Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexually abusing her as a teenager, a step that ultimately led to more than 250 other victims coming forward. Denhollander was a 15-year-old gymnast when Nassar abused her during physical therapy sessions. In 2016, she reached out to the Indianapolis Star to tell her story. She also filed a criminal complaint against Nassar and eventually delivered the final victim-impact statement in court after his conviction.
The Nassar story has faded from the headlines since his dramatic sentencing in a Michigan courtroom in January. The disgraced doctor pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. But Denhollander, now a 33-year-old lawyer and mother of three, has not gone away. Instead, she has turned her attention to another sexual abuse scandal—this one in her own evangelical community.
The alleged cover-up of a pattern of child sexual abuse within a large Protestant network now called Sovereign Grace Churches has been a major story in American evangelicalism since 2012. That’s when a lawsuit was filed alleging a pattern of sexual and spiritual abuse within the network—and not just abuse itself, but pressure to “forgive” those actions, internal policies discouraging reports to law enforcement, and ostracism for families who refused to help cover up crimes. The suit was dismissed in 2014, but a former youth leader, Nathaniel Morales, was convicted in a separate case of abusing three boys. In an attempt to move on from the thorny and slow-moving scandal, Sovereign Grace tweaked its name, moved its headquarters from Maryland to Kentucky, and replaced several of its top leaders.
To many of its critics, the organization has not done enough to repent and atone for its sins. Founder C.J. Mahaney, meanwhile, left the organization in 2013 but has successfully fought to retain his status as a leader in evangelical circles. Denhollander has spent the last several weeks speaking up about the case in a series of interviews and detailed public statements. She calls it “one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen.” This has led to a tense series of dueling statements and accusations closely watched by Christian media outlets. Thanks to Denhollander’s activism, Sovereign Grace has been forced to explain itself more deeply in the last few weeks than it has in the previous five years.
This week, Denhollander got results. Mahaney, the group’s former president, announced Wednesday that he is withdrawing from a major upcoming conference that attracts thousands of pastors and church leaders. “Given the recent, renewed controversy surrounding Sovereign Grace Churches and me individually, I have decided to withdraw from the 2018 T4G conference,” Mahaney said in a statement, adding that “No one should interpret my withdrawal as an acknowledgment of guilt.”
Denhollander did not pluck the Sovereign Grace case as her next cause randomly. In her court testimony in January, she mentioned in passing that her advocacy for sexual abuse victims had led her to lose friends and also her church community. In a later interview with Christianity Today, she said that her own church in Kentucky had been involved in rehabilitating Mahaney’s reputation, a stance she’d objected to as unjust and hurtful to victims. When she went to church leaders with documentation of her concerns, she said, they dismissed her precisely because she was an abuse victim—“essentially saying that I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgment was too clouded.” Eventually, she and her family left that church.
Sovereign Grace’s first response to the Christianity Today interview was a brief statement acknowledging the difficulty of “responding to false allegations” without appearing unsympathetic to victims, but saying that Denhollander was “mistaken” in her characterizations. She responded at length on Facebook, emphasizing her legal expertise in sexual assault cases and asking the group to allow an investigation by GRACE, a respected Christian organization that specializes in sexual abuse in institutional settings. The church network responded with a much lengthier statement, which Denhollander called “misleading.” She is not backing down. “This call does not rise from a sort of Javert-like obsession with SGC, but from the knowledge that evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault,” she said in her most recent statement. “In fact, experts have stated that both the amount of abuse, and the failure to report it, is likely worse than in the Roman Catholic Church.”
Though Denhollander’s doggedness in calling for accountability for Sovereign Grace and Mahaney has received less mainstream attention than her testimony against Nassar, it is just as bold. Sovereign Grace, like USA Gymnastics, remains a large and influential institution. And while Mahaney has many critics, he remains a leader in the mainstream evangelical community. Denhollander has been scathing in her assessment of how evangelicals handle abuse in their own communities. “The ultimate reality that I live with is that if my abuser had been Nathaniel Morales instead of Larry Nassar,” she told Christianity Today, “I would not only not have evangelical support, I would be actively vilified and lied about by every single evangelical leader out there.” Her activism in the Nassar case has made her a hero in the mainstream press, and she’s now fielding speaking offers from secular groups including the Ms. Foundation, according to an admiring profile in the current issue of the conservative evangelical magazine World.
But she is also a devout Christian, with impeccable credentials within that world. She received her law degree from a Christian school, and has contributed to anti-abortion and Creationist websites. She and her husband met through a blog she maintained about “Christian worldview” issues, and he is now completing a Ph.D. at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. That dual authority means she is better positioned than anyone to call for a reckoning on sexual abuse within evangelicalism.
Denhollander’s riveting statement at Nassar’s sentencing hearing was effectively a public testimony of faith. “Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing,” she told Nassar. “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.” It was an extraordinary moment of public evangelism, a weaving together of biblical themes like sacrificial love, forgiveness, repentance, and justice, worthy of any pulpit in America. If Denhollander’s response to Sovereign Grace is any indication, she’s not wasting her next chance to speak.