The first victim to accuse serial sex abuser Larry Nassar has spoken out about her lack of trust in many churches to adequately deal with victims of abuse. Rachael Denhollander was the last woman to make a statement against the former Team USA Gymnastics physician, convicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse and sentenced for up to 125 years in prison for his heinous crimes.
“You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices over and over again to feed that selfishness and perversion,” Denhollander said as she looked directly at her abuser. “You chose to pursue your wickedness no matter what it cost others and the opposite of what you have done is for me to choose to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me.”
But the former gymnast has raised another concerning trend – the lack of support shown to victims of abuse by the church community.
“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,” Denhollander, now working as a lawyer, said in a recent interview with Christianity Today. “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.”
Denhollander noted that her advocacy for victims of sexual assault “cost me my church and our closest friends.” Part of the problem, she argued, is that churches are often frightened to get involved in the gritty reality of having to deal with those who have suffered such emotional and physical trauma. Instead, many churches seek to offer hollow platitudes.
″[Christians] 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,” she told Christianity Today. “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.”
Rachael's attorney John Manly has been involved in some of the highest profile church sex abuse cases. Why is an evangelical church responding like the RC church 40 yrs ago? @BozT has been saying for years that this isn't just a Catholic Church problem. Evangelicals, take note. https://t.co/DUZhsH6t3r
— Jacob Denhollander (@JJ_Denhollander) January 6, 2018
Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and the director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), said it is time for the Church to face up to such vile and abusive behavior. “It’s my hope and prayer that the Christian community will spend less time celebrating the fact that Rachael mentioned ‘Jesus’ in her statement and more time sobered and grieved by the failure of the Church to be her biggest advocate before the courtrooms and news cameras,” he tweeted after Rachel made her statement in court.
Rachael further highlighted that many evangelical churches fail to speak out against abuse going on in their own congregation because they fear it will cost them their popularity. It “is not a message that evangelical leaders want to hear, because it would cost to speak out about the community,” she said.
Denhollander warned churches against using the gospel of Christ “like a weapon against sexual assault victims,” when they implore them to forgive without any mention of justice. “Every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness,” she added.
“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.”
So what does it mean for Rachael to forgive Larry Nassar, as is commanded by scripture? Well, her answer to this question is worth dwelling on for a minute:
“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,” she said. “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.”