Listening In: Rachael Denhollander

WARREN SMITH: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with lawyer, author, sexual abuse survivor and activist Rachael Denhollander.
One of the most sensational court cases of the past decade was the trial of Larry Nassar. Nassar was, until he was arrested for sexual abuse and child pornography charges, one of the most respected doctors in the country. He was the team doctor for the USA gymnastics national team, as well as serving as a doctor at Michigan State University. He treated some of the top athletes in the country. Well, while he was supposed to be treating them, he was also abusing many of them. Today, Larry Nassar is in prison where he will likely remain for the rest of his life. Bringing Larry Nassar to justice was a years-long effort that took many people, but it’s likely that no one person is more responsible for bringing about justice in the Larry Nassar case than my guest today, Rachael Denhollander. She was a competitive gymnast and coach who was treated and subsequently abused by Larry Nassar. She also grew up to become a lawyer and the wife of a pastor. Armed with her own formidable intellect and passion and surrounded by a supportive family and community, Rachael Denhollander’s testimony and dogged work ultimately gave encouragement to others who also came forward. At Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing, Rachael Denhollander spoke. In a riveting speech that has now been seen by millions of people online, she asked the judge to give Larry Nassar the maximum sentence allowable under the law and she did so by asking this powerful question: What is a girl worth? That’s also the name of Rachael Denhollander’s new book, which discusses her life and the Nassar case in detail. I sat down with Rachael Denhollander at the recent Caring Well conference in Dallas, Texas. It was hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Rachael Denhollander was the closing speaker at that conference.

SMITH: Well Rachael, first of all, welcome to the program and I gotta tell you, your book undid me just a little bit. I’ve read it over the course of the past week and it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years and probably one of the best books I’ve ever read. And so just thank you for the book, grateful for it, very much, very much so.


SMITH: But here we are at the ERLC conference. What are you telling the group today?

DENHOLLANDER: We’re going to be talking about a lot of the things that are laid out in the book, understanding abuse, understanding dynamics, understanding how we make decisions and why it matters and how we go about healing when we’ve made serious errors.

SMITH: So, let me, Rachael, drill into that just a little bit. So what are, are you going to try to get into some practical suggestions?

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah, I think we really have to, because we need to understand this is what it looks like. And so naming names, calling out specific situations so people understand what the principles look like when they’re put into effect.

SMITH: Yeah. Well in fact, one of the things that I came away from this book is that whenever–learning, knowing or discovering–is that typically whenever an abuse situation comes to light, whenever somebody has the courage like you did to be a whistleblower, to stand up and, and be heard, what we discover is that there have been plenty of others along the way, right?


SMITH: And that they either were ignorant about what the signs were, or they were willfully blind to those signs if they did know. So education is an important part of it, but also hearing the stories of others also seems to be an important part of this process. Is that fair to say?

SMITH: I think so because that’s where you see, again, that’s where you see the principles really lived out. You see the personal damage that happens when abuse disclosures aren’t handled properly. You know, Jane Doe gets a name and a face. And we need to come face to face with the realities of the decisions that we make and the ideas that we hold because real people made in God’s image pay the price.

SMITH: Well, one of the things that was impressive to me about the book, since you’ve talked about ideas, you quoted one of my favorite writers, Richard Weaver, ideas have consequences. And you didn’t say it quite this way, but really close to the way we often say it at the Colson Center: Ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims. And the idea that there needs to be a good theology, that there needs to be right and true ideas underpinning what we are doing here really came out in the book. And I think a part of the lesson too, sort of a corollary lesson to that, is that revenge or bitterness can never be a motivation for what we do. It’s got to be love. In fact, you say the more we love, the harder we fight. Right?

DENHOLLANDER: Yep, absolutely. And I think even from an advocacy perspective, that has to be our motivation, love for others. And I think by and large, that’s what you find with the survivor community. Even survivors that are speaking very strongly and seem to be angry, may even have a righteous and just anger, it is because they are desperate for people not to relive the kind of damage that they’ve lived. For little girls and little boys and men and women not to suffer the way that they have suffered. They understand the consequences of those bad ideas and they are doing everything they can to make sure other image bearers don’t pay that price.

SMITH: You know, Rachael, another aspect of your book that really stuck out to me, and of course as a journalist, it was a part of the book that I deeply resonated with, was just the role that journalism played in your story. And to maybe dig into that just a little bit, would you tell me who Mark Alesia is?

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah. Mark Alesia was the reporter for the Indy Star who I made initial contact with. He and his team of three reporters spent over a year investigating United States Association of Gymnastics and unveiling what they were doing with reports of sexual abuse. And then when I came forward about Larry, he was the one who handled my disclosure. And it was just incredible to me to see the impact that good journalism had because it showed a light where there had been so much darkness and it was able to call attention to things that we had known, but that no one had ever cared about before. It truly made all the difference, literally in the world.

SMITH: Well, you say it made all the difference. And I wanna push on that just a little bit because, I mean, clearly, when I read this book, I started thinking, I don’t believe in luck, alright, as a friend of mine says, John Calvin would say, it’s really lucky that…It was kind of a joke. But I believe in God’s providence and I believe in God’s sovereignty. And yet I couldn’t help marvel at the series of events and the right people that had to be in place for your story to come out. Number number one, it had to be a person–I mean, you know, and I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, had to be someone like you, someone who had this meticulous attention to detail, that had the legal training, and had standing in the gymnastics community. I mean, you weren’t an elite gymnast at the Olympic level, but you had been in that community long enough and gone high enough that you had standing there. So you were unique in that situation. The journalists that came forward were unique. It just, also, though, grieved me a bit to realize that those unique circumstances don’t always exist.


SMITH: And even with all of those circumstances in place, you had a lot of trouble getting heard.

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah. And that’s honestly, that’s a huge portion of why I wrote the memoir. You know, someone asked, well, what was left to tell after the sentencing hearing? And the answer is, almost everything. Because most people tuned into the sentencing hearing and they saw a gaunt man in an orange jumpsuit and 156 women standing up to confront him. Most people have no idea what it took to get to that point and one of the things that I really wanted to do in the memoir is I wanted to lay out exactly what had to be in place because we had to wrest control from two major organizations, a Big Ten university and an Olympic governing body and the USRC. We had four law enforcement agencies that were involved with helping cover this up or botching investigations. We had people in places of power and with money actively keeping this silent and it had to be just the right circumstances in just the right order. I want people to look at that and I want them to think, if it cost her this much, and it was this difficult after 16 years of healing, with a legal education, coming from a white middle class background of privilege, how much does it cost those survivors who don’t have those things in place? Because they need us to stand with them. They need us to be their voice. And I want people to read my book and I want them to hear everybody else who doesn’t have what I had.

SMITH: I also want to talk a little bit with you, Rachael, about the church. You’re obviously a committed Christian, we’re here at a Christian conference, you have not sort of thrown Christianity under the bus. In fact, if anything, you’ve sort of doubled down on your commitment to the truth of scripture as you’ve been talking about these issues. And yet, I think it is also fair to say that you were treated badly by the church in a couple of cases, a couple of situations here. One of the things I appreciated about your book was that you balanced churches that handled things poorly, with a couple of situations where the churches handled things really well and came around you. But would you compare and contrast those situations and maybe transition a little bit into how should then the church behave given these two models?

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah, absolutely. You’re right. I did suffer a lot at the hands of the church. I was abused in my local church when I was seven. That abuse and the disclosure were mishandled in ways that were very devastating. And we also lost our home church over my sexual assault advocacy right before I came forward about Larry. And we were stripped of our entire support system.

SMITH: Just to interrupt you there, when you were getting ready to go public, you went to the elders, you sort of behaved responsibly as we would hope that folks do. You and your husband were leading a life group or small or small group. What do you call them in your church?

DENHOLLANDER: They were called care groups.

SMITH: Care groups. Right. And essentially you guys were stripped of your leadership and that group was disbanded because you decided to come forward. Is that fair?

DENHOLLANDER: It wasn’t for my case specifically. It was over my advocacy with sexual assault issues in the church. Our church was supporting an organization that had significant allegations and evidence of mishandled–

SMITH: Well and that was Sovereign Grace Ministries, right?


SMITH: Yeah. I mean, you did eventually name them in the–you did name them in the book?

DENHOLLANDER: I did, yep. That’s right.

SMITH: So I don’t feel any qualms about naming them. Especially because I’ve written about them and I know some of the problems that had happened there.

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah. That’s correct. And because of that, we were stripped of our support system. Jacob was removed from leadership. It was a very painful process and we were undergoing that at the same time I was coming forward about my own abuse. And essentially everything I was was distilled down to “victim,” both by my church and by just the legal process that I had to undergo for my own abuse case. And so you can really compare and contrast that with some of the churches that we have been at who have had a completely different mindset. Now I will say there has been a level of restitution with that church and I’m grateful for that. That’s discussed in the book as well. But I think what you see by and large is you see a very different, a very significant difference in theology with churches that handle abuse well versus churches that don’t. An understanding of the bounds of pastoral authority, an understanding of what biblical unity actually looks like. That silence and unity around the wrong things are not biblical. You see a much better understanding of the damage of abuse, the idea of a role of a shepherd who is to be caring and protecting for his sheep. A better understanding of forgiveness and grace and repentance, where it isn’t wielded in a way that is used against the survivor and leaves the abuser in power. You see a willingness to learn from outside experts and trauma experts. So that just, it’s just a night and day different culture and atmosphere with churches that handle abuse disclosures well. And what we really need to understand is how much this matters because in any given church, around 25% of the congregation are abuse survivors. But unless pastors make themselves a safe place to come forward, they are never going to know the literally life and death struggles that so many of their congregation are having. They’re never going to know the children and the victims that are hurt in their congregation because of what they’ve done. And the reality that we do know too is that abusers look for safe places. They understand and they seek out churches intentionally. We have seen this over and over again. Psychologists who study abuse dynamics have confirmed this. Abusers seek out churches because they are some of the safest places to abuse. So when pastors get this wrong, it has tremendous and enormous consequences on their flock.

SMITH: You know, Rachael, abuse within a church has an additional dynamic and that is sometimes even the victims themselves are afraid to come forward because they know that it’ll have consequences. I mean it could end careers, it could blow up churches, it could blow up families. But you said something a few moments ago that really resonated with me. You said there can be no unity without truth and that if we’re not standing on this, on a common understanding of reality and common understanding of truth, any unity that might exist is really a faux unity, a false unity, a pseudo unity. And it reminded me also of idea that permeates your book. And that is the idea of a straight stick and a crooked stick. The idea that truth really does matter, that there really is good and evil and that we really need to stand for the good. And I’ve marked a couple of paragraphs in your book that begin to, it’s near the end of your book, but it gets at that idea a little bit. Do you mind reading those two paragraphs?

DENHOLLANDER: I was also relearning the very painful lesson that full healing never really comes. I wanted healing to mean that I would go back to being who I was before I was abused. Like it hadn’t happened. But the scars from Larry’s abuse were visible to the whole world. They would never not be part of my public identity now. I had to let myself grieve again because grief was the outlet that allowed unhealthy anger to be washed away. And I had to remind myself that longing for what is straight is good. The straight line is there, I told myself, and you can see the evil because you know the good. Let the grief at what is so crooked turn you to what is straight. I remember that diagram I had drawn so many years ago. Good and right do exist. Truth does exist.

SMITH: Rachel, one of the things that again, really struck me about your book, again, maybe because I’m a journalist, is that you mentioned the movie Spotlight, which I’m a huge fan. I’ve probably seen the movie 10 times myself.


SMITH: And there’s a, Mark Rufalo plays a character in that movie, named Resendez, I can’t remember his first name right now.


SMITH: Mike! Mike Resendez. Yeah, he was one of the reporters for the Boston Globe Spotlight team that uncovered the clergy sexual abuse. And there’s a, there’s a key line in that movie that you recount here in the book. And it says, Mark my word. This is, he’s talking to an attorney. The reporter Resendez is talking to an attorney, and the attorney says this. Mark my words, Mr. Resendez, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.


SMITH: What do you mean by that and what did he mean by that? It’s, it really takes the silence of that village to allow that abusive atmosphere to continue. At least in part of it, right?

DENHOLLANDER: That’s exactly what it means. That it’s how the community talks about abuse. It’s how the community treats the issue of abuse because that’s what signals to a victim whether or not they’re safe to speak up. That’s what signals to a perpetrator that they’re not going to be caught and that if anyone does speak up, they will be covered. That’s what creates a situation where people can cover up for abuse and silence victims and know that they’ll face no repercussions for it. And that’s something we need to grapple with in Christianity because we have been and in many ways still are that community where we misuse our theology and we use it to silence victims and we use it to extend quote unquote grace to perpetrators. That’s really a faux grace, because it is not balanced in God’s character of justice and a requirement for genuine repentance. And it’s not intermingled with what we really know about abuse and victims and perpetrators. And so when you create that community, you have created a safe place for the predator to thrive.

SMITH: Well Rachael, that passage that you read a few moments ago about healing and about, you know, sort of holding onto the straight stick, holding onto the truth, coming as it does near the end of the book may answer at least in part the next question that I’m going to ask you. But how are you doing? Do you feel healed? Do you feel like the healing process is continuing? Do you still feel the consequences of it?

DENHOLLANDER: Yeah, I think you always do. And that’s again, something that we really need to grapple with because everybody wants healing to be a neat little package that you tie up with a pretty bow and then you get to move on. And that’s not what happens. I think a better definition of healing is that you know what to do with the grief and the difficulty when it comes. And so I’m grateful to have reached a very significant place of healing. But it’s always going to be a continuous journey and we need to wrestle with that because survivors need us to walk alongside them and they also need us to do everything in our power to give them a voice and to give them support so they can progress on that healing journey and that also means it’s absolutely imperative that we do what we can to prevent abuse in the first place because you don’t get a neat little bow on the top.

SMITH: Rachael, there are a lot of villains in your book, Larry Nassar being chief among them, but there are also a lot of heroes in your book as well.


SMITH: We’ve already mentioned Mark Alesia, for example. One of them was Andrea Munford, who was the detective who worked for Michigan State University and you were very nervous when you first met her because Michigan State University was one of those powerful institutions that had, up until then, been either turning a blind eye or actively covering up Larry Nassar. Tell me about her and your relationship with her.

DENHOLLANDER: Detective Munford is absolutely one of my heroes, as is the prosecutor took my case, Angie Povilaitis, because they were both passionate about the truth. And I think what stands out to me the most in both their cases is they chose to do the right thing, having no idea what this was going to become. At the time I came forward, it was just me, it was me and my case. But they acted like it mattered. They pursued the truth. They were passionate about what was right. And because they made that decision in the little moments when no one was watching, they literally changed the world. And I’m deeply grateful to them because Michigan State University did continue to try to cover for Larry as an institution, but their voices were able to break out of that, to wrest the control and to find the truth and to stop a predator.

SMITH: Well, and not only did they stop or eventually stop a predator, Larry, you know, is obviously in jail for the rest of his life, but there’ve been some real serious shakeups at Michigan State University as well, including the ending of the tenure of the president there, right?

DENHOLLANDER: Yes, that’s correct. They’ve gone through multiple presidents, new board members. Many people have had to resign over it. Yet to this day, they are still refusing outside accountability. They’re still refusing a public report. And that, you know, that’s just devastating again to survivors because it’s one more mention and really a stance that your voice doesn’t matter enough. You don’t matter enough. But when you have someone like Andrea and Angie fighting for you, that makes all the difference in the world, and people need to understand that because that’s the good they can do.

SMITH: Another organization that you have impacted dramatically was USA gymnastics. I believe they’re now in bankruptcy right now. But you say that they really also have failed to fully step up to their level of responsibility. Is that correct?

DENHOLLANDER: Oh, they’ve failed completely to step up to their level of responsibility. They’ve gone through multiple presidents, multiple CEOs, they still have people on staff who participated in concealing evidence and removing the medical records. The last two hires and appointees that they have have already been coaches with abuse allegations against them in Safe Sport. And it didn’t matter enough to even check and see. You know, they had, they really do view this as a publicity problem. Not a single survivor or whistleblower has received a direct apology. None of the people that were attempting to blow the whistle on the coverup at USAG for decades have been told, you are right and we should’ve listened to you. It really has been treated as a publicity problem and as long as we continue to treat it as a publicity problem, we continue to make a safe place for predators.

SMITH: Rachael, there are a lot of, unfortunately, scandals going on in the church right now. We’re here in Texas for this conference in part because the Houston Chronicle broke a major story about sexual abuse in the Baptist church. We’ve already mentioned Sovereign Grace Ministries. And you know, the list just unfortunately goes on and on. Bill Gothard a couple of years ago is a story that I reported on pretty deeply. And let’s just start with those situations. Give me, um, your sense of who’s handling it well and who’s handling it poorly.

DENHOLLANDER: None of those situations are handling it well. All of those organizations are continuing to refuse outside accountability. They are continuing in many of the same unhealthy theological patterns. And they are continuing to denigrate those who are speaking up. An excellent example that I have seen recently, though, was Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Kentucky. And they had a situation where years earlier it was discovered that a pastor on staff had been sexually assaulting boys. And the way pastor Robert Cunningham, the current senior pastor, handled that was just phenomenal. He immediately responded, and he put out a statement on the church and he educated his congregation on what sexual abuse looks like and why this was a case of sexual abuse. He then was very open about the possibility that there may have been past failures, and even though it was in their past and it was a former pastor, that they needed to handle this head on. He brought in an independent investigative group, GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment. Best group out there in my opinion. He brought them in to do a full assessment of current policy and a full review of what had happened before so that if there was any areas they needed to repent, they could do so in full. They were proactive in reaching out to the survivors and getting them help. And it was just beautifully handled. And when the GRACE report came out, it noted that. They responded to the areas where they needed to strengthen and it was a testimony to the gospel for everyone who was involved. And there is redemption to be seen there if we handle it right.

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