The sin of silence

The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church

Rachael Denhollander’s college-aged abuser began grooming her when she was 7. Each week, as Denhollander left Sunday school at Westwood Baptist Church in Kalamazoo, Mich., he was there to walk her to her parents’ Bible-study classroom on the other side of the building. He brought Denhollander gifts and asked her parents for her clothing size so he could buy her dresses. He was always a little too eager with a hug. The Denhollanders led one of the church’s ministries out of their home, which meant the man would visit their house regularly, often encouraging Rachael to sit on his lap, they recalled.

The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior.

.. And so when Larry Nassar used his prestige as a doctor for the USA Gymnastics program to sexually assault Denhollander, she held to her vow. She wouldn’t put her family through something like that again. Her church had made it clear: No one believes victims.

.. Tchividjian says sexual abuse in evangelicalism rivals the Catholic Church scandal of the early 2000s.

.. The sex advice columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, tired of what he called the hypocrisy of conservatives who believe that gays molest children, compiled his own list that documents more than 100 instances of youth pastors around the country who, between 2008 and 2016, were accused of, arrested for or convicted of sexually abusing minors in a religious setting.

.. Over 2016 and 2017, Mullen found 192 instances of a leader from an influential church or evangelical institution being publicly charged with sexual crimes involving a minor, including rape, molestation, battery and child pornography. (This data did not include sexual crimes against an adult or crimes committed by someone other than a leader.)

.. a 2014 GRACE report on Bob Jones University ..

56 percent of the 381 respondents who reported having knowledge of the school’s handling of abuse (a group that included current and former students, as well as employees) believed that BJU conveyed a “blaming and disparaging” attitude toward victims.

.. half said school officials had actively discouraged them from going to the police. According to one anonymous respondent, after he finally told the police about years of sexual abuse by his grandfather, a BJU official admonished him that “[you] tore your family apart, and that’s your fault,” and “you love yourself more than you love God.”

.. she was told that her husband “was not attracted to his 11-year-old daughter but rather to the ‘woman’ she ‘was becoming.’ ”

.. Franklin Graham, CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said President Trump’s “grab them by the p—y” comments and other crude language didn’t matter because “all of us are sinners.” 

.. 39 percent of evangelicals were more likely to vote for Moore after multiple accusations that he’d initiated sexual contact with teenagers when he was in his 30s. “It comes down to a question [of] who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser,” Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the evangelical Liberty University, said at the time. “. . . And I believe [Moore] is telling the truth.”

.. It was the same message 7-year-old Denhollander heard: Stay silent, because the church won’t believe you.

.. Why are so many evangelicals (who also devote resources to fighting sex trafficking or funding shelters for battered women) so dismissive of the women in their own pews?

.. many worshipers he encountered felt persecuted by the secular culture around them — and disinclined to reach out to their persecutors for help in solving problems. This is the same dynamic that drove a cover-up culture among ultra-Orthodox communities in New York, where rabbis insisted on dealing with child abusers internally

.. 41 percent of Americans believe that the end times will occur before 2050.

.. In some evangelical teachings, a severe moral decay among unbelievers precedes the rapture of the faithful. Because of this, many evangelicals see the outside world as both a place in need of God’s love and a corrupt, fallen place at odds with the church.

.. “His interest was in protecting the church and its reputation more than protecting his daughter.”

.. forced to reconcile a cognitive dissonance: How can the church — often called “the hope of the world” in evangelical circles — also be an incubator for such evil?

.. SGC president C.J. Mahaney’s return to ministry. Mahaney had been asked to step down from his role in 2011 because of “various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.” In 2012, a class-action lawsuit held that eight SGC pastors, including Mahaney, had covered up sexual abuse in the church. Mahaney and the SGC claimed vindication when a judge dismissed the lawsuit for eclipsing the statute of limitations.

.. Denhollander says she told her church’s leaders this was inappropriate, as Mahaney had never acknowledged a failure to properly handle allegations of sexual abuse under his leadership.

.. when Denhollander went public with accusations against Larry Nassar in the Indianapolis Star, a pastor accused her of projecting her story onto Mahaney’s. When she persisted, he told her she should consider finding a new church.

..  in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 4 women (women make upapproximately 55 percent of evangelicals) and 1 in 9 men have been sexually abused.

.. Denhollander was there; she spoke at length in the courtroom, reminding Nassar that the Christian concept of forgiveness comes from “repentance, which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror, without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase” it.

The Price I Paid for Taking On Larry Nassar

But on Aug. 29, 2016, when I filed the first police complaint against Larry Nassar for sexually abusing me when I was a 15-year-old girl and chose to release a very public story detailing what he had done, it felt like a shot in the dark. I came as prepared as possible: I brought medical journals showing what real pelvic floor technique looks like; my medical records, which showed that Larry had never mentioned that he used such techniques even though he had penetrated me; the names of three pelvic floor experts ready to testify to police that Larry’s treatment was not medical; other records from a nurse practitioner documenting my disclosure of abuse in 2004; my journals from that time; and a letter from a neighboring district attorney vouching for my character. I worried that any less meant I would not be believed — a concern I later learned was merited.

.. I lost my church. I lost my closest friends as a result of advocating for survivors who had been victimized by similar institutional failures in my own community.

I lost every shred of privacy.

.. When a new friend searched my name online or added me as a friend on Facebook, the most intimate details of my life became available long before we had even exchanged phone numbers. I avoided the grocery stores on some days, to make sure my children didn’t see my face on the newspaper or a magazine. I was asked questions about things no one should know when I least wanted to talk.

.. And the effort it took to move this case forward — especially as some called me an “ambulance chaser” just “looking for a payday” — often felt crushing.

.. These were the very cultural dynamics that had allowed Larry Nassar to remain in power.

.. Some were abused when they were as young as 6 years old.

Some were victimized nearly three decades ago, others only days before my report was filed. Far worse, victims began to come forward who had tried to sound the alarm years before

.. they were suffering deep wounds from having been silenced, blamed and often even sent back for continued abuse.

.. More than 200 women have now alleged abuse by Larry Nassar.
..  at least 14 coaches, trainers, psychologists or colleagues had been warned of his abuse.
.. a vast majority of those victims were abused after his conduct was first reported by two teenagers to M.S.U.’s head gymnastics coach as far back as 1997.
.. Because most pedophiles present a wholesome persona, they are able to ingratiate themselves into communities.

.. Research shows that pedophiles are also reported at least seven times on average before adults take the reports of abuse seriously and act on them.

.. a symptom of a much deeper cultural problem — the unwillingness to speak the truth against one’s own community.

.. The result of putting reputation and popularity ahead of girls and young women?

.. extending or removing the statute of limitations on criminal and civil charges related to sexual assault, and strengthening mandatory reporting laws

.. Predators rely on community protection to silence victims and keep them in power. Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim.

.. Fear of jeopardizing some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to willful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes, in the shape and form of innocent and vulnerable children.

In Larry Nassar’s Case, a Single Voice Eventually Raised an Army

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over the case, called Ms. Denhollander the “five-star general” for an army of abuse survivors.

.. “You made this happen,” Judge Aquilina said. “You are the bravest person I’ve ever had in my courtroom.”

Ms. Denhollander said her only choice was to stand up for what was right, “no matter what it cost me.”

Much of the hearing’s legacy will be a cautionary tale for anyone in power who finds it easier to look away than to confront a Dr. Nassar. It will be about negligence and the incalculable harm caused by institutions that seem to prize self-preservation above all.

But Ms. Denhollander’s appearance in court was ultimately a hopeful reminder about the power of a single person.

.. “He penetrated me, he groped me, he fondled me,” she told the court. “And then he whispered questions about how it felt. He engaged in degrading and humiliating sex acts without my consent or permission.”

Later, she described the difficulty of learning to trust again — even the doctors in the delivery room where she had each of her three children. There was, she said, “a fear that hung over each birth” as memories of Dr. Nassar “cast a horrific shadow over what should have been an occasion of pure joy.”

.. Michigan State and U.S.A. Gymnastics, which made Dr. Nassar its longtime doctor for the national women’s team, were culpable in this case, too, Ms. Denhollander said.

.. She mentioned that Dr. Nassar had used his phony medical treatments on her after four other women had complained about Dr. Nassar to employees in the M.S.U. athletic department.

.. When Ms. Denhollander addressed Dr. Nassar, she remained stoic. She recalled the time he brought his young daughter to the office just so she could hold her.

“You knew how much I loved children and you used your own daughter to manipulate me,” she said. “Every time I held my babies, I prayed to God you would leave your abuse in the exam room and not take it home to the little girl born with black hair just like her daddy.”

.. As soon as The Star’s article alerted her to other abuse that had been overlooked in her sport, fear and shame began to melt away. Ms. Denhollander knew she had to tell her story.