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.
Today, Denhollander and her husband, Jacob, are members of Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville. (Jacob graduated with an MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and he is currently a PhD student in systematic theology there.)
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.
(Update: Both Sovereign Grace Churches and Denhollander have since issued follow-up statements addressing the claims made in this interview.)
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 you 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 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 within the church network 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 Morales instead 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 not have their support, I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.
Why are we capable of seeing evil in other communities but not our own?
One of the dynamics that you see in a Christian church that is particularly devastating is poor theology. The reason that most institutional cover-ups happen in the church is not simple institutional protectionism. When you’re dealing with something like MSU or USA Gymnastics, they’ve got medals and money and their institutional reputation on the line.
You have that dynamic with evangelical churches where you have the reputation on the line and the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ. But often, if not always, people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades. When you see a theological commitment to handling sexual assault inappropriately, you have the least hope of ever changing it.
It’s devastating enough when money and medals are put against sexual assault victims. But when the gospel of Christ is wielded like a weapon against sexual assault victims, that’s wicked. There’s no other way to say it.
Given your concerns that Christians can use God’s call to forgive as a weapon against survivors, did you feel at all apprehensive telling Nassar that you forgive him?
I did to an extent, because forgiveness can really be misapplied. Taken within the context of my statement, with the call for justice and with what I have done to couple forgiveness and justice, it should not be misunderstood. But I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them.
Your impact statement also included a call to repentance. How do you define repentance?
Repentance is a full and complete acknowledgment of the depravity of what someone has done in comparison with God’s holy standard. And I do believe that entails an acknowledgment of that, and a going in the opposite direction. It means you have repented to those you have harmed and seek to restore those you have hurt.
How did your faith inform your decision to go public with your experience inThe Indianapolis Star?
In terms of how my faith played a part in making that decision, God is the God of justice, these things are evil, and it is biblical, right, and godly to pursue justice. I had to make a decision to do what was right no matter what the cost was. I felt I was the best one in a position to do that. At the time I went forward to Indy Star, I didn’t know that there were any others at all. About two weeks after I went forward to them, someone else did contact them. But that person did not feel ready to speak publicly yet, and I completely respected that decision. I felt that because of my worldview and because of the support system that I had, I was the one positioned to bear that cost and that it would be worth it regardless of the outcome.
Have you been able to use your faith at all to minister to the other survivors?
There are several survivors that come from a distinctly Christian worldview. So we’ve been able to have some really good fellowship over these truths, and I’m very grateful for that.
How have you been personally impacted by hearing other women’s impact statements?
The thing that has really stuck out to me the most with all of them is how many of them didn’t have to be there. Because out of the seven days’ worth of hearings, the vast, vast majority of us came after those first reports of abuse in 1997. That’s the aspect, honestly, that weighs on me the most with any sexual assault case and institutional cover-up of pedophilia. The damage never has to be anywhere near as extensive as it gets. Never.
The research has shown that the average pedophile is reported approximately seven times before he’s finally caught. The average number of victims a pedophile has is about 250. We don’t need to get there. We never needed to get there.
When it comes to Larry, I never believed I was the only one or that it was a tiny number. It was clear to me at 15 that this was something Larry did regularly. When I began to realize how much of it was sexual assault, I knew two things: I knew I wasn’t the first, and I knew he wouldn’t stop. I was convinced at that point that his victims would be in the hundreds if not the thousands. I still think that’s true. I think we have seen the tip of the iceberg.
The damage of sexual assault is extreme and it is lifelong. As much as someone forgives their abuser, as much hope as is found in the gospel, we don’t get complete restoration this side of heaven. It does not happen—that’s why the hope of heaven is so glorious. But the suffering here on earth is very real, and it does not go away simply because you forgive and release bitterness. These women are going to live, myself included, with lifelong consequences of the sexual assault, and the vast majority of this never needed to happen.
What does it mean to you that you forgive Larry Nassar?
It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.
Your impact statement ended with you asking how much a little girl is worth. How would you answer that question?
From a Christian worldview, she’s made in the image of God. She has eternal and immeasurable value. That is why justice here on earth is always going to be incomplete: because there’s no way to bring full justice here on earth. That being said, God has instituted civil government for the purpose of reflecting his judgment, the best justice, to the best of our ability here on earth. And I think we saw that in the courtroom this week.
The media noted that some of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s actions in the courtroom were unprecedented both in the space that she created for survivors to speak and in her personal interactions with Nassar. What did you make of her demeanor and actions?
I was grateful that she was willing to give everyone a voice and that she wasn’t going to mince words about what had happened. She was willing, even, to drop the veil on Larry’s manipulation at the very end when she read those excerpts from his letter after his apology. I’m grateful for what she did.
Anything else you want our readers to know?
First, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection. It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.
Second, that obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.