A time to speak
Rachael Denhollander’s testimony shows the importance of telling truth about both forgiveness and sin
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In a Michigan courtroom, dozens of women testified this week in a third and final sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, the former gymnastics doctor convicted of sexually assaulting patients.
More than 250 women have accused Nassar of sexually assaulting them while they were girls under his medical care.
Last December, a judge sentenced Nassar to 60 years in prison in connection with possession of child pornography. In January, another judge sentenced him to 40 to 175 years in a separate hearing for sexual assault.
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, had the last word in the January hearing, and delivered a remarkable statement on the evil of sin and the power of Christ’s redemptive work in the gospel. She told Nassar:
“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.”
The teachings of the Bible weren’t foreign to Nassar: He recently taught a catechism class for seventh-graders at a local Catholic parish. Church officials apparently dismissed Nassar after Denhollander’s accusations became public in 2016.
The very catechism Nassar taught to seventh-graders carried an explicit warning about the abuse he perpetuated on other children.
In teaching on the commandment against adultery, the Catholic catechism warns against “any sexual abuse perpetrated by adults on children or adolescents entrusted to their care. The offense is compounded by the scandalous harm done to the physical and moral integrity of the young, who will remain scarred by it all their lives. …”
Back in the courtroom, Denhollander’s statement also carried rebuke for institutions that remain silent in the face of abuse allegations. She noted she had lost her own church in her advocacy for other sexual abuse victims.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Denhollander said elders at a church in Louisville, Ky., urged her to leave the congregation after she pressed concerns over a sexual abuse scandal connected to Sovereign Grace Ministries.
The importance of Christians wisely speaking the truth brings to mind another catechism.
In teaching on the Ninth Commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism cautions against slander, gossip, or mishandling the truth publicly. But it also warns against “concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others. …”
In recent days, I’ve been asked this question: Why is it necessary to deal with sins publicly, particularly when they involve the church? Doesn’t that tear down our brethren?
As I’ve noted elsewhere, some sins can be dealt with privately, but when they involve public leaders, or when they could have harmed others in the congregation or beyond, transparency doesn’t have to be vindictive or unkind—it can often be merciful and just.
And when we get it wrong, it’s important to tell the truth about that as well. Meridian Township police modeled that when they publicly apologized for dismissing a girl’s complaint against Nassar in 2004.
Brianne Randall was 17 when she told police Nassar had sexually assaulted her during a medical exam. Nassar told police his conduct was part of a legitimate medical procedure. They believed him.
Thirteen years and scores of victims later, authorities held a news conference to apologize publicly to Randall for taking Nassar’s word against hers and for not investigating further. They pledged to take steps to make sure they don’t make the same mistake again.
“We were wrong in 2004,” township manager Frank Walsh said. “And when you do something wrong, you admit it and you make it better.”
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