Nassar abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander talks to January Series audience about justice and forgiveness


By Cynthia Price

When, on January 22, Calvin College’s January Series of lectures hosted Rachael Denhollander, probably the most well-known survivor of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse, she did not tell the large crowd present her personal story.

That is because, for most, what happened to her and what she did about it is as familiar as flipping on the TV.

In August 2016, the Indianapolis Star ran an investigative report called “A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases.” In September of that year, the newspaper ran a follow-up which told the stories of two women accusing Dr. Larry Nassar, then at Michigan State University, of such sexual abuse. One woman, who had filed a lawsuit, wanted to remain anonymous; the other was Denhollander.

The September article stated that Denhollander “said reading IndyStar’s investigation inspired her to speak out.” She had filed a complaint against Nassar in Michigan a few weeks before, the first that was successful – though several others had tried. Speaking with the Indianapolis Star reporters was the first time anyone had gone public with her name on the record.

By the time Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison, in January of 2018, over 250 women had come forward.

Denhollander worked to encourage others to speak out. When Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed Victim Impact Statements from as many of the survivors as wanted to give them, Denhollander was given the privilege of going last. (As reported in December, you may read her full statement at https://inourownwords.
. And her question “What is a little girl worth?” has echoed in many people’s ears since then.

But at the January Series lecture, what Denhollander really wanted to talk about were the broad concepts of justice and forgiveness.

These are very important ideas to Denhollander because she is a devout Christian. Her remarks at the January Series were aimed primarily at other Christians and shaped by her understanding of the nature of the Christian God.

In her Victim Impact Statement, as well as in the January Series lecture, which was called “A Time to Speak: Addressing Justice and Forgiveness,” Denhollander quoted C.S. Lewis: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust, but how had I got this idea of unjust and just? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?”

“Goodness and rightness... are not mere matters of human opinion,” Denhollander said at Calvin. “If they were, there would be no firm or immutable standard. And from this reality of a firm standard, healing grows. If goodness exists, there is hope. It is not just darkness or just evil.

“The truth can be spoken,” she added. “When someone speaks out, hearing it can be done without minimizing it or downplaying it ... Evil really does exist, but when I speak the truth, I don’t have to carry guilt or blame for it. I can grieve it.”

Though Denhollander is an attorney, who received her J.D. from Oak Brook College of Law, she has worked most of her life as an advocate and educator. Before the Nassar trial she worked in public policy, research and writing for human rights organizations. She has received a number of awards and accolades since the trial, including being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2018 and receiving Heart Ambassador’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributing to Social Justice.

Originally from Kalamazoo, where she was home-schooled prior to entering law school at the age of 19, Denhollander currently lives in Louisville, Ky.

She said in her January Series lecture that she met her husband, Jacob, when he private-messaged her asking what her motivation for advocacy was. “900 pages of email later we decided we should probably meet. And now we’re married with four children,” she said.

Denhollander has hinted at a situation where she “lost her church” over an internal sexual abuse scandal. A Christianity Today interview from about a year ago allows her to tell that story more fully, though it is still not explicit.

In the interview, she  notes that it was not a scandal of the church in Louisville she attended, but that church’s joining efforts to return to power someone she regarded as having covered up and enabled sexual abuse.

Denhollander said at Calvin College that it was critical that the church rethink its response to sexual abuse, and acknowledge that both justice and forgiveness are of God.

“In my Victim Impact Statement, I delved deeply into the idea of God’s justice and wrath – at a deeply personal cost. But every Christian outlet only discussed how godly it was for me to offer forgiveness despite the fact that I was asking for Larry to get what is merited. Many even time-stamped [the video of] my Victim Impact Statement at the point that I started talking about forgiveness,” she said.

“As a Christian, you should be the most equipped to condemn sexual abuse and injustice, you are the most equipped to tell people who have suffered that it was evil, it was wrong, and that [you] care because God cares,” she continued.

She said that for her, forgiveness meant  letting go of her own personal resentment and bitterness, but not stepping back from demanding that evil deeds should be

“Justice can also  be pursued from a heart that has released bitterness and comes from nowhere but love and truth ... The hope of God is found in His utter goodness.

Goodness and evil exist in opposites; when you diminish the one you have automatically weakened the other,” Denhollander said. “Wanting people to get what they deserve is assumed to be antithetical to forgiveness, but it’s a standard set by God.”