Rachel Denhollander is one of the women who was sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar as a teenager. She filed the original police report that began the investigation and testified at his sentencing hearing. Evangelicals were moved by her testimony not only because she spoke so eloquently about her own experience, but because she did so from her perspective as an evangelical Christian. I have to wonder what they think about what she is doing now.
Denhollander, now a 33-year-old lawyer and mother of three, has not gone away. Instead, she has turned her attention to another sexual abuse scandal—this one in her own evangelical community.
The alleged cover-up of a pattern of child sexual abuse within a large Protestant network now called Sovereign Grace Churches has been a major story in American evangelicalism since 2012. That’s when a lawsuit was filed alleging a pattern of sexual and spiritual abuse within the network—and not just abuse itself, but pressure to “forgive” those actions, internal policies discouraging reports to law enforcement, and ostracism for families who refused to help cover up crimes. The suit was dismissed in 2014, but a former youth leader, Nathaniel Morales, was convicted in a separate case of abusing three boys.
It is important to note that the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Churches was dropped because the statue of limitations had run out, not due to a lack of evidence.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Rachel said some things that might be difficult for her newly-found supporters in the evangelical community to hear.
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…
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 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.
In a recent Facebook post, Rachel noted that:
…evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault. In fact, experts have stated that both the amount of abuse, and the failure to report it, is likely worse than in the Roman Catholic Church – a religious organization often used by evangelicals as a byword for sexual assault scandals.
In explaining why this is such a big problem in protestant churches, Rachel says that it isn’t just about a desire to protect the perpetrators and the institution, it is bad theology.
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…
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 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.
I don’t agree with everything Rachel said, but she has captured something very significant about why sexual abuse is not only rampant in the church, but also why people who are suffering from any number of abuses find so little healing in the kind of gospel that is preached in many of them. I hope that she can be a light shining in that darkness.