The first victim to come forward and speak out about USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse was Rachael Denhollander. After ripping bare the corrupt system that allowed Nassar to sexually abuse athletes for years, she’s now turning her focus on the church she looked to for protection.
Denhollander, who is an evangelical, saw a woeful ineptness in how churches counseled victims. Speaking to Christianity Today, she said the church is no place for a victim of sexual abuse to seek help.
“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,” Denhollander said. “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.”
“[Christians] can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like ‘God works all things together for good or God is sovereign,'” she continued. “Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God.”
Many of these views about women are steeped in patriarchal biases. Christa Brown, an expert on church abuse scandals, told HuffPost that in evangelical communities, patriarchy is often seen as part of God’s plan. Some churches emphasize female submissiveness and male “headship,” the idea that men have final authority over women in the church, community and home.
These teachings aren’t always inherently destructive. But they can create an unequal power dynamic ― such as when a female survivor of assault brings her case to the male elders of a local church.
Meanwhile, other aspects of evangelical Christian theology, such as the emphasis on forgiveness of sin, can enable covering up sexual abuse. And often, Brown said, evangelical churches lack adequate accountability structures that would keep all of these problematic forces in check.
As HuffPost points out, after Denhollander first went public with her accusations, she accused a Kentucky church she and her husband attended of “directly” covering up for sexual abusers.
“The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community,” Denhollander said. “Had I been so unfortunate so as to have been victimized by someone in their community … I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.”
Nassar pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual contact for abusing young athletes he treated as a doctor. He was sentenced to up to 175 years in jail.
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