Online Conversation | How Much is a Child Worth? Power, Protection, and Abuse Prevention with Rachael Denhollander
What is a girl or a boy worth? If you ask storied attorney, author and advocate Rachael Hollander, the answer is resoundingly, “Everything”. On Friday, January 21st we hosted an Online Conversation with Rachael Denhollander to discuss the importance of speaking your truth and raising your voice, and being the person that victims need when the institutions in place have failed them.
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
The de Vries Institute at Calvin University
Online Conversation | Rachael Denhollander | January 22, 2022
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with special guest Rachael Denhollander on “How Much Is a Child Worth?: Power, Protection, and Abuse Prevention.” This is actually our first Online Conversation of 2022. We took a month off for the holidays. I hope you all had a very merry Christmas and your New Year’s off to a great start, and we’re really delighted that you can join us today. I want to also thank our sponsors and co-host Byron Carlot, a special anonymous donor, as well as our co-host and sponsor in today’s program, the de Vries Center at Calvin University.
And we’re delighted that so many of you have joined us for this first Online Conversation of the year. I believe we have over 1,600 registrants from at least 24 different countries that we know of, ranging from Argentina to South Africa. So a special welcome to you all. If you are one of those first-time guests joining us or are otherwise new to the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life and come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope that today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
The question we’re going to grapple with today is both sobering and extraordinarily important: How do we discern, understand, and prevent abuse of the most vulnerable? In the last few years, virtually every sector of society, whether it’s entertainment, media, journalism, government, sports, education, technology, and including the church, has been rocked by scandals of sexual abuse, in many cases bringing to light decades-long abuses that went unchecked and victims unheeded. Worse, many institutions—and let’s be honest, including ministries and churches—have responded to reports of abuse with denial, dismissal, or even denunciation, prioritizing the protection of the organization or the leader over the victim. The fallout has not only profoundly damaged already-hurting and vulnerable people, but destroyed families, communities, and even riven entire denominations. So how do we learn to recognize the signs and the dynamics of the misuse of power, institute wise protections, and encourage justice and healing amidst the widespread damage that abuse always brings? These are certainly not easy questions, but they are essential and urgent ones, and it’s hard to imagine someone who has wrestled with them with more courage, resolve, or insight than our guest today, Rachael Denhollander.
Rachael is an attorney and author and an advocate who first became known as the woman to first pursue criminal charges and speak on the record about the abuses of USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. As a result of her advocacy and her example, eventually over 300 women, including several Olympic medalists, also came forward as survivors of Nassar’s abuse, eventually resulting both in his life imprisonment and the exposure of large-scale complicity that eventually resulted in a more than $500 million settlement with Michigan State University and a further settlement of nearly $400 million with USA Gymnastics. She has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, one of Glamor magazine’s “Women of the Year” in 2018, and just a few months ago received the 2021 Abraham Kuiper Prize for Excellence in Reform Theology and Public Life from our co-host, the de Vries Institute at Calvin College. She’s also the author of several books, including What Is a Girl Worth?, which we’ve invited her to discuss today, as well as her articles appearing in many journals, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Vox.
Rachael, welcome. It’s great to have you here.
Rachael Denhollander: Thank you so much. I have been looking forward to this for weeks.
Cherie Harder: Us as well, Rachael. And to start off, many people who are watching us are probably at least somewhat aware of your story, but there’s also going to be a lot of people who aren’t. And so I wanted to start off just by asking you about your own story. And the man who abused you, Larry Nassar, served for 18 years as the team doctor for the USA Gymnastics team, which gave him access to hundreds of girls, of course. You were the first person to go to the police and go on record accusing him, which, as we said earlier, led to almost 300 women following suit. And you did that years after the abuse had first occurred and you struggled with the aftermath. And so I wanted to start off by asking you what eventually led you to take that step of reporting.
Rachael Denhollander: Yeah, that is one of my favorite questions to answer because often there’s this misunderstanding, and the question we often ask is “how do we empower victims to raise their voice?” And that’s an important question. But most survivors, and myself included, they’re willing to speak up if there’s a hope that there’s going to be any success in speaking up. And so we’re somewhat asking the wrong question. The question isn’t so much “how do we make survivors want to speak up?” as much as it is “how do we create systems and cultures where survivors can speak up and be heard?” And that really was what I was struggling against ever since I was abused by Larry. I saw him from ages 15 to 16, and the first time he began doing something that I wasn’t quite sure was right, I had this very distinct thought process. As a 15-year-old, I thought, “This is clearly something he does regularly. There’s no way that the hundreds of Olympic athletes and children that he’s been treating for years haven’t described what’s going on in the exam room before. Surely someone has described this. If there was any question about the legitimacy of this medical treatment, the adults in authority would have asked the right questions.” See, I knew already at that point in time that pelvic floor therapy was a real thing, that it required specialized training and certification. So I presumed that, of course, Larry was a certified pelvic floor therapist, and if there was any question about that, somebody would have asked. “He’s clearly doing this regularly. There’s no way someone hasn’t described it. And if they had, the adults in authority would have done the right thing. The fact that I’m in here means the right questions have been asked and this is OK. This is legitimate therapy.”
And when I started to realize much later in treatment, when he crossed a line that I knew was abuse, then the question became, “What else might I have missed?” And as I began to research what pelvic floor therapy should look like and eventually disclosed to my mom and we started talking through those realities, I realized he is doing this every day. Most likely people have spoken up, and it’s that they’ve been systematically silenced. And so my mom and I had a conversation when I was around 17 years old—excuse me, my allergies are killing me today—and the conversation that we had is, what do we do with this? You’re not going to be the first and you’re not going to be the last. And I said to my mom at that point in time at 17, “One anonymous person cannot do this because whoever has spoken up before is being silenced. And the fact that he’s still seeing patients over the last two years, as I’ve been figuring things out, means that whoever is speaking up in the interim is still being silenced. We’re going to have to have press coverage.”
And so my mom and I actually talked at 17 years old about going down to the news station and giving them my story and seeing if we could reach other survivors enough to take the narrative away from Larry’s control. Because that’s what was going to have to happen. Somebody was going to have to wrest control from him in a way that allowed the truth to be heard. And I knew I wasn’t just up against Larry. I was up against a Big Ten university. I was up against USAG, the national governing body for our Olympic team. They make the most money, oftentimes, out of every Summer Olympics. That meant I was fighting the United States Olympic Committee and they’re charted by the Senate. Now I’m fighting the Senate, potentially. And I also knew the statistics for how rapes are investigated, how sexual assault is investigated. Out of every 300 rapes reported to the police, only on average five to six result in criminal charges and conviction and jail time. So I knew that was going to have to happen, and there was just no way to do that at that point in time. Reporting was so difficult and different on sexual assault. And at 17, I had no idea how to even make that happen. So really, what I was waiting for was an opportunity to be heard and believed. I wasn’t unwilling to speak up. There was no avenue for me to speak up and have any hope of succeeding.
Cherie Harder: You know, one of the things that really struck me in reading your story is that even before you went to the police or went on record, you had spoken up. And what had prompted you to do so was hearing that a coach that you trusted was about to refer a little girl to therapy for Larry. And at that point you went to the coach who you trusted and who clearly cared for you. She conferred with her husband, who was a police officer, and after consideration decided not to believe you. And I want to ask you about those dynamics because clearly this is a person of good faith who’s trying to do the right things.
Rachael Denhollander: Absolutely.
Cherie Harder: Who cares about you. And you see those dynamics repeated so often. And yet the question asked [is]—exactly what you were saying—why haven’t they reported? So, tell us a little bit about what the dynamics are in place that inhibit even well-meaning people with caring hearts who care for the vulnerable from being able to discern or believe when abuses of power exist?
Rachael Denhollander: Yeah, I think the vast majority of time—certainly not all the time; we see astonishing levels of corruption and we saw that in the Nassar case—but much of the time when there has been an enabling of abuse, it’s not so much a bunch of men sitting in a cigar-filled room going, “We think child abuse is fine and we’re going to let it continue. We know so-and-so is a predator, we cognitively realize this, and we’re still going to let it continue.” You do have those situations, you absolutely have them, but a lot of time, the enabling really looks very different. It’s somebody who lacks education, lacks the tools and the skills necessary to both recognize the abuse and know how to respond to it. And really, what we’re fighting against is a lack of understanding on trauma and trauma dynamics and a lack of understanding on abuse and abusive dynamics. We don’t understand what abuse typically looks like, and we don’t understand the trauma responses that survivors have. And so more often than not, when a survivor speaks up, the immediate question—whether it’s verbalized or internal—is “How is that possible because…?” And then the person asking that question who you’ve disclosed to has a set of reasons why this person couldn’t be an abuser or why the abuse couldn’t have happened the way you’ve described. Because we don’t understand abusive dynamics and we don’t understand trauma responses.
And what we’ve got to wrestle with is that abusers are very skilled manipulators. They know how to create personas that make it seem impossible to abuse, and they know how to create situations that make it seem like it’s impossible for abuse to occur. It’s actually incredibly common for abuse to take place right out in the open or in close proximity to somebody who could save that child or that individual. This is not uncommon even in adult abuse, for abuse to take place in close proximity to other individuals, because abusers know that either the freeze response or the confusion that they have created in their victim is going to prevent them, oftentimes, from crying out or for asking for help, knowing what to do with the situation, and that, in turn, when the survivor discloses, the immediate response is “if that had happened, surely you would have said something.” So abusers create personas and dynamics where it appears to us that abuse can’t take place because we don’t understand those dynamics.
And what we have to understand is that when we have that automatic response—”that’s not possible because…”—we’ve actually done exactly what the abuser wanted us to do. We have been conditioned to believe that it couldn’t have happened, and we’re using the exact same thought processes they wanted us to use. And as confusing and disorienting as it might be for someone who is receiving that disclosure, imagine how much more disorienting and confusing it is for the victim who has experienced that abuse and is trying to reconcile what they’ve experienced with the person or the situation that wasn’t anything like what it looked like. We’ve got to understand those things better so that we can recognize it when it comes and know what to do with it when we receive it.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned offhandedly just how widespread this is, and that’s something I wanted to ask you about, in that, you know, there’s still, in many cases, a widespread sense that this is a bit of a rarity, that Nasser was an incredible monster. But then I was just sort of thinking about the recent cases. I mean, earlier this week, there was a settlement of almost $500 million out of the University of Michigan. I mean, the university decided it was better to pay $500 million than to go to court. Earlier this year, a $1.1 billion settlement from USC over a gynecologist they had employed. In 2018, $500 million from MSU, several other universities, as well as, of course, what’s happened with the Catholic Church, the Houston Chronicle exposé of independent fundamental Baptist churches and Southern Baptist churches. And yet, even with all of these scandals and settlements, there is a widespread sense that this is relatively rare. There was a recent Lifeway poll that found that pastors estimate that around 10 percent of their parishioners have experienced abuse at one point. And I think the CDC estimates that actually one in four women have. So I wanted to ask you both how widespread is abuse? And what accounts for this perception gap, particularly among Christian leaders?
Rachael Denhollander: Yeah, there is an astonishing perception gap, and it’s really inexcusable at this point in time. We have the data. We’ve had the data literally for decades to know how widespread this is. Experts have been saying for decades this is dramatically undercounted. Even what we know is dramatically undercounted. And the statistic has stayed right around one in four women for sexual violence by the time they reach age 18. It’s actually a little bit higher for the 18 to 24, the college years. A little bit over one in four women will experience sexual violence in their college years. And it tapers a little bit and sometimes dramatically as we get a little bit older. But what we haven’t wrestled with is even the high rates of elder abuse taking place in nursing homes. These are not uncommon dynamics. If you add domestic violence into that question, you’re looking at closer to one in three. If you add male sexual violence, male survivors of sexual violence, you’re looking at at least one in six. And in all of these categories, experts are saying we’ve dramatically undercounted still. And the rates continue to rise. And so there really isn’t any excuse at this point in time for not knowing that data. But sometimes it is emotionally easier to not know that data, and all of us have this intrinsic desire to not have to see the darkness that’s around and to not have to comprehend that. But there is no greater cowardice than chosen ignorance. And at this point in time, the ignorance is nothing but chosen. The data is there and we’ve had it. It’s available. And it’s a lack of intentionality and prioritization, also.
You know, if you think about all of the church programs or ministry programs we typically have, if you had, say, one in four members of your congregation actively battling cancer or one in four members of your congregation experiencing being widowed or losing a spouse, chances are you would have some level of intentional ministry to those individuals. Maybe you’d have a support group or a Bible study for them. You would have meal trains to help provide for their physical needs. There would be a level of intentionality in ministering to those individuals, but we don’t see the same level of intentionality in ministering to those who have been sexually assaulted. What it demonstrates is a lack of understanding the damage and a lack of prioritizing how severe and serious this is. And when you don’t prioritize something, you have knowledge gaps because you haven’t taken the time to learn.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned the seriousness of it. And on one hand, I think this is something we can probably all imagine. But I also think it’s helpful to hear from someone who’s actually experienced it, which is what the impact is, particularly on a teenager having gone through this. How does it affect your development? How does it affect your emotional and physical well-being?
Rachael Denhollander: The neurobiology of trauma is something that the church has not wrestled with in any significant fashion. I highly recommend the book The Body Keeps the Score because what that does is it lays out the actual physical damage from trauma, what happens in our neurology, the cascading chemical responses that that creates, the cascading physical realities and physical symptoms that that creates. And it really takes trauma out of the realm of “soul wound” and puts it more correctly in the realm of “soul and body wound.” And so really, I highly recommend that book to any ministry leader because you need to understand the physical realities of trauma, but it really rewires everything.
You know, if you understand how our memories and how our brains work, you can think back to a positive childhood memory and you might remember it very vividly. You know, you’ll remember what you smelled and what you felt and the sounds around it. You might even have an emotional response to that memory. I can smell my grandmother’s perfume and I’m just flooded with memories and emotions when I smell that because we have had neurological connections—I’ve had neurological connections form in response to that sensory input. Well, when you experience trauma, you have neurological connections form along with the emotional responses that you’re experiencing and with the sensory input that you’re experiencing at that point in time. Those connections form; they’re there. And so when those pathways get triggered, it can cause very disorienting flashbacks to survivors. It puts them physically right back in the position they were in when they were abused. That flood of fight-or-flight hormones and chemicals, the anxiety, the fear. Oftentimes traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain. They’re stored in the region that processes current sensory input. They haven’t been stored in the region for past input. So when a survivor experiences a flashback they’re often not remembering in 2-D form; they’re remembering in 3-D form, meaning they don’t remember the smell, they smell it again. They don’t remember what they felt, they feel it again. And this keeps the survivor’s body in a constant state of being flooded with stress hormones, which creates cascading physical realities and emotional realities for the survivor and causes continued neurologic damage to the survivor.
And when you don’t understand those realities, it makes it very difficult to know how to walk alongside someone who has suffered well. It makes it difficult to understand what they’re experiencing and what things are going to be helpful or harmful. And it also makes it difficult to know when you need to help them get expert care. And that’s another significant hurdle that we see in the churches. Oftentimes, pastors are not equipped to recognize when they’re not equipped to handle something. And so the survivor doesn’t get the kind of care, the kind of multifaceted approach to healing, that they really need. It’s just, again, we’ve got a knowledge gap because we have an intentionality gap.
Cherie Harder: I want to go back to part of that knowledge gap. You’d said earlier that one of our challenges is, for many of us, it’s hard to recognize both the dynamics and structures and conditions of abuse. And so would love to kind of hear from you, how does one both recognize abusers and discern abuse? None of us want to be the people who have had abuse happening in close proximity to us without the eyes to see it.
Rachael Denhollander: Yeah. The very first thing we have to do is be willing to see the darkness. You have to start understanding how abusers think and how they operate, what those grooming procedures look like, how they manipulate the environment around them. You have to start understanding all of the ways that abuse can take place, how it can take place in a public situation or take place in close proximity to someone else. Understanding how it takes place in the darkness and [the] level of organization that is sometimes accompanying child abuse, especially when we’re looking at human trafficking, the production of child sexually abusive materials. There’s a wide range of situations that we have to grasp and dynamics that we have to be able to grasp, or you’re not going to see them. We have to start understanding trauma responses, what’s actually happening in the survivor as they’re experiencing that abuse, why their bodies and their minds respond the way that they do. Because if we don’t understand those things, if we don’t understand memory fragmentation, it’s very easy for us to chalk memory gaps up to “that must not have happened” or “maybe it was just a dream.” You know, if we don’t understand the fight-flight-or-freeze response, it’s very easy for us to chalk up the lack of crying out or delayed disclosure to “if it was really that serious, if it really happened the way you said, then you would have spoken up. Somebody was right there. They could have saved you.” When we don’t understand trauma responses, we miscategorize the disclosures that we’re getting. And oftentimes we look at normal trauma responses as evidence that something hasn’t happened when, in fact, those trauma responses are actually evidence that it did. And what you’re looking at is the damage that comes from it.
And one of the ways that we often see this missed, especially in conservative circles, are teens or older children getting categorized as “bad behavior” or “acting out,” especially in a sexual context. It’s very, very common for survivors of sexual abuse to act out sexually because in many ways they have ingested the message that “this is all I am worth.” But they’re also often struggling to regain control of their sexuality. And to many survivors, it feels like if I can at least initiate the sexual encounter, even if it’s a very abusive sexual encounter, then at least I’m wielding my sexuality rather than having it wielded against me. But because we don’t understand those dynamics, oftentimes those teens who are struggling that way are just automatically categorized off as “bad behavior” or “rebellious teen,” rather than looking to see what’s under the surface. Again, oftentimes what we chalk off as not evidence of abuse actually is the damage from abuse that we’re looking at. When we don’t understand that, we miss the warning signs.
Cherie Harder: You know, particularly within the church, victims are often encouraged to forgive and forgive their abusers fairly quickly. You know, this is something that you have given a great deal of thought to and struggled with yourself, and you’ve talked quite candidly about that. And so I’d love to hear a little bit more from you about how do victims forgive their abusers? And how did you learn to do so?
Rachael Denhollander: Yeah, it’s an incredibly personal journey, and it doesn’t happen quickly. And part of what was so difficult—really, really ultimately, all of what I wrestled with—was because of how the church taught forgiveness and justice. There was a significant part of me that didn’t want to forgive because I knew the automatic response from the church would be “look at all the beautiful things that have come now. Aren’t you thankful that God allowed that into your life?” And it would be used to minimize and to mitigate the incredible damage that I was still suffering and the evil that was done to me. Now, I don’t believe that’s what biblical forgiveness actually means, but oftentimes that’s how we treat it. We also treat forgiveness and justice as if they’re dichotomous, almost in opposition to each other, when in fact both exist in the character and the work of Christ and in the nature of God himself. Forgiveness, Biblical forgiveness, is rooted in a trust of God’s justice, which is so much more complete. You know, “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. “I will repay.” So when I was able to wrestle through those realities and realize that forgiveness really meant releasing my own desire for vengeance and trusting God’s complete justice, and that he cared about what was done to me, it allowed me to be able to release that desire for personal vengeance because I knew justice was coming and it was coming perfectly because what was done to me mattered.
But that’s not the way we typically approach forgiveness in the Christian church. So when I’m walking alongside survivors, we don’t start with the forgiveness discussion. That’s something that you get to much, much later as the survivor is starting to wrestle through those realities and ask those questions themselves. We always start with the survivor—when I’m working with the survivor—I start with the Book of Revelation, with that picture of Christ coming back with a robe dipped in blood, wielding a sword. I say, “That’s how much it matters to God. That’s how much the evil that was done to you matters to him.” If you do not feel the comfort and security of God’s justice, then forgiveness is not possible. Forgiveness is rooted in God’s perfect justice. And when we don’t teach those two in tandem with each other, when we overemphasize one or we minimize the other, or we have an imbalanced perspective of one of them, we have destroyed the grounds for forgiveness.
Cherie Harder: This is a huge question, but, you know, obviously we want to not only be able to care for people who have suffered from abuse well, but also to safeguard the vulnerable going forward. And so I’d love to hear—I know you talk at quite a few universities, churches, corporations, and the like—about the practices and principles of essentially safeguarding the vulnerable, of channeling the use of power in ways that provide for flourishing rather than allow for abuse. And would love to get your thoughts on how we individually can care for victims, but also how we as the Christian community should think about putting safeguards in place that constrain power and encourage its proper use.
Rachael Denhollander: Yeah, absolutely. On a personal level, again, it really starts with understanding what’s being suffered and looking to the practical needs of the survivors. Some of the most meaningful things that were done during my court case by our church were just people bringing us meals, grocery shopping for me. They offered to come and clean my house; members of our church did one time when I was away at court so that I could come home to a clean house. Looking to remove the burdens that can be shared so that the ones that can’t be shared can be borne more easily. So looking at those practical realities, being willing to sit in the grief with the survivor and to bear witness to the pain. When you are able to bear witness to something, it validates the reality of that thing. It allows time and space to grieve the evil nondestructively. And being able to grieve something in a way that isn’t destructive is foundational to the healing journey. So just walking alongside and relieving the burdens that you can relieve.
When it comes to our institutions, you know, I get the question all the time “If there’s one thing you could get an institution to do, what would it be?” And usually when people ask that question, they’re thinking policy. What’s the most important child protection policy provision that I can put in place? And you know, child protection policies are really important. We need to be doing background checks. You need to have a structure and a framework for how you’re doing your policy. You need to have a very detailed crisis response. That’s where a lot of churches don’t. A lot of churches will have decent child protection policies, but they don’t have any policy related to what to do when a crisis comes. Are we going to launch an independent investigation? What triggers that? What kind of firm are we looking for? How quickly can we get that done? Do we notify the church when an abuse allegation comes in? What about, you know, not slandering and not gossiping? How do we process that theology? And so they have very poor crisis response in place.
But the most important thing that a church can do, that a community can do, is message well on abuse, for two reasons. One, your best chance at catching an abuser is to have a survivor disclose. But if a survivor cannot see that you understand the dynamics of abuse and you understand trauma and you understand power and authority dynamics, that you’re intentional about that, if the survivor can’t see that, they do not know that you’re a safe place to disclose and so they’re not going to do so. Conversely, if the survivor sees you mishandling theology or talking about abuse or abuse-related issues, not just in your church, [but] on your Facebook page, on your Twitter feed, what they’re going to know is, “If that’s the way they talk about this survivor or this abuse context, that’s how much they would really understand mine. If they don’t understand power dynamics here, they’re not going to understand the power dynamics when I bring it to them. If they are slandering or making character attacks against the survivor in this public case, I run a very high risk that they’re going to do that against me, too. That’s how much they really understand.” So what you message on the issue of abuse, your level of intentionality, is what is going to signal to a survivor whether or not they can speak up. And that’s your best bet at stopping an abuser.
But it also signals to abusers whether or not your institution or community is a safe place to be. Because, remember, abusers are very skilled manipulators. They look for communities they can manipulate. They look for communities that have the dynamics that make it conducive to abuse: imbalanced power and authority structures, imbalanced theology, lack of proactivity, lack of messaging. So if you are messaging very clearly and teaching well on the issue of abuse, and you’re handling your theology correctly, and you’ve got robust policies in place that are being proclaimed to your community so that they know about them, what you’re really messaging to an abuser is “you’re not going to be safe here. And if you do something and someone speaks up, we’re going to take it seriously and we’re going to know what to do about it.” And when you message that to an abuser, they know that your community is not a place that they want to be. How you message is the most important thing you can do to support and care well for survivors and to be able to catch and prevent abuse.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Rachael. There’s so much more to ask you, but our time is already getting away from us. So we’re going to turn to audience questions in just a second. But before doing so, I wanted to ask you one last question and that is, having been through all of this yourself, and not just the disorientation and the trauma of the abuse, but you also lost your church over their response to sexual abuse at one point. And so it had that additional struggle. And so, watching us today, we have nearly 1,600 people registered, there are going to be people who have gone through this, who have not reported, who have struggled with some of this alone and in silence. And I would love for you just to kind of round this part of our conversation out with what counsel and encouragement you would offer to those viewers.
Rachael Denhollander: There are a couple of dynamics that have been really critical in my healing journey. And the first is to know what the truth is and what my identity is, what my value is, that it’s not dependent on the societal response I receive. There’s a quote by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity that was just really impactful for me and really still is. Lewis wrote, “My argument against the universe was that God was so cruel and unjust, but where had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight.” And there came a point in my faith journey where I said, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand all of these dynamics. I don’t understand why God seems so silent. I don’t understand why this would be allowed. I don’t understand why the church gets this wrong so often. But I can look at the character of God, and I can look at what he says about justice and about abuse of power and about standing for the vulnerable and the oppressed, and I can hold to that truth even when I don’t understand the other things. And I can say that what I’ve experienced is evil, and it was wrong because the straight line does exist.” I can say that the responses I experienced from my church, both when I was abused at age seven and when I began advocating for survivors right around the time I disclosed—so I actually lost two churches over sexual abuse, my own and advocacy. I can say that the response I received was wrong because I understand that the straight line exists, the straight line of what a church is supposed to be, what God has designed the body of Christ to be, how he’s defined trust and safety and security. All of these concepts that are being twisted and distorted, God’s understanding of authority—the way he’s defined authority and power is servant-oriented. I can say that what I’m experiencing, even in my church, is broken and it’s crooked because the straight line does exist.
And when you can hold those two things, it gives you the ability to grieve the damage without feeling the pressure to minimize it or to mitigate it. Because the better you understand the good, the more you’re going to feel the depth of the diversion from the good. And it also reminds me that I can look for the hope as well. So it’s holding those things in tandem, giving myself time and space to grieve and to not minimize. And also at times being very intentional about looking for the hope and the beauty. Sometimes it would be something as simple as, you know, on some of the very dark days going for a walk with my kids and just being very intentional about the beauty. Do you feel the warm sun? Do you hear the birds? Do you see the flowers? And looking for God’s gifts and God’s care for us. And that allows you to hold those two truths in tandem, to see the hope and the redemption that’s coming and the good that we’ve been given without minimizing or mitigating the darkness and the evil and the crookedness.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Rachael. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers, and as Molly might have said earlier, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” questions, and that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. They’re already flooding in. We certainly won’t be able to get to all of them, but we’ll try to make our way through several. So one of our questions comes from Marlo Rondini, who asks, “How do we stop the creation of new generations of abusers?”
Rachael Denhollander: That is something psychiatrists are really wrestling with right now is what creates this? You know, some of it is understanding traumas, that we can help undo the wounds of trauma and undo those neurobiological connections, develop healthy coping mechanisms to those neurobiological connections so that the next generation doesn’t experience secondary trauma or primary trauma from someone who hasn’t healed yet. The undoing of the trauma is very important.
But I think we also have to start having some very hard discussions about our pornography culture because as much as we talk about actions, the action of abuse, it’s ideas that drive our actions. So what is the idea driving sexual abuse or not thinking sexual abuse is that big of a deal? Well, it really starts with the minimization of sexual assault. It starts with the objectification of an individual. And that’s what pornography is. It is objectifying another individual and viewing them as a means to a sexual end. It’s divorcing sexuality from personhood. And when you have divorced the sexual release from personhood, you have created a breeding ground for treating people as objects. That’s what you’ve taught them to think. And what we now know about the neurobiology of pornography is that when you are engaged in pornography and experiencing a sexual release in response to that pornography, you are rewiring how your body responds to sexuality and you’re rewiring your brain. Actually, the rates of erectile dysfunction in my generation and younger—in men 30 years old and younger—are skyrocketing because it’s created a dynamic where men cannot respond to normal, healthy sexuality anymore. They don’t even know what it means. Little boys are being exposed to violent pornography. The vast majority of pornography portrays violence towards women and portrays women enjoying that violence. Little boys are being exposed to that as young as seven years old. When your mindset towards sexuality has been so warped and twisted that you can’t even define normal sexuality anymore, and sexual release is divorced from personhood, you’ve created a breeding ground where it’s not very hard to treat a person as an object because you’ve already been thinking of them like that. And it also doesn’t raise alarm bells for us when someone is treated like a sexual object. So we don’t have interveners, we have a lot of enablers.
We also have to start asking some very hard questions about how our evangelical culture in many ways is mimicking a porn mindset. A lot of the way we teach sexuality and “purity” culture, gender roles, a lot of the way we teach those things is really also very objectifying. Women are often defined first and foremost by their sexuality. Either they are seen as a danger to a godly man because of their sexuality, or they are seen as a means to an end for sexual fulfillment. “‘It’s better to marry than to burn with lust.’ Don’t deprive your husband.” What that really ultimately does is it defines a woman, first and foremost, by her sexuality. When you have defined women first and foremost by their sexuality, again, it’s not that great of a step to start treating them that way or to not be bothered all that much when they are treated that way. I highly recommend the book The Great Sex Rescue by Sheila Gregory. She dissects a lot of these messages in evangelical culture and holds them up against a biblical view of sexuality. We’ve got to go back to our ideas and our thinking if we’re going to be able to change our actions.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. So we have several questions coming in about the church. I’m going to combine two. Sabrina Sherwood asks, “How can victims of abuse who have been hurt and traumatized by the church’s response learn to trust the local church again?” And then a related question by Heidi Kim, “How can we keep our churches accountable for ministering to and protecting survivors of abuse and trauma?”
Rachael Denhollander: I’m going to shape that first question a little bit differently. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a survivor to learn to trust again. I think it’s the responsibility of the church to earn that trust back. So the question that I would be asking is “What should I look for in a church to signal to me that this is a place I can start to trust again?” And I’m going to be honest, it’s very difficult. We asked, when we joined our current church, we asked very different questions of the elder team than we had asked the first time around, and it centered a lot more around getting at what they thought and what their theology was related to power dynamics, related to their counseling ideology, related to accountability structures for the leadership team in the church, and related to their model of shepherding. Because those things tend to really be in play with a church that has an imbalanced or abusive approach to abuse. And so we asked questions about how the elder team is held accountable. When was the last time you repented to your church? What structures are in place if someone believes they’re seeing abuse of power in their church? What have you read recently? What books are you reading to help you walk alongside survivors of abuse or mental health issues? We asked not just what their theology was of counseling, but what their theology of authority was and what have you read on your theology of authority? What does it mean to be a pastor and a shepherd? And we were just deeply impressed with the answers we were given because they were able to be given with specificity. “This is the last time I had to repent to my congregation. Here’s what I had to repent for. It was a careless word spoken.” “Here’s the systems that we have set up in place. Here’s where you appeal to.” And our pastors actually teach from the pulpit on abuse of authority and with the specifics of “if you are seeing or you believe you’re seeing abuse of authority against the pastors in our church, here is the system set up for you to appeal to who are men who are going to hold us accountable.” They were able to give us very specific answers for how they walk alongside victims of abuse, for their theology of marriage and their theology of family. And they were reading very solid individuals on all of these dynamics. So we looked much more for the foundational ideas and framework, and we looked for specificity in what they could articulate to us.
And in terms of how we can make our communities and our churches safer and what we as individuals can do, it really starts with asking those questions of our leaders, what are we doing for victims of sexual assault? What policies do we have in place? What’s our crisis response policy? When was the last time we did child abuse training? What training was it? A lot of training that’s done is often done by insurance companies or by groups that are attached to insurance companies. That’s typically much more liability focused than it is root-issue focused. You might get a little bit about grooming, you might get a little bit about dynamics, but you’re not really going to get to the heart of abuse. So asking those questions and then looking to see if the answers are good answers and if they’re not that great, being able to say, “Hey, would you consider this action step? Could we do this?” And being able to provide resources. And challenging those pastors on, you know, the number of people in the congregation who have suffered abuse. “Hey, if we had a quarter of our congregation suffering from cancer or losing a spouse, wouldn’t you do something? Statistically, we have a quarter of our congregation suffering from sexual abuse. How are we ministering to them?” And beginning to get those conversations going and get the thought process going and then be able to help them see the resources that will be helpful. Pastors can’t and shouldn’t have to do everything, but they do need to respond to wise questions, wise input, wise counsel.
Cherie Harder: So I want to combine two more related questions. We have a question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “How do we start to promote a healthy theology of authority?” And somewhat related, we have a question from Ellen Steinke, who asks, “What do you think of the theology of male headship and complementarianism? Does that play a role in the experience of the victims that you work with in the church?”
Rachael Denhollander: Yeah. So I’m going to start with the first question. Can you repeat that one for me?
Cherie Harder: Sure. How do we start to promote a healthy theology of authority?
Rachael Denhollander: Ok. So there has been some decent work done, some really great work done, by certain individuals on a healthy theology of authority. Again, it really starts with getting those conversations going and getting that material in the door. Diane Langerg, Christian psychologist who really pioneered a lot of the trauma movement, understanding trauma in the church, is an expert on sexual abuse, has been focusing a lot of her work on power dynamics. She just came out with a book, Redeeming Power and Authority, about a year ago. It’s a phenomenal book. It’s a great starting point for looking at how we’re defining power and authority, the way it feeds abusive systems, and then contrasting that with a biblical view. Diane also has phenomenal resources on her website, a lot of lectures that she does up on YouTube. So Diane is one of the top people that I recommend for starting that conversation and being able to bring resources to your church to help everybody start thinking through what power and authority should look like.
Wade Mullen is another one that I often recommend. Wade’s PhD work was in abusive communication systems and being able to dissect abusive messages. And so he had a book come out, Something’s Not Right, and it was based off of his PhD thesis, and he’s looking at how abusive organizations typically communicate and being able to recognize those red flags. I recommend that book to everybody who needs to be aware of those dynamics, but I also recommend it to leaders because it can help them start thinking through how they’re communicating and where they may be communicating in an abusive way that they genuinely don’t intend to, that they don’t realize the messages that they’re communicating. So I think those two books are excellent. And those two individuals are excellent starting points for starting this discussion and putting good resources in front of individuals. Do a Bible study on it, do a summer work group on it, do a weekend conference on abuse of power and authority. Get that conversation going with good solid materials.
And then can you repeat the second question again?
Cherie Harder: Sure. From Ellen Steinke, she asked, “Do you think the theology of male headship or complementarianism plays a role in the experience of the victims that you work with in the church?”
Rachael Denhollander: The way we are teaching it? Absolutely. 100 percent. Absolutely. Now, my husband and I attend a church that is male-only ordination, and I have been so blessed by the way they value women and women’s voices. I don’t think the theology of male-only ordination has to feed those abusive systems. I don’t think it has to be applied abusively. I work very closely with churches and organizations that ordain women ministers and are phenomenal churches and organizations, and I work very closely with churches that hold to male-only ordination. I think what we have to start understanding is that complementarianism as a movement and a definition really goes far beyond male-only ordination. And these are some of the things that Sheila Gregory looks at even in her book, just in terms of how we apply it from a sexual perspective and understanding sexuality. Amy Bird looks at it in her book Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and looking at all of the cultural ideas that we have absorbed into our understanding of male and female roles. Rachel Miller’s book Beyond Authority and Submission is an excellent book that starts looking at and examining the question of what does it mean to be made in the image of God? Because complementarianism as a movement defines women’s status as submissive. That’s the definition of what it means to be a woman. And you can see some of this coming out.
You know, John Piper gave an answer a few years ago, and there’s a lot of that John Piper has done that I’m very grateful for and I respect. But there are some extremely imbalanced and abusive ideologies that have taken place, and we’re starting to see the ramifications of it coming out publicly, especially in the last year or so. John was asked, “What do you do with a woman who’s experiencing abuse in marriage?” And his initial answer was that she “might need to endure being smacked around for a little bit.” And that if her husband was only harming her, rather than asking her to sin, that she needed to appeal to his authority. It was an extremely abusive and damaging answer, delivered with a very gentle tone of voice, but an extremely damaging and abusive answer. After multiple years of being pressed for clarification—because he never said anything about reporting to the police—he clarified that a police report should be made, but he grounded that in her status, as he viewed it, as submissive, that she needed to make a police report because she was also in submission to her civil authorities. And if she didn’t make a police report to the civil authorities, well, now she’s assisting in the sin. So her ability to plead for help, to receive protection and care was grounded in the ideology that she is defined by her status as submissive. When you have a movement that has defined women that way and that has distilled down what it means to be made in the imago dei in terms of submission and authority, you have created a ripe breeding ground for abuse.
That being said, the rates of abuse are not much lower, if any lower, in egalitarian denominations and churches. So what I would say is, does it play a role? Absolutely. What it does is it gives it a different flavor for why it’s happening. Most of the time, in more egalitarian churches, there’s more of an authority, power, celebrity-preacher type of dynamic where you just don’t touch the person because he’s such a big authority figure. Or she’s such a big authority figure. So it absolutely plays a role. But the rates of abuse are not much different. It does give it a different flavor and it gives it different layers that we need to start peeling back to be able to get to the root issues.
Cherie Harder: It’s fascinating. So again, I want to combine a couple of questions just because we have so many that are related. Justin McGreery asks, “How do you protect your children from abuse, even from infancy? How do you determine who to trust?” And somewhat similarly, Susan Reynolds asks, “What are the cues we can watch for in children being abused?”
Rachael Denhollander: So the harsh reality that I wrestle with as a parent all the time is that you can do everything right and your children still suffer abuse. I wish so much that I could look back on my childhood and say “if only my parents had done…”, because that would give me some security as a parent that I could just change that one thing and my children wouldn’t go through what I went through. I honestly don’t think there’s anything better my parents could have done. They were so healthy in their approach to marriage and sexuality. There was always an open door of communication. I was never afraid that I wasn’t going to be believed. I was never afraid that I was going to be shamed. My parents were phenomenal in dealing with the abuse and walking me through it. When I came forward, my mom was an incredibly proactive parent. We almost never did sleepovers. We never attended summer camp. My parents were chaperons at youth group. We didn’t go to youth group by ourselves because my mom knew so much of the details of what can happen. My mom is a survivor herself. She understood those dynamics. When we were involved in athletic events, we never participated in athletic events where parents were separated from their kids. My sister was selected to try for a figure skating team, and they had to travel separately to meets from the parents. And my parents said, “No, not happening.” They did everything right, and I still was abused twice by two different perpetrators.
So what we really try to do is instill our children with concepts and frameworks that will help them identify when something isn’t right and give them the tools and the words to use to express that. So from a very young age, right away, we start talking with our children about principles of consent. And so in our house, we have a rule that nobody touches without permission, even “good touch”—tickling and hugging, you know, that kind of thing. Nobody touches without permission. And my children know that they can come to me and they can say “so-and-so touched me without permission,” and I will defend their right to not be touched without permission. That is a blanket rule in our house. Similarly, we never require our children to hug, to touch, to submit to touch from anybody. This means that even at the pediatrician’s office or something like that, you know, our appointments take longer because I tell the pediatrician, “I want you to ask before you do everything and I want you to receive a verbal ‘yes’ from my child before you do it.” “Can I listen to your heartbeat? Can I look in your ear? Can I look in this ear?” So we instill our children with principles of consent so that when their consent is violated or it’s not sought, they can identify that something’s off and hopefully know that they can verbalize that, and mom and dad will protect it.
We talk with our children about concepts of privacy and the importance of privacy, so that they know that if their privacy is violated, they can articulate that and we will defend it. Sometimes this takes very interesting turns when you’re potty training kids. You know, I had children who needed help on the potty but did not feel comfortable with me in the room while they were using the potty. So every time I took them to the bathroom, I would put them on the potty and we would— Well, before we did that, we would form a plan. “What’s the plan going to be so your privacy can be protected?” And we would talk about it, even at two and three years old. We would talk about what the plan is going to be. “All right. We’re going to follow the plan. Mommy is going to put you on the potty and then I’m going to step outside and I’m going to close the door tight so that your privacy is protected. And when you’re ready for me to come back in, you call me.” And I verbalized that to them every single time. So they knew their privacy was going to be protected. We talk to our kids about principles of gaslighting and emotional abuse, so that they have the framework and they have the words to be able to identify when something is off. And those are also frameworks and concepts that grow with them as their sexual knowledge and their maturity grows. And then I’ve already forgotten the second question.
Cherie Harder: I think it was related. Oh, “what are the cues that we can watch for children being abused?”
Rachael Denhollander: It can be really difficult, honestly, because children rarely give a blatant disclosure of abuse. Most of the time you’re going to see behavioral problems that are well out of the range of normal for that child—bedwetting, a new occurrence of bedwetting, or, you know, cleaning themselves frantically, that kind of thing. Those can be warning signs. You know, obviously physical injury, but a lot of times you don’t have physical injury. Sometimes children will give verbal cues that they really don’t want to go somewhere or they really don’t want to be around someone, but they can’t quite articulate why. Now sometimes that happens, and the child just doesn’t like the person or, you know, or there’s something else at play, but you do need to pay really close attention to that. And when our children do that, we protect that boundary and we respect that choice that they have and we talk it through. So that, again, so that they know if there is something there that I haven’t seen, if there’s more to that than just say, “I don’t like this person” or “they’re different than I am,” that we’ve explored that possibility and they know that it’s going to be respected.
But most of the time, you don’t see very clear disclosures from children. Sometimes they’ll use euphemisms. One of the best things that you can do if you hear a child say something or you’re seeing behavior that makes you go, “hmmm, this doesn’t look quite right to me” is, again, just to ask framework questions. You want to be very careful to preserve the integrity of the child’s memory and the integrity of the evidence chain if, God forbid, something has happened and you’re going to receive a disclosure. So you don’t typically ask detailed questions. You might ask questions like, “Oh, can you tell me more about why you feel uncomfortable?” When I talk with my kids about privacy, sometimes I’ll just kind of off the cuff ask him, “Has anybody violated your privacy lately or is there anything Mommy needs to know about that where I can protect your privacy better?” Just very general questions in open conversation that are non-threatening, that are designed to elicit broader-picture answers that can be used.
It’s also important when you’re doing this that if you are angry or you’re really upset that you don’t show that to the child at the time, because a lot of times abuse takes place with someone the child has a relationship with, and they actually may feel an allegiance to that person. They might be wanting to protect them or afraid that they’re going to get somebody in trouble. And if they see your anger come out, that can cause them to close up very quickly. And so you want to identify emotionally to a point. “I’m so sorry that happened. That wasn’t OK.” My mom would often verbalize her emotion. “That makes me really angry. I’m sorry that happened to you.” But she did it very calmly in a way that I wasn’t saddled with the emotional burden and wasn’t having to carry her emotional burden for her. But asking those very broad, open-ended questions, doing just routine, conversational check-ins, and watching for those warning signs, creating that open channel of communication so that if there is something more there, you can help draw that out in a way that’s organic and non-threatening.
Cherie Harder: We’re almost out of time, but I will take one last question, and this one comes from Jean Loper, who asked, “What if you have spoken up but are not believed and the authorities believe the abuser?”
Rachael Denhollander: Unfortunately, you’re not alone. Statistically, that’s the vast majority of what survivors experience, which is why so many of us don’t report for so long. I really thought that that was, you know, for 16 years I thought that’s where I would end up, that I would never, ever see justice and never be believed this side of heaven. And for me, what was really important is being able to define success correctly and also to be able to know that what was true was true regardless of the societal response I received, and that my healing and my value and my identity were not dependent on the societal response that I received. And also to be able to identify and acknowledge that the justice system is broken. It’s not OK that survivors are not believed. It’s not OK that justice doesn’t come. It’s broken and it’s wrong. And we need to be able to say that and identify it and grieve that loss as well, because that’s also a betrayal. That’s also a very deep loss. And when I chose to come forward, I really didn’t expect it to go anywhere. I really did expect that I would do everything within my power, my face and my image and my story would become international headlines, and I would still wind up with Larry walking away because statistically that was what was by far the most likely. And so I had to define success properly.
Rachael Denhollander: And I think oftentimes we define success by very artificial benchmarks. “If I just get here, this is success.” And most of the time, what we’ve defined as success is outside of our control. I can’t control what culture and society is going to do in response to me. I can’t control how the police are going to investigate or what the prosecutor is going to think or what 12 members of the jury are going to do. That’s not success. It’s outside of my control. It’s not my responsibility. Success really is just being faithful with what we have. And so the question I ask myself every day is, “Can I go to bed at night knowing I’ve been faithful with what I’ve been given?” The results are outside of my control. That’s not success. Have I just been faithful with what I’ve been given? And for so many survivors, you don’t always see the impact of what you’ve done. But it’s not in vain. And you’ve done everything you can do, and that is success. And the response you’ve received does not change what is true. It does not change your value. It does not change your identity. And you also should be able to grieve the brokenness of the response you received because it was a betrayal by our system and our society and our culture. It was wrong.
Cherie Harder: Rachael, thank you so much. This has been a deeply valuable conversation. And finally, Rachael, as promised, I wanted to give you the last word.
Rachael Denhollander: Thank you. I appreciate so much all of you coming and digging into this issue. It’s an emotionally difficult topic to discuss. So thank you for coming and participating. Thank you, Cherie and Trinity Forum, for holding space for these conversations.
I think what I would like to leave everyone with is just the simple thought that it matters. Abuse matters. If you are a survivor yourself, your abuse matters. It was wrong, and we care. It is not your fault and justice is coming. And for those of you who are seeking to walk alongside survivors, well, it matters. It matters to God. So let’s prioritize doing this well. Let’s prioritize caring well for survivors, preventing abuse, standing up against injustice because it matters. And I wish so much that I had been raised with an intentional church and spiritual community that showed how much the abuse and suffering matters to God. And so I think that’s what I’d like to leave with today is it matters.
Cherie Harder: Rachael, thank you. Thank you to all of you who are joining us. Have a great weekend.