MARSHFIELD, Mo. — Four Amish leaders in southwest Missouri who chose to “shun” an accused child molester in their community rather than report him to authorities were charged yesterday with failing to report the sexual abuse.
Webster County prosecutor Danette Padgett said all four are bishops and face one misdemeanor count each of failure to report child abuse as a mandatory reporter.
Under Missouri law, people with “responsibility for the care of children” are required to report suspected child abuse. Examples of mandatory reporters under the statute are doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and ministers who are not engaged in a “privileged communication.”
The bishops were identified as Emmanuel M.S. Eicher, 44, Peter M. Eicher, 59, Jacob P. Schwartz, 79, and Christian J.F. Schwartz, 41, all of rural Webster County.
An attorney for the men, Will Worsham, questioned whether they could be considered mandatory reporters. He said the Amish do not separate government and religion and that a bishop is akin to a mayor or city councilman.
“I’m not convinced ‘bishop’ necessarily implies any type of religious authority in their community. And even if it did, I’m not sure they would qualify as ‘clergy.’ It doesn’t appear anywhere in the law.”
The four men knew that a member of their community, Johnny A. Schwartz, 36, had been abusing two underage children from June 2007 through June 2008, according to the probable cause statement. Schwartz was charged in mid-October with six counts involving sexual abuse of children.
Authorities would not say how Schwartz and the bishops with the same surname were related. They also would not release the ages of the children or their relationship to Johnny Schwartz.
About 2,200 Amish live in Webster County. Sheriff Roye H. Cole said authorities found out about the alleged abuse from someone who works among the Amish. That individual, who has not been identified, had heard about Schwartz being shunned by the community and asked why.
Shunning is a form of punishment among the Amish in which a member of the group who fails to follow the rules is ostracized.
“They make the religious argument that they’ve punished them,” Cole said. “They’re shunned, and if they confessed their sins and ask forgiveness, they have no moral authority to report it to the law.”
“They feel they cannot report a brother that has been forgiven of their sins,” he added.
Padgett and Cole said they believe the bishops were told about the alleged abuse by Schwartz’s wife, which would make it a nonprivileged communication because she was not “confessing.”
But Worsham, who also represents Johnny Schwartz, said prosecutors are using an overly broad definition of the mandatory-reporter law.
“In order to hold up charges against these individuals, it could make a lot of people ‘mandatory reporters’ in this state that would be shocked to learn they were defined as such,” Worsham said. “If you’re a part-time Sunday school teacher, you may suddenly be defined as a ‘mandatory reporter.’ I don’t think that’s what anyone has contemplated in the past.”