In a recent speech at New York University, lawyer and former gymnast Rachael Denhollander revealed that her childhood experiences in church set the stage for her later victimization by Larry Nassar. Before Denhollander was abused by him at age 15, she was sexually abused by someone in her church at age seven, and she says the adults at church only “compounded” the damage.
“When my parents took steps to protect me, the response of the adults that had surrounded me, that formed my concept of God, that formed my concept of church family, was to respond very vitriolically,” says Denhollander.
She did not tell anyone then that she had been abused and says that the perception of some of the adults at the church was that, “Because I had not verbalized the abuse, I hadn’t proved it. And because I hadn’t proved it, these adults were not motivated to protect me. But they were motivated to isolate me and my family.” It was only because her parents took precautions at the advice of some people who had noticed the predator’s grooming that the abuse stopped before it became severe. Still, any abuse has serious consequences for the victim.
Denhollander says she was confused by the hostility she received from adults she had trusted and respected. At age 12, she started processing what had happened and finally told her parents that she had been abused when she was younger. Then she discovered why the church had ostracized her when she was seven. When she realized what the reason was, the message she internalized was, “If you can’t prove it, don’t speak up.” Otherwise, “You will lose everything.”
A Toxic Message
That message in turn “groomed” Denhollander for what she was to suffer from Larry Nassar, whom she went to see after experiencing a back injury. Nassar was a doctor for Michigan State University and the USA national gymnastics team who serially molested children for years and also pled guilty to charges relating to child pornography. At that time she sought treatment, all that Denhollander knew about Nassar was that he was a respected physician who had an almost “godlike” status in the world of gymnastics. When Denhollander met him, he’d already been abusing girls for almost a decade and was a “hardened and skilled sexual predator.” Four people had reported his abuse by then, but those responsible covered up the allegations. Denhollander says that when “things didn’t seem right,” she remembered what she’d learned from the church about the importance of staying quiet, so she didn’t say anything for a year. She thought that for sure the adults around her would have said something if he was really doing anything wrong.
“What I had to wrestle with,” Denhollander says, “when I finally came to grips with the abuse that occurred was that I hadn’t just been betrayed by somebody that I trusted. I had been betrayed by everybody that surrounded him.” She eventually told her parents, but neither she nor they were sure what to do or how they were going to get anyone to believe them. Denhollander feared the impact of accusing Nassar because she knew the story would get national attention. It was not until 16 years later when she read an Indianapolis Star exposé on USA gymnastics coaches that she realized she needed to speak out.
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SOURCE: Church Leaders, Jessica Mouser