Rachael Denhollander, the former gymnast, lawyer, and mother of three who first accused sports physician Larry Nassar of sexual abuse a year and a half ago, used her sentencing recommendation to forgive the man who abused her and to send him a powerful message about repentance. She offered him forgiveness, but insisted that he needed God’s forgiveness far more, and that would require an understanding of the “soul-crushing weight of guilt.”
“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,” Denhollander declared on Wednesday.
She laid out the gospel of Jesus Christ in a brief statement: “If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.”
Even though this victim forgave her abuser, she still suggested the worst possible sentence for the sports physician who pled guilty to sexually assaulting at least 156 women in his career of treating America’s foremost Olympic women gymnasts.
Her recommendation held, and Nassar received up to 175 years in prison. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina famously said, “I just signed your death warrant.”
Denhollander pushed for this sentence hoping it would open the door to the ultimate forgiveness her abuser needs, by pushing him toward true repentance.
Throughout the hearing, Nassar spoke of praying for forgiveness. Denhollander suggested that he had a wrong view of sin, however, and an unrepentant heart.
“You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done,” the victim said. “It comes from repentance, which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.”
Nassar abused Denhollander in 2000, when she was a 15-year-old club gymnast in Michigan. She and other victims told their stores throughout the seven-day sentencing hearing.
The lawyer and mother of three emphasized that Nassar should not expect “cheap grace” from God. Forgiveness requires true repentance, and repentance requires a full understanding of the depths of your own sin.
“You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices repeatedly to feed that selfishness and perversion,” Denhollander told 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.”
The victim referenced one of Jesus’ teachings that appears in three out of the four gospels (Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2). “The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds,” Dellinger said.
“The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing,” the victim declared. But the story does not end there.
This painful point of true repentance — when a sinful man like Nasser realizes the immense weight of his own guilt — makes the redemption of Jesus Christ that much more powerful. “That is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet, because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you,” Dellinger said.
In today’s culture, Nassar is one of the most powerful symbols of sin and depravity. The man abused his position of power as a physician to take sexual advantage of more than 150 young women — an utterly disgusting and despicable act that will go down in infamy. He will spend the rest of his life in prison, and that is well deserved.
But Dellinger believes that God is more powerful than any depth of human evil. The love and mercy and redemption of Jesus Christ can reach down into the pit of wickedness that is Nassar’s heart, and this victim wants him to be saved.
She quoted C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, saying,
My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?
“Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists,” Dellinger declared. “The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is.”
Then the victim went from judgement to pity. “And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.”
“When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have lost the ability to truly love,” Dellinger said. “Larry, you have shut yourself off from every truly beautiful and good thing in this world that could have and should have brought you joy and fulfillment, and I pity you for it.”
Even so, the victim had hope for her abuser’s redemption. The gospel of Jesus Christ can redeem anyone — even Larry Nassar.
Watch Dellinger’s full statement below. Her remarks on repentance and forgiveness begin after about 25 minutes.