Sixteen years after Larry Nassar first sexually abused her, Rachael Denhollander decided to publicly reveal that she had been one of the many victims of the USA Gymnastics team doctor. The former gymnast, who was a 15-year-old homeschooler when she says Nassar started abusing her, became the first to publicly make allegations against the respected Michigan State University faculty member.
Last week, Denhollander became the last of more than 150 survivors—all women and almost entirely former gymnasts—to share her impact statement in court with Nassar, who was convicted of seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual contact last fall and sentenced to up to 175 years in prison last week.
“I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well,” she said. (Read her whole impact statement.)
Denhollander’s decision to invoke her faith at Nassar’s sentencing drew widespread attention in national and Christian media. But in her statement, the lawyer and mother of three also told the courtroom that speaking out for sexual assault victims “cost me my church and our closest friends.”
“Three weeks before my police report I was left alone and isolated,” she said.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Denhollander shared more details about her break with her church community, how poor theology causes many churches to poorly care for sex abuse victims, how she found God’s perspective on sexual abuse in Scripture, and about her convictions that forgiveness and justice are both biblical and must go hand in hand.
You were first abused by Larry Nassar in 2000. It took 18 years for him to be convicted of sexually abusing girls. What have the past two decades been like for your faith?
In the beginning, I wrestled with God’s perspective on abuse, where he was, why he didn’t do anything, and whether or not I was guilty or stained by it. I worked to get to a place where I could trust in his justice and call evil what it was, because God is good and holy.
One of the areas where Christians don’t do well is in acknowledging the devastation of the wound. We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.
Do you remember reaching a point where you doubted God’s goodness?
My biggest struggle was understanding God’s perspective on sexual abuse, ultimately a conclusion I really had to come to myself through a lot of wrestling, a lot of tears, and a lot of studying.
Where did find an answer?
Going to Scripture directly.
Was there a particular Bible verse or passage that you felt spoke to your situation?
One was from John 6, where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you want to leave too?” Peter says, “Where else would I go, Lord? You have the words of life.” There was a point in my faith where I had to simply cling to the fact that although I didn’t understand or have the answers, I knew that God was good and that he was love. Whatever else I didn’t understand couldn’t be a contradiction to that.
Beyond that, it was learning more about God’s justice, that contrast between darkness and light, and how to properly interpret God’s sovereignty and Bible verses that command us to give thanks or reveal God’s promises of bringing goodness out of evil. When those verses are interpreted properly they are glorious and beautiful truths. More often than not, particularly in the case of sexual assault, they’re really used to mitigate and to minimize—almost as if the victim handles it “properly,” if the victim just forgives, all of the feelings are going to go away. That’s not true and that’s not what Scripture teaches.
In your impact statement, you mention that it took you a long time to reveal your own abuse with other people. Was church included in that?
Yes. Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard to thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.
In your impact statement, you say, “My advocacy for sexual assault victims … cost me my church.” Can you share about when you decided to share with your church that you were going to speak up about this and what happened?
The reason I lost my church was not specifically because I spoke up. It was because we were advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community, crimes which had been perpetrated by people in the church and whose abuse had been enabled, very clearly, by prominent leaders in the evangelical community. That is not a message that evangelical leaders want to hear, because it would cost to speak out about the community. It would cost to take a stand against these very prominent leaders, despite the fact that the situation we were dealing with is widely recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse. Because I had taken that position, and because we were not in agreement with our church’s support of this organization and these leaders, it cost us dearly.
When I did come forward as an abuse victim, this part of my past was wielded like a weapon by some of the elders to further discredit my concern, essentially saying that I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgment was too clouded. One of them accused me of sitting around reading angry blog posts all day, which is not the way I do research. That’s never been the way I do research. But my status as a victim was used against my advocacy.
Church leaders thought that your own experiences made you biased?
Correct. So rather than engaging with the mountains of evidence that I brought, because this situation was one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen, ever, there was a complete refusal to engage with the evidence.
Was this the Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) scandal?
Yes, it was.
[Editor’s note: Denhollander clarified that she and her husband did not attend a SGM church, but a Louisville, Kentucky, church “directly involved in restoring” former SGM president C. J. Mahaney. She said that she and her husband “left because we were told by individual elders that it wasn’t the place for us.” CT previously reported how Mahaney and SGM were accused of covering up abuse in a 2012 lawsuit; they denied the allegations and argued that courts shouldn’t second-guess pastoral counseling decisions. A judge dismissed the suit in 2014, though a former SGM youth leader was convicted of abusing three boys in a separate case.]
After you had confronted church leaders and you decided that you were going public with your own abuse, you realized that your church would never take this seriously?
That’s exactly right. When you support an organization that has been embroiled in a horrific 30-year cover-up of sexual assault, you know what that communicates to the world and what it communicates to other enablers and abusers within your own church. It’s very obvious that they are not going to speak out against sexual assault when it’s in their own community.
So that leaves me with the question: What happens when it’s a trusted person at this church? What happens when it’s a trusted person in these other evangelical organizations? The extent that one is willing to speak out against their own community is the bright line test for how much they care and how much they understand.
We have failed abhorrently as Christians when it comes to that test. We are very happy to use sexual assault as a convenient whipping block when it’s outside our community. When the Penn State scandal broke, prominent evangelical leaders were very, very quick to call for accountability, to call for change. But when it was within our own community, the immediate response was to vilify the victims or to say things that were at times blatantly and demonstratively untrue about the organization and the leader of the organization. There was a complete refusal to engage with the evidence. It did not even matter.
The ultimate reality that I live with is that if my abuser had been Nathaniel Moralesinstead of Larry Nassar, if my enabler had been [an SGM pastor] instead of [MSU gymnastics coach] Kathie Klages, if the organization I was speaking out against was Sovereign Grace under the leadership of [Mahaney] instead of MSU under the leadership of Lou Anna Simon, I would not only not have evangelical support, I would be actively vilified and lied about by every single evangelical leader out there. The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community. Had I been so unfortunate so as to have been victimized by someone in their community, someone in the Sovereign Grace network, I would not only have their support, I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.
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Source: Christianity Today