“‘Monsters aren’t real, are they mommy?’
And time stood still as everything I hear [in court], every day, flashed in my mind . . .”
Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse sports doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault, part of the army of more than 200 Nassar abuse survivors whose testimonies led to his arrest and imprisonment. Theologically Reformed and raised non-denominational, Denhollander is an attorney, author, sexual abuse survivor, advocate for victims of sexual abuse and homeschooling mother of four. And when those roles collide, which must happen on a daily basis, the result is an Instagram post as painful and poignant as this one:
“Her innocence and joy juxtaposed against horrors that defy description and are far more common than we want to know. Against my own memories and everything I witnessed in a courtroom three years ago.
‘Are monsters real?’
I could not answer her.
When I see my children, I see the ones I couldn’t save. When I see the ones I couldn’t save, I see the children they were.
I see the names of the files on Larry’s computer, and the millions of children they represent.
I want to smile and enter her imaginative play and be lost in the moment, and just hold her close and tell her monsters are just make-believe.
And I can’t. She deserves for them to just be pretend. But they are not.”
Larry Nassar was a “monster” in a white coat. And Denhollander waited 16 years for the chance to bring him to justice. For her role in stopping Nassar’s decades of abuse, she was named as one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People and received Sports Illustrated’s Inspiration of the Year Award, both in 2018.
But her memories of abuse go beyond Nassar. Denhollander also experienced sexual assault in a faith setting. That abuser attended church, where justice often hits a brick wall of bad theology and institutional self-protection.
Now Denhollander, 38, writes, speaks and travels in many #churchtoo spaces, using her skills, experience and faith to address bad theology and to advocate for victims of sexual abuse. She is supported by her husband, Jacob Denhollander, a Canadian and co-author of a children’s book with Rachel.
“It is much easier not to see,” she continued.
“To choose not to see. And ignorance is available for some who want it.
But people live what we don’t even want to see. And in large part, they live it BECAUSE we don’t want to see.”
Peter Schuurman and I interviewed Denhollander over Zoom in July, 2022. Her memoir What is a Girl Worth? was prominent on a shelf behind her.
Her plea for Christians was behind every sentence: “Choose to see.”
Cavey. Hybels. Ravi. The clergy who ran residential schools.
How can so much sexual abuse happen within Christian communities, for years, under the radar?
Denhollander knows the answer. “A lot of people who do things in Christ’s name,” she tells us, “do not actually know God. And we really don’t understand that well.”
“That’s something theologically that the Christian church has to grapple with – that wolves will look like sheep. Most of the time, when those passages are preached on, it’s ‘Nadia Bolz-Weber, she calls herself a pastor but she’s really a wolf.’ Um, no, no, no. It’s the Hybels, it’s the Ravis, it’s the ones who look like sheep. It’s the ones who say, ‘We did this in your name.’”
I asked Denhollander whether we can still read books by these well-known pastors, after they’ve been convicted of abuse. “I find that question of ‘What are we to do with the teachings?’ very complex,” she says. “It’s not cut and dried. In the situation where we have survivors that are still living, the answer is no – we stop using those materials. I would not cite them; I would not reference them; I would not put them out there for public consumption. When it comes to Bill Hybels and Ravi Zacharias, they’re not repentant and their victims are still living. We need to be much more honest about the fallenness of our Christian ‘heroes.’”
True Biblical repentance
Honesty about the character of our leaders is vital. But it can’t end with lament, or even confession. Restored relationships require more. With that in mind, we discussed one recent example: what does reconciliation look like for the survivors of Canadian residential schools?
“The Pope visiting Canada to personally apologize was a good first step,” Denhollander says, “but if words are not followed by action, they are really just words. It’s not that they are necessarily insincere, but it’s incomplete at best. We know this. None of us let our kids get away with that. I have four kids – 10, 8, 7, and almost four – and if one of them harms a sibling, it’s not ‘I’m sorry you got hurt.’ No, no, no. Not sorry you are hurt. It’s ‘Sorry I hit you on the head and took your pony.’ Apologize with specificity and then ask what can I do to repair the relationship, because, Biblically, repentance is followed by restoration. We see that model over and over again – seven-fold to the point of what was taken. We have leaders who are willing to do the repentance part of it, but as soon as the purse strings get involved, they don’t want to go any farther. Biblical repentance is always, always coupled with restoration.”
As part of the suit against Nassar in 2016, charges were brought to Michigan State University (MSU), his employer, for failing to protect the vulnerable. Because of testimonies like Denhollander’s, a historic $500 million dollar settlement was reached between MSU and 332 of Nassar’s victims in 2018. More than 500 other victims (of Nassar and others) on the USA Gymnastics team agreed to a separate settlement of $380 million last December. Nassar is currently serving life imprisonment.
In Canada, the dollar amounts per individual are typically smaller: when the federal government publicly apologized for the residential school system, it also gave former students a “Common Experience Payment” of $10,000 each, with additional funds up to a maximum of $275,000 for serious sexual or physical abuse. In total, 38,000 claims resulted in $3.2 billion in government compensation in a process that has now ended. The Catholic Church, despite pledging $25 million, has not paid out anything to residential school survivors.
Does money make a difference?
Yes, Denhollander says. “In any place where there has been a level of victimization, help them out with money. Covering counseling is a good start, but there is a cascade of consequences that come from that trauma: it’s so much more difficult to finish your education, hold down a job, to get medical help for the variety of things that tend to come from trauma – digestive issues, heart failure, autoimmune diseases. As much as people recoil against the idea of some lump sum or payment, it is justice.”
Denhollander speaks quickly and with conviction; in one hour, our conversation covers a lot of ground. Name a recent abuse scandal, and she’s been involved with the aftermath – Ravi Zacharias, Johnny Hunt, the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Abuse and the cover up of it is something that crosses every socio-economic barrier,” she says. “You have it in the most impoverished regions and the most affluent. You have it in the tiniest little churches and in megachurches.” For her work in fighting abuse and helping institutions put structures in place to prevent it, Denhollander was awarded the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life from Calvin University in 2021.
“Don’t tell your children monsters aren’t real,” writes Denhollander in her Instagram post.
“Tell them you will fight them.”
I asked if the flavour of that fight was any different in the U.S. compared to Canada.
“Everything in the U.S. church is a political issue,” Denhollander says. That means that every issue and point of theology gets labeled conservative or liberal. The Denhollanders sit in the middle of that tension since they hold to male-only ordination, a conservative position, while conversations around abuse are typically seen as liberal.
“We’re seeing a sharpening of the divide,” she says, “between those who understand the dynamics [of abuse] and are willing to engage at that cost, and those who want to lump this in as, ‘this is a liberal thing, oh, it’s a feminist thing, this is critical race theory’ – whatever this ‘other’ category is – ‘those guys are bad and we don’t want to be that. If you talk about abuse then you must be one of them.’ We’re seeing a sharpening of that divide.”
As our conversation winds down, we asked Denhollander where she finds hope.
“There are positive things,” she says, “more sustained discussions on these dynamics than we’ve ever seen before. It’s come with a lot of human cost, and a lot of intense pressure, and it shouldn’t have taken this long. But it is important to note the positive.”
She also finds hope in the “crooked made straight.” She sees that “so much of what’s going wrong in the church is not what God intended because he showed me who he is. [That] allows us to grieve the damage without feeling the pressure to minimize. I can see the darkness because the light really does exist. God is continually sanctifying his church [and] making all things new.”
“I can’t carry the weight of the outcome, but I can trust that God will fulfill his purposes, and I can be faithful with what I’ve been given.”
“Tell your children monsters can be defeated.
Then live like it.
They are real. Choose to fight them.”
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