Rachael Denhollander: Lighting the Darkness
After becoming the first sexual-abuse survivor to speak publicly against USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, attorney Rachael Denhollander garnered headlines in news outlets across North America and beyond.
But, sadly, among the many outlets covering her story, the evangelical Christian press largely criticized her, ignored her, or minimized the work she was doing.
Those media outlets, said Denhollander, “thought that sexual-abuse advocates talking about sexual abuse were part of a liberal, left-wing agenda that was out to destroy the church.”
Denhollander made her remarks recently at the Calvin University Covenant Fine Arts Center, where she received the Abraham Kuyper Prize, which comes with a $10,000 award, from Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary for her work as a sexual-abuse victim advocate.
The Kuyper Prize was established in 1996 by Rimmer and Ruth de Vries and named after Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper. The prize is awarded each year to a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their sphere of influence reflects the ideas and values of Reformed religious engagement in matters of social, political, and cultural significance in society.
Speaking further of how she was treated by the evangelical press, Denhollander said that embracing the gospel but not taking any action to change things is too often the response of many evangelical churches as they fail to engage issues such as sexual abuse.
“These places argue that the gospel is being replaced [by social action] and that all problems can be figured out if we just use the gospel,” said Denhollander.
Confusing her, she added, is that she has been a member of evangelical churches for many years. She grew up being home schooled, as did her husband, who is now studying at a conservative evangelical seminary.
What is missing in these church communities, she said, is an in-depth theology as promoted by Kuyper.
“We so often confine theology to the four walls of church and home. We don’t look at how theology shapes issues we face every day,” said Denhollander in a press release. “To marry Kuyper’s work to what’s taking place in the public square right now on many levels is incredibly challenging.”
Kuyper’s theology is not confined to personal faith; it is not pietistic; it sees the entire world as the stage on which God is playing out his plan for salvation – and we all have a role to play in that, she said.
Kuyper’s theology “is one of engagement with all areas of our culture. His theology is so deep and so rich. His theology is why I did what I did,” she added.
Before Denhollander spoke, Jul Medenblik, president of Calvin Theological Seminary, said: “Abraham Kuyper famously observed that Christ claims sovereignty over every square inch of human existence.
“It is this recognition that all of creation matters to God that has led Rachael to courageously and faithfully pursue justice.”
In August 2016, IndyStar, part of the USA Today Network, 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 report including the stories of two women accusing 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.
As a result of her decision to tell her story and to allow her name to be used, hundreds of other women came forward, resulting in a lifelong prison sentence for Nassar. And on Dec. 13, 2021, a federal bankruptcy court in Indianapolis announced a $380 million settlement with those who had been abused by Nassar.
Denhollander said that devoting herself to getting the truth out about Nassar was necessary but also exhausting. She needed time to pray, reflect, raise her four children, and grieve what Nassar did to her, she said.
Yet, as an attorney, she continues to work with sexual assualt victims, and she finds it important to talk about this issue in forums such as the event at Calvin.
From an early age, said Denhollander, “God placed a deep desire for justice inside of me. Even when I was 10, I knew I wanted to be an attorney and somehow protect children.”
Today she especially seeks to focus her message on the evils of sexual abuse in the faith community, given that she strongly believes that God calls and commands his people to care for one another and not be insulated from one another or the world.
“It is important to realize how broken the church is and that it is not functioning as God intended.”
Sexual abuse that happens in a church is a stark and evil example of a theology that fails to encourage church members to speak honestly about the tough issues facing them and the church, she said.
It is important, she said, to look with clarity at who we are and how we act – to realize that “today there are in so many ways people around us who are wounded by evil and injustice.”
Turning our eyes away from this reality is not an option, said Denhollander.
“We are commanded to care, to love those who are wounded, and to come to their defense. To love in this way and to speak out on behalf of others may be costly. . . . But we are called to bring the hope and light and truth of Christ into the darkness.
“To be given the grace to live sacrificially in this way is a gift. My hope and prayer is that we may fully realize this – that, as Kuper writes, ‘Above all, our aim should be to glorify God’ in all that we do.”