Rachael Denhollander’s children recently asked her a question that continues to show her the cost of coming forward against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, a campaign which has given her a platform to speak out about a sexual abuse scandal in Sovereign Grace Ministries, a network of churches mostly based across the United States.
Last month, Denhollander’s statement in Nassar’s sentencing turned her into a Christian celebrity. In her victim statement in court, the former gymnast said her advocacy for sexual assault survivors “cost me my church.” Her own children recently asked her about this, why they stopped going to the church they belonged to for five years.
“It was painful to have to search for a church again because we really, really loved the people at our former church,” she said.
“That simply was part of the cost of coming forward” as one of Nassar’s victims, she added, and also speaking out against how churches handle sex abuse allegations.
Denhollander, who declined to name her former church, said she and her husband, Jacob, left the Louisville church in 2017 because of elders’ lack of response to the concerns she has described as “the intentional failure to report sexual assault perpetrated in multiple churches, by multiple elders, at Sovereign Grace Ministries.” Their church was not part of Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches), she said, but it did support the organization, which had been accused of covering up cases of child molestation. A class-action lawsuit was dismissed in 2014 for reasons including statute of limitations issues, and current leaders of Sovereign Grace Churches say those accusations are “completely false.”
Denhollander said she now attends Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville, which is not affiliated with Sovereign Grace.
Seeking investigation of Sovereign Grace
Last month, Denhollander received an overwhelming response to her statement during the Nassar sentencing, from Christian leaders and other sexual abuse victims.
“This was never something I anticipated. This is not a platform that I ever wanted,” she said. “I actively desired not to be a public figure on the issue of sexual abuse because it requires relinquishing so much privacy. I feel that in many ways, particularly leading up to this, I was given a job that I did not want to do.”
Using her newfound platform, Denhollander in a Facebook post last week asked the Sovereign Grace network of churches to bring in a group called GRACE, an organization that trains organizations how to prevent and respond to child abuse, to conduct an independent investigation of how the church has handled abuse complaints, which would be released to the public.
In response to Denhollander’s story, he recently tweeted: “It’s my hope and prayer that the Christian community will spend less time celebrating the fact that Rachael mentioned ‘Jesus’ in her statement and more time sobered and grieved by the failure of the Church to be her biggest advocate before the courtrooms and news cameras.”
In two responses — one last week and one Tuesday, the Sovereign Grace Churches leadership team wrote in a blog post that “she is mistaken in her accusations made” against Sovereign Grace Churches and C.J. Mahaney. Mahaney, co-founder of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., which had been the flagship of Sovereign Grace, was among leaders of the denomination named in the now-dismissed lawsuit.
Denhollander’s “irresponsible” allegations, Tuesday’s blog post stated, “have profoundly damaged the reputations and gospel ministries of innocent pastors and churches.”
The statement also defended Mahaney, who is now senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. Mahaney’s inclusion in a conference called Together for the Gospel with high-profile pastors like John Piper, Mark Dever and Matt Chandler has drawn controversy.
The church network noted that previous comments by GRACE’s Tchividjian “suggest he has already prejudged the case against SGC.” It said the accusations of abuse were in two of its churches at the time; SGC reports having more than 70 churches worldwide. SGC leaders also said that one church accused of wrongdoing has had an independent investigation, and the pastor reported that two instances were found, one in which the family member did not want to tell the police and another in which the victim did not discuss details until “many, many years later.”
“While a single incident of abuse is grievous, it is simply false to characterize this as widespread within Sovereign Grace churches, whose experience with this horrible sin is, sadly, not unusual in our culture,” it said.
Denhollander said she has not personally heard from Sovereign Grace and characterized its response Tuesday as “full of misinformation and misdirection.” She added that it “only confirms the need for an outside investigation.”
She said the pattern of mitigating the severity of abuse of the victim is consistent in evangelical churches, noting the recent response to Tennessee pastor Andy Savage’s admission of a “sexual incident,” where he received applause from his congregation after requesting forgiveness. In that case, a woman disclosed a sexual incident that occurred 20 years ago, when she was in high school and Savage was on staff as a college student at a Texas church.
Church leaders should have shown an immediate recognition of the severity and the truth of the sexual assault of a child under his care and how he misused his authority, Denhollander said.
“You saw again the exact same dynamics that sexual assault victims always suffer from: minimizing the severity of the abuse, mitigating the damage that was done, and misusing principles of grace and forgiveness to keep a man in leadership who has done something that is very, very serious and disqualifying from leadership,” she said.
Savage was placed on a leave of absence from Highpoint Church in January, and an independent church investigation into his ministry is expected to be complete by the end of February.
A wise pastor, she said, will pursue both forgiveness and justice when they learn of abuse cases. Some pastors don’t see the need to report abuse allegations to civil authorities, and reporting, counseling and restoration are handled internally instead of experts such as police, investigators and counselors who specialize in trauma, she said.
“I know that Christ … is the safest refuge for someone who has been so wounded, but that is not often the message that they are given, and that is heartbreaking for me,” she said. “When they seek that help, they are actively turned away by poor counseling ideology, by poor methods of handling abuse from the one thing that could give them the greatest security and refuge. So watching that has been extremely painful.”
Past abuse in the church
Denhollander said she accepted Christ when she was 3 and grew up in an evangelical home. Although she described the churches she grew up in as healthy, Denhollander said she experienced sexual abuse in a church, different from the one she and her husband recently left, when she was 8. The abuse was a one-time incident by an international college student, she said.
She later learned that some adults in the church had picked up on him showing signs of the grooming techniques predators employ, such as giving her expensive gifts like clothing and calling her at her home, and they told her parents, even though she did not tell her parents until she was 12. Other adults in the church turned a cold shoulder to her family, but she was not aware that there was concern that she had been abused.
“There was big division in the church as to how that was handled because there wasn’t proof that I had been abused and I had not said that I had been abused,” she said.
In 2016, she filed a criminal complaint against Nassar that accused the former USA Gymnastics doctor of sexual abuse when she was under his care as a 15-year-old in 2000. Denhollander said she had already raised concerns about their church’s support of Sovereign Grace by then and repeated those over a period of a year. She said some elders used it to discredit her concerns about how Sovereign Grace did not report sexual assault allegations to law enforcement and did not warn members of the congregation about “known predators,” questioned her character and did not want to meet with her and her husband.
“It became clear that [my concerns] were not being taken seriously,” she said, adding, “Christ doesn’t fail, and the problem was not Christ. So we knew that we needed to move to a healthier church, and that being part of a church where we could have both accountability and care was important to us.”
The Denhollanders left the church in March 2017 and joined Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville. Before doing so, the Denhollanders said they met with church leaders to learn their view of pastoral care, and specifically, their view of counseling and authority.
“That really was my greatest concern, was being in a church where I could say to other victims who contacted me, ‘You will find refuge here, you will find Christ here,’ ” she said.
Denhollander wants to continue educating about sexual abuse and advocate for victims. Her husband, a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he would like to teach theology and write after he earns his degree and also be in leadership at a church.
“Our aim has always been to return to Canada where I’m from, but we’ll see where the future takes us,” he said via a Twitter direct message.
She also continues to home-school her children, ages 6, 3 and 2, with a baby due in July.
“There is a dynamic of protection there,” she said. “That being said, I was home-schooled and I was molested twice. So I don’t have any false ideas that I can completely protect my children.”