children argue that further prosecution of their father would not help. Not help whom? The victims or the admitted sex offender?
It is troubling that the confessed perpetrator of such offenses - regardless of his theological orientation - would be accommodated by a system whose primary goal should have been delivering a measure of justice to his innocent casualties.
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