Former Church of a Nassar Victim Apologizes: "We Were Sinfully Unloving"

In February I wrote about Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with allegations of abuse against Dr. Larry Nassar. What prompted me to write about her was the victim-impact statement she gave at his sentencing.

In it, she described how his abuse had impacted her life, and the things it had cost her. One of those things, she said, was her church.
 
That caught my attention, so contacted Denhollander to ask what she meant.
 
She told me that while she was struggling with the decision to go public about Nassar, her own evangelical church in Louisville, Kentucky, was actively supporting a prominent national evangelical ministry that had been accused of covering up child sex abuse.
 
“My own church was actively supporting a ministry whose leaders had been very credibly accused of failing to report child predators,” she told me.
 
She and her husband, Jacob, brought their concerns to church leadership. It went nowhere.
 
Not only that, some of the leaders at her church raised questions about her character, and about her faith.
 
And so in 2016, when Denhollander decided to go public with her story of abuse by Nassar, she didn’t receive any support from her church.
 
In fact, her previous advocacy for other victims was “wielded like a weapon” by some of the church’s leaders in an effort to discredit her accusations against Nassar, she said.
 
“They essentially said I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgement was clouded,” she shared.
 
Within six months, she and her husband left the congregation. “We were told it wasn’t the place for us,” she said.
 
And there the story sat—until the end of May. That’s when her former church issued an apology.
 
In a statement titled “We were Rachael’s Church,” the pastors at Immanuel Baptist spoke of Denhollander’s “tremendous courage and grace” in speaking about how Nassar’s abuse had affected her.
 
They went on to say they were “delighted to hear Rachael’s clear proclamation of biblical justice and forgiveness” and how she spoke up on behalf of those who have been sexually abused.
 
But delight, they went on to say, “was not our only reaction.”
 
What they were referring to, of course, was Denhollander’s reference to losing her church.
 
When leaders at Immanuel heard that, “we knew that we were that church,” they wrote.
 
In the weeks that followed her victim impact statement, leaders at Immanuel read, studied, prayed and consulted with others. They also met with Denhollander and her husband.
 
By the time they had a congregational meeting on the subject, “we saw we had sin to confess. We had failed ... to care adequately for the Denhollanders in a time of deep need.”
 
In particular, they confessed to failing to listen to and understand Denhollander’s concerns about their support for the ministry that was the subject of allegations of cover-up—and the terrible message that support sent to survivors of abuses.
 
They also confessed to the poor pastoral care they offered the Denhollanders.
 
In hindsight, they wrote, “we see we were sinfully unloving. We have since thoroughly repented to the Denhollanders.” In return, they said, the Denhollanders “have been very gracious and forgiving.”
 
They concluded the statement by indicating they will no longer invite leaders from the ministry under investigation to serve at their church. At the same time, they say, the experience has made their church more sensitive to the subject of sexual abuse.
 
I reached out to Denhollander once again for her response to the church’s apology.
 
The statement, she said, “was very encouraging.”
 
She added: “I am very grateful for restored fellowship, leadership, and renewed listening to the voices of survivors at our former church, and for the leadership of the pastors in our now-home church who walked with us through this process.”
 
Denhollander and other survivors of Nassar’s abuse are still struggling to get his employer, Michigan State University, to apologize for what happened, and to launch an internal investigation into the breakdowns and failures that allowed the abuse to go on for so long.
 
The University has declined to do either of those things. But as far as Denhollander’s experience with her former church goes, at least there is one good and hopeful ending.

From the July 21, 2018, Winnipeg Free Press and On Faith Canada. Reposted with permission.