Sep 15, 2019

I was the first woman to publicly accuse gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. But I was also abused in my own church.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Rachael Denhollander
Washington Post
September 9, 2019

Rachael Denhollander was the first gymnast to come forward against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar. This is her story of experiencing abuse in church when she was 7 years old.

I still remember it like it was yesterday.

The church was small, just a few hundred people, and everyone knew everyone. My mom played flute and sang on occasion. I earned a reputation early on for loving children, and I frequently cuddled babies for tired moms after the service or played with their toddlers in the nursery during business meetings. Our family was part of a tightknit, small group Bible study that was a highlight of every week, and my parents had been close friends with many of the people there long before I had been born. I’d been born alongside their children, and we had grown up together. The church, which was Baptist in theology but independent from any denomination, was part of our family, and we were part of it.

But something changed when I was 7. I stopped heading straight from Sunday school to the church mailbox — a small set of cubbies, each with a family’s name inscribed — to check for notes and newsletters. I didn’t walk the hallways anymore, using my finger to trace the lines between the giant bricks covered in thick cream paint. And I wandered the bright green lawn with the other kids a lot less.

I spent a lot more time hiding in the girls bathroom, shaking and wishing someone would ask what was wrong but knowing I wouldn’t know what to say if they did.

I had been abused and was still being preyed upon by a college student at the church. He’d managed to do it while sitting me on his lap during a church Bible study. No one knew except me, and I wasn’t sure what I knew, except that I felt terrified and physically ill. I wasn’t about to describe what made me feel that way, either. So I hung out in the washroom, the one place he couldn’t find me.

Then one week, he didn’t come back. I figured he’d finished college and moved. But somehow, even after he was gone, things didn’t go back to normal. The Bible study we were part of eventually ended. The adults I loved and trusted suddenly seemed icy and distant. Some of our closest friends left to start a new church. The ones who remained weren’t close to us any longer. More than a year later, we left, too. The reasons were vague and unclear. I was devastated at the loss and frustrated that I couldn’t understand or just be told what had happened.

Years later, when I was about 12, unable to shake the vivid memories from that time, I told my mom what he’d done. She paused a long moment and then said a broken, “I’m so sorry.” We talked about it. I asked questions, and I finally got the answers I wanted. But I didn’t like them.

It turned out that my abuser had been asked to leave because several female college students had complained about his behavior. But alarms had been raised much earlier about his behavior toward me and another little girl in the church. A missionary couple and a group of adults who were sexual assault counselors saw the warning signs — grooming and targeting, inordinate amounts of targeted attention, and physical overfamiliarity. They spoke up, not realizing anything had already happened.

My parents responded immediately by taking steps to protect me. Truth be told, they were uncomfortable with some of his behaviors and had already put up some boundaries. But they hadn’t cut off contact yet, second-guessing their instincts, knowing how serious it was to even entertain the idea that someone might be a predator. Because of adults who spoke up and parents who responded immediately, I’d been saved from worse abuse, and for that I will always be profoundly grateful.

But I also learned the other side of the story. Many of our friends, a number of them lay leaders and prominent people in the church, didn’t see my parents’ actions as protective. Because I hadn’t verbalized any report of abuse, my parents’ response was viewed as an accusation made with no proof, and the expertise of the sexual assault counselors was discounted by many because they used materials by psychologists and licensed therapists. The fact that these psychologists were Christian didn’t really matter. The materials were “outside Scripture,” so they couldn’t be trusted.

Some of the people who raised an alarm, my mom included, were themselves survivors of abuse. At times, skeptics wielded this against them like a weapon: “Survivors always oversexualize everything,” they said, “imposing their experiences on everything around them,” so they couldn’t be trusted either.

And it wasn’t just me. The issue of sexual assault and how it should be handled had been a stick in the church’s proverbial craw for a very long time. Animosity over what methods were and weren’t appropriate and biblical to use in the church’s sexual abuse counseling ministry had pitted members against one another for years.

My mom said that in the same building where survivors wept and prayed with counselors, other church members passed out cassette tapes attacking the materials and experts the counselors relied upon, branding them as unbiblical and ungodly. Certain small groups didn’t want members of the counseling ministry in their Bible studies. And all the while this man was preying upon me, and the animosity was reaching a fever pitch.

As so often happens, misguided theology and a refusal to interact with experts on this issue led the church to miss — and then cover up — sexual abuse within its own walls. And it hadn’t affected only me. Other serious and credible allegations of this form of abuse had been buried. For a small church of only a few hundred people, sexual abuse had become a predominant, well-kept secret.

After a period of about 16 years, my parents learned about a pastor preying on women he counseled, a youth leader bringing boys to her home to watch porn, a male youth leader who was having sex with one of the seniors, a pastor sexually harassing the secretary. Each time an abuser was found or a scandal uncovered, the response was the same: Quietly dismiss the abuser. Hush it up. Tell no one. My parents knew many of the details only because they were savvy enough to know the methods of dismissal didn’t add up, and they were close enough to key leaders in the church to demand answers.

The information my mom gave me after I told her what had happened brought clarity to questions that had swirled in my mind for years and explained icy behaviors I couldn’t previously understand. It also left me with a lesson I’ve never forgotten and had in fact taken into the exam room with Larry: If you can’t prove it, don’t speak up. Because it will cost you everything.

Adapted from “What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics,” by Rachael Denhollander, to be released by Tyndale House Publishers on Sept. 10.

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