A time to speak
In a Biblical pursuit of both justice and forgiveness, Rachael Denhollander helped stop a criminal sexual predator
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Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of sexual abuse.
LOUISVILLE—On a stormy Sunday morning in northern Kentucky, Jacob and Rachael Denhollander sit with their three small children a few rows from the front of Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville.
They look like an ordinary family, with their two little girls in frilly dresses and a young son in a shirt and tie, but the Denhollanders have just returned from an extraordinary journey.
This is their first Sunday home after spending nearly a month in Michigan, where Denhollander delivered the last of 156 victim statements in one of two sentencing hearings for disgraced gymnastics physician Larry Nassar.
Denhollander, 33, was the first woman to go public with sexual assault allegations against Nassar, and she set in motion the downfall of one of the worst known sexual predators in sports history.
In December, a judge sentenced Nassar to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges. In January and February, two Michigan judges each sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years for sexually assaulting girls under the guise of medical care.
The current number of public accusers: at least 256.
Meanwhile, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, where Nassar practiced medicine, stand accused of failing to intervene when multiple reports of Nassar’s abuse surfaced over the last 20 years.
Denhollander’s decision to be the first to speak publicly against one of the most well-known sports doctors in the country carried huge risk: She would have to divulge the excruciating details of Nassar’s abuse, take on powerful institutions, and stare down a haunting question: Would anyone believe her?
In the end, scores of women followed Denhollander’s lead. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina called the women “an army of survivors.” She dubbed Denhollander their “five-star general” and “the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom.”
At the hearing, Denhollander’s bravery included remarkable words for Nassar. She spoke about the evil and wickedness of his sin. And she spoke about his need for true repentance before God.
“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing,” she told him. “And 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.”
Denhollander says she hopes Nassar will find repentance and saving faith in Christ, and that she’s also grateful the courts have meted out justice for his crimes. And she hopes other institutions—including evangelical churches—will grapple afresh with the importance of reporting abuse to civil authorities and helping victims face trauma.
It’s a desire rooted in her own experience of wrestling with God and finding His help in a dark storm.
FOR DENHOLLANDER, her public ordeal began 18 months before she confronted Nassar at his sentencing hearing in January. But her private suffering began 18 years earlier.
Denhollander grew up in a Christian, homeschooling family in Kalamazoo, Mich., and trusted Christ as her Savior at a young age. She didn’t start gymnastics until she was 12.
Like many gymnasts, she developed lower back pain, and her family heard about a popular sports physician at Michigan State University (MSU): Larry Nassar had taught and practiced medicine at MSU since 1997, and he had been the chief medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics since 1996.
It seemed everyone loved Larry. He was popular with coaches and athletes, and some of the gymnasts he abused recounted the doctor grooming them to make them think he was always on their side.
Accusing such a man of evil wouldn’t be easy.
But Denhollander encountered evil early on. From her first appointment with Nassar when she was 15 in 2000, something seemed wrong. As many other girls and young women would describe later, Nassar’s physical therapy quickly progressed from muscle massage to penetrating the girls with his fingers.
Though some specialized therapists do perform a type of pelvic physical therapy that can include penetration to ease some forms of muscle pain, it’s almost never used on minors, and Nassar’s actions raised two other glaring red flags: He didn’t ask the girls for permission, and he didn’t wear gloves. “Nothing was off limits,” says Denhollander.
But since the famous doctor was revered and his actions felt embarrassing, Denhollander and other girls didn’t know how to talk about it. Was this a kind of treatment they just didn’t understand?
Even more confusing for Denhollander and many others: Sometimes their mothers were in the room, with Nassar concealing his abuse with a towel or his own body. They wondered: Would a doctor abuse me with my mom nearby?
Over the course of a year, Denhollander saw Nassar at least 10 times, and she felt vulnerable, exposed, and anxious, even when she wasn’t in the treatment room. During the second to last visit, Nassar left no doubt about his actions when he fondled her breast and was visibly aroused. “I knew it was sexual assault,” she says.
Eventually, Denhollander told her mother about that visit, and she later described the other “treatments” she had endured. They began researching pelvic therapies to find out if Nassar’s actions were abusive.
A nurse practitioner in 2004 said Denhollander should file a complaint with the medical board. The process: It couldn’t be anonymous, and there was no appeal. It seemed daunting, and Denhollander had a bigger concern: She had become convinced that if Nassar had abused her, he had done it to other girls as well.
She says she worried that if a medical board rejected her complaint, “he’s going to know he can’t be caught, and it’s going to escalate. So I didn’t want to go down that road until there was some hope of being believed.”
Another decade would pass before that hope appeared.
In the meantime, Denhollander journaled about her trauma. She says it was difficult to reconcile her Christian faith with her experience: “That was part of learning to trust in God’s justice and sovereignty and His knowledge of what happened, even when I didn’t have the answers.”
She cracks a smile when she remembers how she processed it. “I drew Venn diagrams,” she says. “Because that’s how I work.” She filled the logic graph with everything she knew to be true about God: “And it was a visual reminder to me that whatever I didn’t understand couldn’t contradict what I did know was true. And so I held to what I knew was true when I couldn’t understand the rest of it.”
After coaching young gymnasts for a short time, Denhollander entered law school at age 19. She had finished a paralegal degree during high school at age 17, and she completed her legal training through distance learning at the Oak Brook College of Law, a Christian school based in California.
During law school, she maintained a blog about Christian worldview, and a mutual friend forwarded her work to a young Canadian named Jacob Denhollander. The pair began a long-distance correspondence about worldview and theology, says Rachael: “And 900 pages of emails later … we decided we should probably meet.”
During one of Jacob’s visits to Michigan, Rachael told him her secret about Nassar. If he couldn’t handle it, she wanted to give him the freedom to walk away. Jacob says it was “heartbreaking” to learn of the abuse and to hear Rachael wonder if he still wanted her.
The couple married in 2009 and later moved to Louisville, where Jacob completed an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (He’s now working on a Ph.D. at the school.) Rachael consulted for law firms, testified for pro-life legislation in Michigan, and worked on public policy.
Until 2016, Denhollander thought the statute of limitations had expired for reporting Nassar, and she didn’t realize his abuse qualified as first-degree sexual assault. But if other reports ever arose against him, she was determined she would speak out, and that she would do it publicly: “I was convinced that a quiet, anonymous voice would never, ever be enough to make this end.”
ON AUG. 12, 2016, Denhollander was having an ordinary day as a stay-at-home mom to her three children (now ages 6, 3, and 2). She was soothing her infant daughter through a tough day of teething when she glanced at her computer and saw an article trending on The Indianapolis Star’s website about an investigation into USA Gymnastics (USAG), the sport’s national governing body.
The story reported that USAG had failed to alert authorities to multiple allegations of sexual abuse by coaches over many years. It highlighted four coaches that USAG failed to report after abuse allegations surfaced and reported that the coaches had abused at least 14 more girls after the warnings.
Records showed USAG officials compiled complaint dossiers on more than 50 coaches and filed them in a drawer in their Indianapolis headquarters. (The paper eventually reported it had uncovered 360 cases over 20 years of accusations against coaches.)
Denhollander took a breath: “I thought—this is it.”
If USAG coaches had been exposed, maybe someone would believe her about Nassar. She emailed the Star and told the newspaper about an official it hadn’t mentioned in the story: Dr. Larry Nassar.
A reporter sent a quick email to thank her for the tip. Two weeks passed until another email appeared: Two more women had come forward after reading the Star article. They independently accused Nassar of sexual abuse. Neither wanted to be named.
Denhollander’s resolution to go public had met its moment. She loathed the idea of publicly describing what Nassar had done to her, but she believed there was no other way.
“Somebody had to be the public face in order for the victims to feel safe, and in order to put the kind of public pressure necessary,” she said. “Larry was an incredibly charismatic individual. He would far too easily overshadow an anonymous voice.”
Denhollander told her story to the Star, and she also learned she could still file a police report. She brought her medical records and information from three pelvic floor specialists who told her Nassar’s actions didn’t resemble legitimate medical treatment. She hoped the police would listen.
Shortly after her report to the Michigan State University police, officers obtained a warrant to search Nassar’s computers. Their discovery: 37,000 images of child pornography.
“That was almost the worst part,” says Denhollander. It sickened her to think of how many little girls it takes to make that number of images and how many of them were likely trafficked or abused by a family member.
After Denhollander’s story appeared, more women came forward, and prosecutors built their case against Nassar, who remained in jail. Over the following year, a litany of revelations surfaced: Accusations against Nassar went back 20 years.
More than a dozen athletes, including gymnasts, a volleyball player, a softball player, and a cross-country runner, say they told MSU coaches and trainers about Nassar’s abuse.
None of the officials reported Nassar to police.
In 2004, 17-year-old Brianne Randall told Meridian Township police that Nassar had assaulted her. Police believed Nassar. (The police department held a press conference in January 2018 to apologize publicly to Randall.)
In 2014, an MSU graduate filed complaints against Nassar with university police and the school’s Title IX office. The school conducted an investigation and said the woman had misinterpreted medical treatment.
In 2015, USAG officials responded to allegations Nassar had abused a former Team USA gymnast. They investigated for five weeks before reporting Nassar to the FBI. Nassar quietly resigned his post with USAG but continued practicing at MSU. The New York Times has identified at least 40 girls and women who say Nassar molested them over the course of a year, while the FBI investigated.
In September 2016 MSU finally fired Nassar—after the story appeared in The Indianapolis Star about Denhollander and another gymnast who remained anonymous.
Since Denhollander was the public face of the story, she also became a public target. She avoided social media—and tried to keep her kids from seeing her picture in newspapers or magazines—but public accusations stung. In March 2017 MSU trustee Joel Ferguson told a reporter Denhollander and other women accusing the school of failing to stop Nassar were ambulance chasers looking for a payday.
Two months later, Denhollander testified for two hours straight in a hearing to determine whether Nassar’s case would go to trial. As she sat across the courtroom from Nassar, with her testimony live-streamed on news sites, defense attorney Shannon Smith accused her of being interested in publicity and money.
Denhollander didn’t flinch.
When Smith pressed Denhollander on how much research she had done about the statute of limitations, and criminal law and medical procedures, Denhollander replied: “I think when it comes to stopping a child predator, every effort should be put in. So, yes, I did spend a lot of time.”
Six other girls and young women testified Nassar pursued the same pattern of abuse with them.
Over 2017, dozens more women came forward and some spoke out publicly. It was a grueling year.
Denhollander faced anxiety and nightmares, but she and Jacob leaned into a new church home at Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville. They had left their previous church the year before, after disagreeing with the church leaders’ perspective on a separate, outside case involving the issue of sexual abuse (see sidebar).
At their current church, Pastor Jim Savastio says the small congregation of about 150 members had a simple approach to caring for the Denhollanders.
“You can pray, you can help with the children, you can talk to them, you can have them in your home, you can sympathize with them, you can encourage them,” he says. “You don’t need a thousand members to do that.”
By the end of the year, Nassar pleaded guilty on charges of child pornography and in two separate cases with multiple victims of sexual assault. Part of the plea deals: Any victims who wanted to testify about Nassar’s abuse could speak at his sentencing hearing, even if their charges weren’t included in his guilty pleas.
Nassar signed off on it, Denhollander says, “But I don’t think he had any idea what he was about to unleash.”
BY JANUARY 2018 Rachael and Jacob were in Michigan with their three children (a fourth is due this summer) to stay with Rachael’s parents during Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
Her parents, who have been supportive throughout her ordeal, watched the children during the day, and Rachael and Jacob returned in time to tuck them in each night and sing simple hymns. They told the kids Mommy had business meetings.
Each morning, Jacob—who had taken time away from his job installing cabinets for home contractors—drove Rachael 45 minutes to court. Rachael says the couple prayed, reminded themselves of what was true, and “clung to Christ.”
Early on, Denhollander thought a few dozen women might testify, since at least 80 had come forward. But as the testimony began, something extraordinary happened: Women poured into the courtroom to face their abuser publicly.
The testimony took seven days.
In the end, 156 women testified about Nassar’s sexual assaults in the January hearing. Girls described depression and nightmares after Nassar’s abuse. Kyle Stephens—abused by Nassar at Nassar’s home when she was a child—believes her father’s suicide in 2016 stemmed partly from his guilt over not believing her when she told her parents about Nassar’s abuse.
Denhollander testified last and excoriated coaches, trainers, and officials at MSU and USA Gymnastics for failing to act on reports of abuse. She repeatedly asked, “How much is a little girl worth?”
Toward the end of her 36-minute testimony, Denhollander turned her words to Nassar. She told him the Bible speaks of “a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you.” She said she prayed he would feel the soul-crushing weight of guilt “so you may some day 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.”
It was a riveting moment. Denhollander says Nassar needed to hear the gospel, and she thought it was the only chance she’d get to speak it to him.
When it comes to forgiveness, Denhollander says she’s releasing Nassar to God’s judgment and letting go of the desire for personal vengeance against him.
But she hopes Christians and others hear both sides of her message: The gospel is glorious and forgiveness is possible, but God is also concerned with justice. They are “both Biblical pursuits and both can be pursued simultaneously.”
She hopes churches will face the importance of reporting abuse allegations to civil authorities ordained by God to handle criminal acts. And she hopes they’ll learn more about how to help victims confront the trauma abuse brings—not just encourage them to move on from it.
Jacob says when he looked out over the courtroom, he longed to see churches reaching out to women craving justice and help to cope with the sorrows they’ve endured: “This is a mission field ripe for the taking if we can speak to these.” He longs to see “an army of women healed by the gospel.”
BACK AT THEIR HOME IN KENTUCKY, Rachael and Jacob are trying to return to a routine of homeschooling, work, and caring for their children in their small home near the seminary.
Since the hearing, they’ve now told the children “Mommy put a very bad man in prison.”
Denhollander is fielding offers to speak from quite a range of institutions: from Liberty University’s law school to Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Foundation, which has invited Denhollander to receive its annual award. She’s also returned to Michigan to lobby for stronger state laws regarding cases of sexual abuse.
Denhollander hopes the wide range of offers means Christians and non-Christians can talk about the subject of sexual assault together in an urgent national moment.
At her church on the Sunday morning she returned, Pastor Jim Savastio preached a sermon from the book of Titus on maintaining good works and meeting urgent cases of need.
Without mentioning Rachael’s name he noted the church had a wonderful example of someone who had counted the cost to do good to little girls in urgent need: “Someone who said it may cost me my reputation, it may cost me my name, but I’m going to do that in the name of Christ for others.”
Sexual abuse and the church
After Rachael Denhollander testified in the Larry Nassar case, she publicly spoke about a separate controversy related to sexual abuse and the church. Denhollander has criticized leadership at Sovereign Grace Churches (formerly known as Sovereign Grace Ministries) for what she’s called an intentional failure to report cases of sexual assault in its network of churches.
In a statement, SGC leadership called Denhollander’s allegations “irresponsible” and damaging to “the reputations and gospel ministries of innocent pastors and churches.” (Here’s a link to the full SGC statement and it’s denial of allegations against its pastors and churches.) Denhollander disagrees with their assessment, and has posted a response on her public Facebook page. The controversy is likely to continue. We’ll continue to follow developments with SGC as they unfold. —J.D.
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