Faith

Gymnast Rachel Denhollander: Church One of the 'Least Safe Places' to Acknowledge Sexual Abuse

In a revealing interview with Christianity Today, former gymnast Rachel Denhollander opens up about the fallout she’s suffered as an abuse survivor. Specifically, she shares the tragic story of how many Christians have failed to love her and other abuse survivors.

Now a lawyer, Rachel Denhollander was the first of Larry Nassar’s abuse victims to publicly come forward. In 2015, Denhollander told the Indianapolis Star her story. That set the legal ball rolling, and Nassar now finds himself facing multiple lifetimes in prison. In a courtroom video that went viral, Denhollander delivered a powerful impact statement to Nassar in which she boldly proclaimed the gospel and called her abuser to repentance and faith in Jesus.

As the CT interview points out, during her impact statement Denhollander shared that being an advocate for sexual abuse survivors cost her and her husband their church. In response, Denhollander explained 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.

During the interview, Denhollander made the claim that,

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.

Sadly, after her interview with CT, many professing Christians will likely dismiss Denhollander’s words as the bitter vitriol of a feminist intent on tearing down the Church. Based on her continued and faithful testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the inevitable blowback from fellow Christians is beyond unfortunate. Denhollander is a voice that should be heard and heeded. For example, when asked if she felt apprehensive about telling Nassar that she forgives him, Denhollander replied,

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.

When pressed on what she meant in her impact statement when she called for repentance, Denhollander gave a theologically robust answer. “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.”

Rachel Denhollander’s understanding that the gospel of Jesus Christ, which includes judgment for unrepentant sinners, is one of the reasons why Christians should listen to her story and heed her advice. Rachel Denhollander may be a sexual abuse survivor, but, more importantly, she’s a survivor who loves Jesus and boldly declares the full gospel of Jesus Christ.