Archive for Thursday, October 5, 2006

Amish urge forgiveness after school shootings

October 5, 2006

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— In just about any other community, a deadly school shooting would have brought demands from civic leaders for tighter gun laws and better security, and the victims' loved ones would have lashed out at the gunman's family or threatened to sue.

But that's not the Amish way.

As they struggle with the slayings of five of their children in a one-room schoolhouse, the Amish in this Lancaster County village are turning the other cheek, urging forgiveness of the killer and quietly accepting what comes their way as God's will.

"They know their children are going to heaven. They know their children are innocent ... and they know that they will join them in death," said Gertrude Huntington, a Michigan researcher and expert on children in Amish society.

"The hurt is very great," Huntington said. "But they don't balance the hurt with hate."

In the aftermath of Monday's violence, the Amish are looking inward, relying on themselves and their faith, just as they have for centuries. They hold themselves apart from the modern world, and have as little to do with civil authorities as possible.

Amish mourners have been going from home to home for two days to attend viewings for the five victims, all little girls laid out in white dresses made by their families. Such viewings occur almost immediately after the bodies arrive at the parents' homes.

Typically, they are so crowded, "if you start crying, you've got to figure out whose shoulder to cry on," said Rita Rhoads, a Mennonite midwife who delivered two of the five girls slain in the attack.

An Amish family walks across a field to attend the viewing for two of the five girls killed in Monday's attack at the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Nickel Mines, Pa. Funerals for four of the girls will be conducted today.

An Amish family walks across a field to attend the viewing for two of the five girls killed in Monday's attack at the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Nickel Mines, Pa. Funerals for four of the girls will be conducted today.

At some Amish viewings, upward of 1,000 to 1,500 people might visit a family's home to pay respects, according to Jack Meyer, 60, a buggy operator in Bird in Hand. Such visits are important, given the lack of e-mail and phone communication, Meyer said.

The Amish also have been reaching out to the family of the gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, who committed suicide during the attack. Dwight Lefever, a Roberts family spokesman, said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them.

"I hope they stay around here and they'll have a lot of friends and a lot of support," Daniel Esh, a 57-year-old Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were inside the school during the attack, said of the Robertses.

Huntington, the authority on the Amish, predicted they will be very supportive of the killer and his wife, "because judgment is in God's hands: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged."

Roberts stormed the school and shot 10 girls before turning the gun on himself. Investigators said Roberts, who brought lubricating jelly and plastic restraints with him, may have been planning to sexually assault the Amish girls.

Roberts revealed to his family in notes he left behind and in a phone call from inside the West Nickel Mines Amish School that he was tormented by memories of molesting two young relatives 20 years ago.

But police said Wednesday there was no evidence of any such sexual abuse. Investigators spoke to the two women Roberts named, who would have been 4 or 5 at the time, and neither recalls being sexually assaulted by Roberts.

"They were absolutely sure they had no contact with Roberts," state police Trooper Linette Quinn said.

A deputy county coroner on Wednesday described a gruesome scene at the school, with blood on every desk, every window broken and the body of a girl slumped beneath the chalkboard, below a sign that read "Visitors Brighten People's Days." Roberts' body was face-down next to the teacher's desk.

"It was horrible. I don't know how else to explain it," said Amanda Shelley, a deputy coroner in Lancaster County.

Funerals for four of the victims - Naomi Rose Ebersole, 7; Marian Fisher, 13; Mary Liz Miller, 8; and her sister Lena Miller, 7 - are scheduled for today at three homes. The funeral for the fifth girl, Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, is Friday.

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