Webster County Amish Elders Plead Guilty

By Nicholas W. Inman
South County Mail
October 27, 2010

Four area Amish elders had their day in court last week, entering guilty pleas for failing to act as mandated reporters in telling law enforcement about allegations of child abuse within their southern Webster County community. Each was ordered to pay a $300 fine plus court costs.

Defense attorney Will Worsham appeared before Associate Circuit Court Judge Ken Thompson representing Christian J.F. Schwartz, Jacob P. Schwartz, Emmanuel M.S. Eicher and Peter M. Eicher. Each was charged with one count of failure to report child abuse, a Class A misdemeanor. The elders did not appear in person throughout the period that their case has been before the court.

The case, which put Webster County in national headlines last year, focused on the responsibility of church officials in reporting child abuse.

In previous arguments, the Webster County prosecutor's office explained that the elders had been aware for at least six months that Johnny Schwartz, a member of one of the six Amish churches in the county, had been molesting two of his children. Schwartz was arrested in October 2009 and charged with four counts of statutory sodomy and two counts of child molestation. Earlier this year, he plead guilty to the counts and was later sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Worsham maintained throughout the hearing process that holding the four Amish elders accountable for their items under the state's mandatory reporting law was a violation of their First Amendment rights. He stated repeatedly that his opinion was that the state statute clearly defines those who have supervisory positions over children, such as day care centers and preschools.

He explained to the court during a preliminary hearing in January that his clients were not affiliated with any formal organization and hold no license for the duties that they perform. He said, "This really entraps volunteers, people who never knew that they would be mandated reporters. If you question a Sunday school teacher out on the street, they would likely not know that they are mandated to report. This statue cannot be applied to these people, and it is not fair."

According to the probable cause statement involving the abuse, Schwartz admitted to the elders that he had molested the young girls. He was then shunned multiple times by the congregation, the most severe punishment within the Amish community. However, no one reported the abuse to the proper authorities.

The elders maintained that it is against their religious beliefs to report a brother who has confessed of his wrongdoing and who has been punished within the community.

Fannie Schwartz, wife of Johnny Schwartz, was charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a children, now ages 15 and 16, because she admitted that she knew of the abuse and that it did not bother her the way that it should have. She was sentenced in January to five years probation and 100 hours of community service.

No further information was available from Webster County Prosecutor Danette Padgett.

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