Larry Nassar, Rachael Denhollander, and the Gospel
Denhollander’s passion and clear-eyed wisdom come as a welcome breath of fresh air.
On Wednesday, January 24th, former MSU physician and Olympic doctor Larry Nassar received the maximum sentence of 175 years in prison for multiple counts of sexual assault on his patients. He already faced 60 years for possession of child pornography. Close to 200 more women, including gold medalist Aly Raisman, also issued victim impact statements over the course of four days leading up to his sentence.
The scale of Nassar’s abuse and the institutional cover-ups that enabled it are staggering. For decades, gross negligence and blind loyalty buried multiple reports in a filing cabinet, literally. Girls who attempted to speak up were assured that they must have mistaken common medical procedure for sexual penetrating and groping. Others were bullied or threatened into silence by people who refused to believe and refused to listen. Coach John Geddert, a close friend of Nassar’s, insisted his gymnasts see no doctor but Nassar. (One wonders if this is because Nassar turned a blind eye to Geddert’s own abusive coaching methods, which are now also coming to light.) Three members of the USA Gymnastics Board have resigned, as has MSU president Lou Anna Simon. The university still faces a civil lawsuit.
If there’s one single person who can take the credit for finally bringing Nassar down, none have a better claim than Rachael Denhollander: victim zero, first to speak out and open the floodgates of justice. In 2000, Nassar repeatedly abused her over the course of a year after she sought his care for back pain at the age of 15. Confused, afraid, and assured by the responsible adults around her that nothing was amiss, she kept silent for years. Now married with three children, she has become an advocate for sexual assault victims.
Fittingly, she was the last to speak on Wednesday before the sentence was handed down. Her final words left an indelible impression. Nobody was safe, as she witheringly addressed MSU officials who had mocked her for coming forward. She also exposed Nassar’s hypocritical defense attorney, who claimed Rachael was only “in it for the money.” Ironic, considering it was only the attorney who had sucked up to the media, and only the attorney who was getting paid.
She described the heartbreak of youthful innocence lost: the innocence of a young girl who thought the people in charge would keep her safe. That young girl would grow into a woman who understands how deep corruption can run. She talked about becoming a coach herself after her athletics career ran its course. Memory of young gymnasts in her care who were sent through Nassar’s door, even when she tried to speak up. She also recounted the harrowing details of her own abuse, recalling how Nassar had whispered in her ear: “How does it feel?”
When Mercy Seasons Justice
But without a doubt, the most compelling part of Denhollander’s statement was the moment when she turned to address Nassar directly. She noticed that he had begun bringing a Bible to court with him. It wasn’t the first move for sympathy Nassar had made. Last week, Judge Aquilina read out a 6-page letter from Nassar claiming that he couldn’t bear the mental anguish of listening to the statements. In that same letter, he doubled down on his innocence and viciously lambasted his accusers as attention whores.
It was here that Rachael took the opportunity to go above and beyond a plea for justice. For it was here that she shared the gospel with Larry Nassar. In her own words:
The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
The Bible you speak [of] carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt, so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.
She quoted C. S. Lewis on justice, speaking of how injustice points to the existence of justice. How do we see what is crooked until we see what is straight? How can we recognize evil unless we recognize the Good? One cannot exist without the other. She told Nassar that in choosing evil, he has forged prison bars of his own making — bars that separate him from all that is good, pure, and lovely.
At the same time, she spoke of the outstretched arms that can still reach behind those bars. She spoke of that mercy which is an attribute to God himself.
Christian Witness Regained
Denhollander’s passion and clear-eyed wisdom come as a welcome breath of fresh air. It speaks to the Church today, as Christians are split over whether to keep sexually rapacious men in political power, or disgraced clergy in their pulpits.
But her message that Christ alone can redeem damaged bodies and spirits also speaks to a confused culture that has only half the truth of sexual brokenness. For women who have been violated against their will, there is healing. But there is also grace for the women who have consented to be used and cast aside by the hookup culture. And there is grace for the men who used them.
This is the same grace that broke into a Michigan courtroom on Wednesday morning. This is the Christian witness that we have somehow lost, just when the world around us most desperately needs it.
On behalf of the Church, I thank Rachael Denhollander for finding it once again.