Rachael Denhollander speaks with MinistryWatch on sexual abuse in the church
Editor’s Note: Rachael Denhollander’s courageous decision to go public about her own sexual abuse was instrumental in the conviction of serial abuser Larry Nasser going to prison. Her new book, What Is A Girl Worth?, tells that story in a compelling and inspiring way. Denhollander recently spoke at the Caring Well conference, hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention. The conference took place in Dallas, which is where MinistryWatch President Warren Cole Smith had this conversation with her.
Warren Smith: What are you telling the group today?
Rachael Denhollander: We’re going to be talking about a lot of the things laid out in the book: understanding abuse, understanding how we make decisions and why it matters and how we go about healing when we’ve made serious errors.
WS: So are you going to try to get into some specific situations and practical suggestions?
RD: We really have to, because naming names and calling out specific situations is the only way people will understand what the principles look like when they’re put into effect.
WS: One of the things I learned from your book is that whenever an abuse situation comes to light, it’s usually because of a courageous whistleblower. But then we discover there have been plenty of others along the way. People who could have spoken up were ignorant about what the signs were or they were willfully blind to those signs. So education is an important tool, as is hearing the stories of others. Is that a fair assessment?
RD: I think so. That’s where you see the principles really lived out. You see the personal damage that happens when abuse disclosures aren’t handled properly. Jane Doe gets a name and a face and we need to come face-to-face with the realities of the decisions that we make and the ideas that we hold because real people made in God’s image pay the price.
WS: One of the things that was impressive to me about the book was the way you discussed both ideas and theology as well as practical, gritty realities. You quoted, Richard Weaver’s famous line, “Ideas have consequences.” I’m fond of saying that if ideas have consequences, then bad ideas have victims. The idea of that there needs to be a good theology, that there needs to be right and true ideas underpinning what we are doing here, really came out in the book. You also say that revenge or bitterness can never be a motivation for what we do. It’s must be love. In fact, you say, “The more we love, the harder we fight.”
“The more we love, the harder we fight.”
RD: Absolutely. That has to be our motivation. Love for others. And I think by and large, that’s what you find with the survivor community. Even survivors who are speaking very strongly and seem to be angry, who may even have a righteous and just anger. They are desperate for people not to relive the kind of damage that they’ve lived. They want little girls and little boys and men and women not to suffer the way that they have suffered. They understand the consequences of those bad ideas and they are doing everything they can to make sure other image bearers don’t pay that price.
WS: Rachel, another aspect of your book that really stuck out to me was the role investigative journalism played in your story. To get at that point, can you tell me about Mark Alesia?
RD: Mark Alesia was the reporter for the IndyStar who I made initial contact with. He and his team of three reporters spent over a year investigating USA Gymnastics. They unveiled what USA Gymnastics was doing with reports of sexual abuse. And then when I came forward about Larry [Nasser], he was the one who handled my disclosures. It was incredible to me to see the impact that good journalism had. It shined a light where there had been so much darkness and it was able to call attention to things that we had known, but that no one had ever cared about before. It truly made all the difference literally in the world.
It was incredible to me to see the impact that good journalism had. It shined a light where there had been so much darkness. It truly made all the difference literally in the world.
WS: Rachael, I know you believe in God’s providence, God’s sovereignty, and not in luck. But I wonder if you sometimes marvel at the series of events and the right people that had to be in place for your story to come out. First, I don’t see how this story would have come out without a person like you involved. You had this meticulous attention to detail, you had the legal training, and you had standing in the gymnastics community. So you are very unusual, if not unique. The journalists who came forward are rare. As I read your book it grieved me to realize those highly specific circumstances rarely exist. And even with all of those circumstances in place, you had a lot of trouble getting heard.
RH: Yeah. That’s honestly a huge reason why I wrote the memoir. Someone asked, “What’s left to tell after the sentencing hearing?” And the answer is almost everything. Because most people tuned in at the sentencing hearing and they saw a man in an orange jumpsuit and 156 women standing up to confront him. Most people have no idea what it took to get to that point. One of the things I really wanted to do in the memoir is to lay out exactly what had to be in place before we could wrestle control from two major organizations, a Big 10 university and an Olympic governing body, plus the USOC. We had four law enforcement agencies helping cover this up or botching investigations. We had people in places of power and with money actively keeping this silent.
It had to be just the right circumstances in just the right order. It was difficult, even after 16 years of healing, with a legal education, coming from a white, middle-class background. How much more does it cost those survivors who don’t have those things in place. They need us to stand with them. They need us to be their voice. And I want people to read my book and I want them to hear everybody else who doesn’t have what I had.
WS: I want to talk with you, Rachel, about the church. You’re obviously a committed Christian. We’re here at a Christian conference and you have not thrown Christianity under the bus. In fact, if anything, you’ve “doubled down” on your commitment to the truth of scripture as you’ve been talking about these issues, despite the fact that you were treated badly by the church in a couple of cases. One of the things I appreciated about your book was that you balanced stories of churches that handled things poorly with a couple of situations where the churches handled things really well and supported you. Would you compare and contrast those situations and tell us how churches and church leaders should behave?
RD: You’re right. I did suffer a lot at the hands of the church. I was abused in my local church when I was seven. That abuse and the disclosure were mishandled in ways that were devastating. And we also lost our home church over my sexual assault advocacy right before I came forward about Larry. We were stripped of our entire support system.
WS: Just to interrupt you there, Rachael. When you were getting ready to go public about the Larry Nasser situation, you went to your elders to discuss an unrelated situation that involved your church. You and your husband were leading a care group in your church. Because you spoke out, they stripped you and your husband of your leadership and that group was disbanded. Is that accurate?
RD: It wasn’t for my case specifically. It was over my advocacy with sexual assault issues in the church. Our church was supporting an organization that had significant allegations and evidence against it.
WS: Sovereign Grace Ministries. Right?
RD: That’s correct. Jacob [Rachael’s husband] was removed from leadership. It was very, very painful. We were undergoing that at the same time I was coming forward about my own abuse. Now, I will say there has been a level of reconciliation with that church, and I’m grateful for that. That’s discussed in the book as well.
WS: Why do some churches respond poorly and some well? Don’t churches care about the truth?
RD: I think what you see, by and large, is a significant difference in theology between churches that handle abuse well versus churches that don’t. There’s a difference in understanding of the bounds of pastoral authority and understanding of what biblical unity actually is. Silence about wrongdoing is not biblical unity.
You see a much better understanding of the damage of abuse when you have a shepherd who is concerned about caring for and protecting his sheep, when you have a biblical understanding of forgiveness and grace and repentance. Not where those ideas are wielded against the survivor and leaves the abuser in power.
You see a willingness to learn from outside experts and trauma experts. And what we really need to understand is how much this matters, because in any given church, around 25 percent of the congregation are abuse survivors. Unless pastors make their churches a safe place [for victims] to come forward, they are never going to know the life-and-death struggles so many of their congregation are having. They’re never going to know the children and other victims in their congregations who are hurt.
Making things worse is that abusers look for safe places. They understand that if a church is not a safe place for victims, then it is a safe place for abusers. They seek out churches intentionally. We have seen this over and over again. Psychologists who study abuse dynamics have confirmed this. Abusers seek out churches because they are some of the safest places to abuse. So when pastors get this wrong, it has tremendous consequences on their flock.
Abusers…understand that if a church is not a safe place for victims, then it is a safe place for abusers.
WS: You mentioned the movie “Spotlight” in your book. I’m a huge fan of that movie. There’s a key line in that movie. The Spotlight team is beginning to get to the truth, and they discover how many people have been covering up the abuse. Reporter Mike Rezendez is talking with a lawyer for the victims, and the lawyer says, “Mark my words, Mr. Rezendez, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” He meant that it takes the silence of that village to allow the abusive atmosphere to continue.
RD: Yeah, that’s exactly what it means. That it’s how the community talks about abuse, it’s how the community treats the issue of abuse. That signals to the victim whether or not they’re safe to speak up. That’s what signals to a perpetrator that they’re going to be caught or not. That’s what creates a situation where people can cover up for abuse and silence victims and know that they’ll face no repercussions for it.
And that’s something we need to grapple with in Christianity, because we have been and in many ways still are that community where we misuse our theology. We use it to silence victims and we use it to extend a so-called grace to perpetrators. We have created a safe place for the predator to thrive.
WS: Rachael, I can’t help but ask: How are you doing? Do you feel healed? Do you feel like the healing process is continuing? Do you still feel the consequences of your abuse?
RD: Yeah, I think you always do. And that’s again, something that we really need to grapple with, because everybody wants healing to be a neat little package that you tie up with a pretty bow and then you get to move on.
That’s not what happens. I think a better definition of healing is that you know what to do with the grief and the difficulty when it comes. I’m grateful to have reached a very significant place of healing, but it’s always going to be a continuous journey and we need to wrestle with that because survivors need us to walk alongside them. They also need us to do everything in our power to give them a voice and to give them support so they can progress on that healing journey.
And that also means it’s absolutely imperative that we do what we can to prevent abuse in the first place.
Everybody wants healing to be a neat little package that you tie up with a pretty bow and then you get to move on. That’s not what happens. I think a better definition of healing is that you know what to do with the grief and the difficulty when it comes.
WS: Rachel, there were a lot of villains in your book, Larry Nasser being chief among them. But there are also a lot of heroes in your book. We’ve already mentioned Mark Alesia. Another hero was Andrea Mumford, who was the detective who worked for Michigan State University. You were very nervous when you first met her because Michigan State was one of those powerful institutions that had — up until then — been turning a blind eye or actively covering up a Larry Nasser. Tell me about her and your relationship with her.
RD: Detective Mumford is absolutely one of my heroes, as is the prosecutor who took my case, Angela Povilaitis, because they were both passionate about the truth.
I think what stands out to me the most is they chose to do the right thing. They had no idea what this was going to become at the time I came forward. It was just me and my case. But they acted like it mattered. They pursued the truth. They were passionate about what was right, and because they made that decision in the little moments when no one was watching, they literally changed the world.
I’m deeply grateful because Michigan State University did continue to try to cover for Larry, but their voices were able to break out, to wrest the control and to find the truth and to stop a predator.
WS: Not only did they stop a predator, Larry Nasser, who is in jail for the rest of his life, but there’ve been some serious shakeups at Michigan State University, including the resignation of the president.
RD: Yes, that’s correct. They’ve gone through multiple presidents, and new board members. Many people have had to resign over it. Yet to this day, they are still refusing outside accountability. They’re still refusing a public report.
WS: And USA Gymnastics?
RD: Oh, they failed completely to step up to their level of responsibility. They’ve gone through multiple presidents, multiple CEOs. They still have people on staff who participated in concealing evidence and removing the medical records.
WS: Rachel, There are a lot of sexual abuse scandals going on in the church right now. We’re here in Texas for this conference in part because the Houston Chronicle broke a major story about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. We’ve already mentioned Sovereign Grace Ministries. A couple of years ago I reported on Bill Gothard’s problems. Can you give me your sense of who’s handling it well and who’s handling it poorly?
RD: None of those situations were handled well. All of those organizations are continuing to refuse outside accountability. They are continuing to denigrate those who speak up.
An excellent example that I have seen recently though is Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Kentucky. They discovered a situation where years earlier a pastor on staff had been sexually assaulting boys. The way pastor Robert Cunningham, the current senior pastor, handled that was just phenomenal. He immediately responded. He put out a statement and he educated his congregation on what sexual abuse looks like and why this was a case of sexual abuse. He then was very open about the possibility that there may have been past failures, and even though it was in their past and it was a former pastor, they needed to handle this head on. He brought in an independent investigative group, GRACE, Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments. That’s the best group out there, in my opinion.
He brought them in to do a full assessment of current policy and a full review of what had happened before. If there was any areas they needed to repent, they could do so. They were proactive in reaching out to the survivors and getting them help. It was just beautifully handled. And when the GRACE report came out, it noted that the church responded to the areas where they needed to strengthen. It was a testimony to the gospel for everyone who was involved.
There is redemption to be seen there if we handle it right.