Justice, Grace, and Worth: Rachael Denhollander's Victim Impact Statement
January 25, 2018
Updated March 1, 2018
15 comments 2260 views
The disgraced former Michigan State University doctor, Larry Nassar, is already serving 60 years in federal prison for child pornography convictions. In addition to that 60 years, the Michigan prosecutor requested 40 to 125 years in prison for decades of sexual abuse. The honorable Judge Aquilina went beyond that, sentencing the 54 year old to 40 to 175 years in prison.
This case has been all over the news. Perhaps you, like me, have been following the stories and have had a difficult time processing it all. I have learned that the most important thing to do is to listen to the voices who have persevered.
Over the course of seven days one hundred and fifty-six young women, mothers, sisters and daughters, one by one, had the opportunity to confront the abuser – something few survivors get the chance to do. To see a link to every one of their statements, you can read MLive’s article here, which shares the summaries of every single one of their stories.
The final person to share their story was Rachael Denhollander. Rachael was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse - and she has undergone some incredible scrutiny and criticism because of it. After everything she has been through she delivered a powerful and moving 36 ½ minute victim impact statement. Every minute is worth our time as she continually asks, “How much is a girl worth?”
Let’s listen, empathize and respond with sacrificial actions in our communities.
Her full speech can be found here (compliments of MLive), or you can read the full manuscript from CNN. I have also shared excerpts of her speech below that struck me as necessary for us, as the church, to hear and to respond to in our communities.
EDIT: After a week of this blog being published, Christianity Today did an interview with Rachael. We also encourage you to read that as well. It is titled: "My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness." So many good things to learn as we, as the church of Jesus, struggle to (as Rachael says) "pursue justice... stand up for the oppressed... victimized... and tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.
Isolated by her church and closest friends:
My advocacy for sexual assault victims, something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report. I was left alone and isolated. And far worse, it was impacted because when I came out, my sexual assault was wielded like a weapon against me.
Often by those who should have been the first to support and help, and I couldn't even do what I loved best, which was to reach out to others.
Empowered by grace, justice and forgiveness:
In our early hearings, you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It 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 what you have seen this courtroom today.
If 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 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.
Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says, my argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?
Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else's perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.
When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have lost the ability to truly love. Larry, you have shut yourself off from every truly beautiful and good thing in this world that could have and should have brought you joy and fulfillment, and I pity yve ou for it. You could have had everything you pretended to be. Every woman who stood up here truly loved you as an innocent child, real genuine love for you, and it did not satisfy.
I have experienced the soul satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love and safety and tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys, and it is beautiful and sacred and glorious. And that is a joy you have cut yourself off from ever experiencing, and I pity you for it.
A message to us all: worth, honor and dignity:
And to everyone who is watching, I ask that same question, how much is a little girl worth? Larry said in court that he hoped education and learning would happen from this tragedy, and I share that hope, and this is what we need to learn.
Look around the courtroom, remember what you have witnessed these past seven days. This is what it looks like when someone chooses to put their selfish desires above the safety and love for those around them and let it be a warning to us all and moving forward as a society, This is what it looks like when the adults in authority do not respond properly to disclosures of sexual assault.
This is what it looks like when institutions create a culture where a predator can flourish unafraid and unabated and this is what it looks like when people in authority refuse to listen, put friendships in front of the truth, fail to create or enforce proper policy and fail to hold enablers accountable.
This is what it looks like. It looks like a courtroom full of survivors who carry deep wounds. Women and girls who have banded together to fight for themselves because no one else would do it. Women and girls who carry scars that will never fully heal but who have made the choice to place the guilt and shame on the only person to whom it belongs, the abuser. But may the horror expressed in this courtroom over the last seven days be motivation for anyone and everyone no matter the context to take responsibility if they have failed in protecting a child, to understand the incredible failures that led to this week and to do it better the next time.
Judge Aquilina, I plead with you as you deliberate the sentence to give Larry, send a message that these victims are worth everything. In order to meet both the goals of this court. I plead with you to impose the maximum sentence under the plea agreement because everything is what these survivors are worth. Thank you.
Connect to The Network and add your own question, blog, resource, or job.Add Your Post
Thank you for this thoughtful piece spotlighting Rachel's beautiful heart.
Thanks for your comment Michele!
Wow. Powerful stuff. Grace and strong conviction in delicate balance, with a clear and unabashed gospel call featuring prominently. I wonder how/if restorative justice would/could fit in a situation like this. So much pain, suffering, and betrayal. I love how Rachel has not allowed the pain to define her or steal her joy, despite the fact that the pain is very real and has lasting consequences.
Thank you, Eric, for your affirmation of this story. Many people I know who have suffered sexual abuse, and have walked for awhile on the extremely difficult road toward healing, are the strongest, most grace-filled people I know. Our God is an amazing, redeeming God! The question that arises in my mind is this: How can we, in our churches, cooperate with God's healing work? What do those who have suffered abuse find in our church communities? How can we, as the Church come alongside? How can we create safe spaces, giving opportunity for God's transforming work among us?
All good questions. It seems to me that if churches are to be places of healing, places of rest, places of renewal, and places of burden-sharing, the following are necessary ingredients:
1. We must truly and heartily believe the gospel and all of its implications. Is new life truly possible? Is forgiveness real? This sets that base for everything else in the life of the church. Life is truly hopeless without the hope-filled message of the gospel, which makes the church unique in what it has to offer the world. Thus, the gospel must remain front and center in our worship, preaching, counseling, praying, and socializing.
2. We must truly believe that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, not mere associates or acquaintances. The language of family drives home for us how we are to love each other, because love for family comes more naturally to us than any other love. When we use the language of brother and sister consciously, it can change our approach, making us more deliberate in how we love.
3. We need to make efforts to get to know each other that go beyond the superficial. Practicing hospitality is not just good for office bearers, but for the whole church. Healing happens in relationship. We won't go beyond scratching the surface if we don't open our homes and hearts to people. Pastors and elders, particularly, need to make concerted effort to know those under their care.
4. We must be willing to model both honest confession and honest forgiveness. If I sin against my brother and he points out that sin to me, I must be willing to confess that sin without equivocation and ask forgiveness. The burden then shifts to my brother to honestly and completely forgive, not as one who has an axe to grind, something to hold over my head, or gossip about.
5. We must understand love as a word of action, not mainly feeling. When we truly love, we act affirmatively, not just passively.
I confess to getting hung up on the phrase "safe spaces" because of all the social and political baggage that it carries with it. I much prefer that our churches be "loving spaces", with all that that entails. Much of this type of loving space is being modeled and practiced in churches, however imperfectly. Often times we don't even know about much of the work that is going on. That doesn't ever mean that we are given license to think we have some how "arrived". Sanctification is a continual work. Thanks for your response.
I should have signed off as such:
Your brother in Christ,
I am very moved by Rachel's courageous stand; it comes with great personal cost, but with determination to do what is right.
The church emphasizes forgiveness, but forgiveness is only part of the healing process. As she said, we need repentance, and justice. We need restitution and restoration for those whose lives have been so impacted. The church needs to look at the bigger picture and see how our teaching and attitudes create the setting and ignoring of this kind of crime. She is not alone.
Thank you for your article.
Thank you Trudy. "As long as the church sees sexual abuse as only personal sin and not also as a prosecutable crime, the church will never be seen as the house of a just God...Christ proves it: Grace never negates consequences. Forgiveness still requires justice." Words from Ann Voskamp.
"Forgiveness still requires justice." Amen!
Absolutely! In a follow up to her impact statement, Rachael was interviewed by Christianity Today and it was published here titled: "My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness."
When she was asked,
"In your impact statement, you mention that it took you a long time to reveal your own abuse with other people. Was church included in that?"
"Yes. Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church."
We have got to expand our awareness and dive deep into what it means for us to be the church that is obedient to Jesus Christ - as Rachael says at the end of her interview: "Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.
Second, that obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough."
Thanks to Rachael Denhollander's courageous and gracious testimony as well as that of the other survivors, this evil man has been taken off the streets for good. The judge--and I listened to the whole verdict as well as the statements she made before that--did not believe he would be safe to release in society. Because he DID NOT GET IT. So at last these women and their family got justice. I pray that the Lord will heal their hearts and souls and help that wicked man come to repentance before he dies.
Yes, thanks are due to the courageous survivors, who were able to finally be heard. And thanks are due to the judge, who allowed their voices to be heard in her courtroom. And thanks are due to our justice system, as imperfect as it is, which will keep Dr. Nasser from perpetrating further harm. We must be careful however not to make Dr. Nasser out to be a monster. I go to church in E. Lansing, literally across the street from the campus of Michigan State University (MSU). MSU is my alma mater, the place I worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for many years and then went back to school for a master's degree. Last Sunday at church, between services, I happened to talk with 3 people who knew Dr. Larry Nasser. One was a patient of his, who spoke about how much she liked him. One was a colleague, who remembered working with him. One sent a daughter, a middle-school student athlete, to him for treatment. All of them were very troubled by what was happening, because they had good experiences with Dr. Nasser. He was loved, appreciated, and did many good things for many people. That's another aspect of what makes these findings so, so devastating, the ripple effects reach far and wide. The entire MSU community, and far beyond that has been affected. And yet, we must not demonize Dr. Nasser, for in the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” All of us stand before God only by the grace he has given, through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. And no one is outside God's long reach of grace. It's what makes us free to acknowledge the truth, even ugly truths, about ourselves and about others.
Bonnie, I am grateful to you, Beth Swaagman before you, and Eric Kas for taking on the challenge of talking about sexual abuse and promoting action to help us be wise and ensure safety in our churches. I see it as a difficult job and I write hoping what I share will not be discouraging.
When I read your response to Michelle two weeks ago it was jarring to me and surprising that you felt compelled to caution us all that "we must be very careful not to make Dr. Nassar out to be a monster" and "we must not demonize Dr. Nasser." I imagine you wrote as you did for two reasons: because Michelle called Larry Nasser "an evil man" and" a wicked man" and secondly because you have met three people who are hurting and troubled because they had good experiences with Larry Nassar. Understandably, you care about their pain.
However, Larry Nassar is a man who did monstrous, demonic, evil and wicked things to hundreds of innocent women and children. I think when we hear what he did we must be angry. We don't have to vent our anger by calling him nasty names. But we can express our honest feelings because it hurts to see betrayal and abuse and those wounded by it. We don't want to hurt those who knew him but were unaware of the awful side of him that abused others for years. Now, though, does not seem the time to chide, even mildly, anyone expressing disgust and anger at his deeds. It is confusing. It sounds like we are not being Christ like if we call evil evil. That confusion is part of what makes it hard to deal effectively with abuse in the church setting. I’m someone who has experienced three Christian Reformed ministers and one Calvin College professor who behaved inappropriately either to me or fellow church members. Trying to speak out to stop them is not easy in misguided Christian settings that require the abused to not be angry, to be nice and not raise their voices and to express being willing to forgive even before the abuser has been adequately dealt with, much less has repented.
Unfortunately, family members and people who know an abuser hiding their wrongdoings from them can "love and appreciate" an abuser and even see them doing "many good things for many people" but it doesn’t make the abuser less guilty or their evil deeds less awful. Being in the dark sets them up to get very hurt. Those innocent people suffer wounds because of the actions of the abuser, making it very difficult for those who must “out” an abuser, knowing the pain that will result. I think this is especially true when dealing with abuse that happens within a church. Wanting to protect them, along with the victims(s) and the congregation, can make the church and its leaders hesitant to properly deal with the abuser.
I feel Solzehenitsyn's statement does not fit the Nassar situation well. Larry Nassar does need to be separated from the rest of us. Yes, we are all sinners, but we must judge his actions and apply consequences. His family and friends and the rest of us who see him as a fellow fallen human being will grieve because of what he has done and grieve if he does not repent and find God's forgiveness. But we grieve most for those who have survived his abuse and we must act to prevent him from ever having an opportunity to continue.
Michelle rightly sees that he has acted evilly and wickedly but blesses him by praying that he will come to repentance before he dies. I see no need to reprove her or anyone for naming him by his deeds. You rightly state the wonderful truth that no one is outside God's long reach of grace. I think Michelle prayers show she completely agrees. You may not have consciously intended to reprove her. Hopefully she didn’t feel that. But I heard some old, confusing mixed messages that might keep people from expressing their anger, pain and frustration. So I’m speaking up and hope to hear what you and others have to say in response.
By the way, Webster gives as one definition of Monster “one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character.”
That seems a pretty apt and kind way to describe Larry Nassar.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment Susan. We are glad that you were empowered to comment and share your concerns. I also think it is important to voice anger, frustration and to call out evil for what it is.
Here is just another perspective on what Bonnie mentioned. I think ultimately that Bonnie is focusing on how to make sense of someone who had such a high repute, yet did such monstrous things. For those who knew him they are now going back into their minds and trying to understand it and may now second guess so many other people in their lives too. Another definition of monster is “an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.” It’s easy for those of us who have been victimized to block out these acts or dissociate them (read more about that here) and fail to see the warning signs. It is a way for our brains to cope with ongoing abuse.
Unfortunately, the statistics on sexual abuse show that the majority of sexual abuse is not reported and the vast majority of abusers do not face the consequences (you can see some of the stats on this here from RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Many people who have come from situations of abuse cannot reconcile that someone they care about is also abusing them – so they are unable to act.
So, to Bonnie’s comment, I think it’s less about chiding that we don’t simply demonize someone because they don’t deserve it - it is that if we simply create a horrific, demonic picture of someone who doesn’t always fit that description, then we may not be seeing the full picture of what allows abuse to continue. The reality is that there are people out there who appear to be kind and loving, yet are unable to feel guilt and allow themselves to do monstrous and demonic things. We need to do what we can so that those who are victimized are empowered to break the silence, even if it means sharing their story of abuse from someone they care about and do not see as a complete monster, yet a person who has done monstrous things.
Just my opinion after thinking about this for a while!
Appreciate the open dialogue. J
Hi Susan, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Erc has already written a good response, let me just add this: I didn't mean at all to imply that Larry Nasser's actions were not horrific, or that he in any way should not be held fully accountable for his actions and the huge devastion he's caused in the lives of so many women and girls. The fact that you found my words "jarring", thinking of him as a person, created in God's image, is understandable. You can only imagine how jarring the allegations were for someone who knew and trusted him. It's always jarring, and feelings of a deep sense of betrayal are common. My point is that abuse is most often perpetated by ordinary people, people who are loved, trusted, and considered 'safe'. That's how access is gained, and that's what often allows abuse to continue; because it's simply too jarring to believe that it could really be happening.
We love your comments! Thank you for helping us uphold the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.