I went to a Mennonite college and have friends and family members who are Mennonites, so I was particularly shocked to read recently about how nine Mennonite men drugged and raped 150 women and children. They were all members of an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia when the rapes occurred over a period of five years, 2004-2009. The men used a powerful sedative, an exotic plant derivative, which the local veterinarian employed to render livestock unconscious. When the women woke up in their beds, they were nude and disoriented, and their bed sheets were dirty and smeared with bodily fluids. They believed they’d been attacked by ghosts or demons.
My first thought was how could this happen? This was a respected religious community. My second thought was why didn’t the women go to the police, the authorities with what was happening? According to Time Magazine, British Broadcasting, and Vice News, many of those attacked (ages 3-65) had experienced repeated assaults—and nothing was ever done to stop the perpetrators. The Mennonite colony was essentially a self-governing community in Bolivia. Church elders dismissed the women’s complaints as female hysteria until finally, two men were caught in the act. They ratted out the rest of the gang, and all eventually confessed, providing lurid details. The rapists were given 25-year sentences in a Bolivian prison.
The story doesn’t end there though. This past year, pressure from church elders in the colony have resulted in several of the female victims sending letters to Bolivian authorities requesting their rapists’ be given early release.
Church leaders told the women that in order to be forgiven by the Lord themselves–and assured heaven after they die, they must forgive and support those who have wronged them. Still, some in the colony worry that if the prisoners are released, the cycle of abuse might begin again. The Bolivian judge who tried the case noted the women were living in such a male-dominated, “patriarchal” culture, they had little power to go against church fathers.
I thought of the plight of these Mennonite women when I saw on the news that Jeffrey Epstein, a man who had engaged in sex trafficking for at least fifteen years, molesting underage girls as young as 14, was finally facing a possible conviction. Jeffrey Epstein is a billionaire hedge fund manager and would seem at first to have little to do with simple-living, hard-working Mennonite men.
But both Epstein and the Mennonite rapists are examples of male privilege, where their respective cultures, one religious and one economic, freely grant their gender the appearance of authority and respectability. They were given the benefit of the doubt repeatedly, and in the face of all the damning evidence provided by lesser mortals: women and children.
The Mennonite males in the Bolivian colony had so much power their women were not allowed to take the stand and testify against those that assaulted them. Instead, male relatives acted as their representatives before the jury. Epstein schmoozed and paid off those in the largely male judiciary of south Florida, judges and lawyers who should have sent him to prison long ago. Epstein insulated himself further by making friends with powerful, male political brokers like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
Many in the international Mennonite church are appalled by what happened in Bolivia. Those of us that still believe in the rule of law are sickened and sad that a predator like Jeffrey Epstein could molest young girls for so many years protected by his money and influence. Lord Acton, a British historian, observed in the 19th century that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. His words still ring true today: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”