In the past few years, sexual misconduct among leaders has been exposed in various sectors of society, including Hollywood, the church and youth sports. One of the most egregious examples occurred in youth gymnastics, resulting in the conviction and prison sentence of Dr. Larry Nasser of multiple counts of sexual abuse and assault of young girls. Listen in as Scott and Sean interview Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to come forward and testify against Dr. Nasser, which sparked over 250 other women to go public against Dr. Nasser. She tells her story in her book, What Is a Girl Worth?

More About Our Guest

Rachael Denhollander is an attorney, author and speaker who writes and speaks widely on the issue of sexual abuse. She was the recipient of Sports Illustrated’s 2018 Inspiration of the Year award and was named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential Persons in 2018.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School Of Theology here at Biola University.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're with Rachael Denhollander today, our very special guest. She's the author of a new book entitled, What's a Girl Worth? You may be familiar with her. She is an attorney, advocate educator, but where you may be familiar with her is that she was the first woman to come forward with allegations of sexual assault against the Michigan State University physician, Dr. Larry Nassar. And after she came forward, it sparked a tidal wave of over 250 other women who came forward alleging similar types of sexual assault and mistreatment.

So, Rachael, I know it's been a wild few years for you since you came forward. And so, let me start with this. You were one of hundreds of young girls aspiring to be a gymnast. You talk in your book about how you fell in love with the sport, but as you mentioned in the book, you found yourself getting hurt frequently. Why were you getting hurt so much and when did you first see Dr. Larry Nassar? And for how long a time period did you see him?

Rachael Denhollander: Yeah. Gymnastics is just a very rigorous sport, and so, injuries are very common. It's normal, unfortunately, to be injured as a gymnast. And especially in my case, because I started so much older. My body just wasn't used to it, so I had a lot of stress injuries. And so, I started seeing Larry right after my 15th birthday in 2000 and I saw him for a period of almost two years.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now, you record in your book. The story is so compelling and I really encourage our listeners to pick up the book and to read the story for yourself. But after you saw him for the first time, you had this nagging sense that there was just something amiss. What kept you from saying something at that point?

Rachael Denhollander: Yeah, there were a lot of dynamics. At that point, I was aware of legitimate forms of pelvic floor therapy. And so, my presumption was that that must be what Larry was doing.

Scott Rae: Explain to our listeners exactly what that is. They might not be familiar with that term.

Rachael Denhollander: Pelvic floor therapy is a therapy that accesses the pelvic muscles and it often is used to help with lower back pain, to help women who have had birth injuries. And so, of course, it's in rather intimate regions just by the nature of that type of therapy. And so, when Larry began manipulating in the pelvic region, my presumption was that he was doing legitimate pelvic floor therapy. And the reason I thought that was because I knew he was seeing young women every day, and I knew there was no way that he could be doing this therapy regularly and someone hadn't described it. And so my thought process was, if there's any question about the legitimacy of Larry's work, surely someone would have said something. I didn't just trust Larry, I trusted the community around him.

And what we now know is that I was right on those first two points. Larry was doing this every day to hundreds of little girls, and many women and young girls had spoken up and described exactly what he was doing. And unfortunately, the community that surrounded Larry refused to listen to those warnings over and over and over again. And so, by the time I walked through Larry's door, there had already been numerous blatant descriptions of the abuse that was being perpetrated, but the community continued to surround him and essentially say to these young women and little girls who were speaking up, well, you must be mistaken.

And that is the cultural response we see over and over when children disclose abuse and when women disclose abuse. Are you sure? Aren't you being over-sensitive? There must be a misunderstanding. There's an innate desire to not see what is in front of us. And that happened with Larry, and the result was that he was allowed to abuse children for almost 30 years.

Sean McDowell: Rachael, my daughter was in competitive gymnastics, competing on the, really, on the state level for about three years.

Rachael Denhollander: Oh, that's awesome.

Sean McDowell: And I just want to thank you, as a dad, for coming forward, for writing this book. I've already been sharing it with her and I'm going to make her read it, but it's just, it's a wonderful book I hope all of our listeners will really pick up and read and talk about. But when I first told her, I said, "Hey, here's what's happening," her first response was the very thing that you said prevents many people from coming forward is, I don't remember how she worded it, but kind of like, "I would have responded differently." And I said to my daughter, I said, "That's actually what we think, but when you're in that situation, it's very, very different." Can you help our listeners understand why that knee jerk reaction, number one, is not accurate, but also doesn't help victims?

Rachael Denhollander: Yeah. There are so many dynamics to that question of why don't you speak up? The honest reality is, especially when you're dealing with a childhood victim or a victim in cases of medical assault or where there's an authority figure, oftentimes, the victim actually doesn't know what's taking place. And the reason that that is true is because most sexual assault is perpetrated by someone we know, and oftentimes, someone who should be safe. Well over half of sexual assaults, in fact, around three quarters of them are perpetrated by someone who the victim knows.

And so, the result is that the victim has been conditioned to trust and believe this person. Particularly when you are dealing with children or with medical professionals, there's an automatic presumption that this must be okay. I must be misunderstanding something. And so, the very first answer to that question, the very first dynamic we have to deal with is that most of the time, the children don't know they are being abused because they trust the person that is doing the abusing and they have been conditioned and given a scenario in which they are told that this is okay. In my case, it was a medical scenario. This is a medical exam. This is a doctor.

And then you also have the added dynamic that many victims experience when they do realize they're being abused. Once they get past that confusion and they do realize they've been abused, over half the victims experience something called a freeze response, which is essentially where the body shuts down in a protective mechanism against the trauma. And so, when you combine those two dynamics, the number of victims that do not realize the abuse is occurring or that are overwhelmed with the confusion and can't make sense of what's happening to them, and then beyond that, once that is realized, there's this freeze response that causes victims to shut down. Between those two, that encompasses the vast majority of sexual assault cases.

Beyond that, there's the immediate knowledge that victims typically have, that they are not going to be believed. And this is because the community response to abuse is, unfortunately, so predictable. As a 15-year-old, I had all of those dynamics at play. And when I did begin to realize that something really wasn't right and recognize that Larry was at least to some degree and abuser, the immediate conversation I had with my mom is, nobody's going to believe me. Because at that point I realized that, yes, he was abusing. He was doing it regularly. And the only way he would be allowed to do that is if the victim speaking up had been ignored.

And that is the unfortunate reality with abusers is it is not that we cannot catch them, it is that we do not pay attention to the red flags and we do not listen when victims disclose. And so, by the time I was 17, the conversation I had with my mom was, I can't do this alone. I cannot do it quietly. One voice is never going to be enough. I'm going to have to have media pressure. And so at 17, my mom and I actually talked about going to the local news station and seeing if we could get a reporter to pick up the story. But reporting on sexual assault was so different back then. We really did not have those opportunities and there was no way to make that happen.

And what we do know now is I was exactly right. Not only had victims been silenced over and over, but there had been multiple botched police investigations. There had been intentional coverup at the institutional level. There is good evidence that there was coverup in the FBI department that was supposed to be investigating Larry two years before I came forward. And so, the unfortunate reality is because of this knee jerk community response, it puts victims in a place where they cannot and will not be believed, where they have to have enough outside pressure and enough outside community support to be able to take the narrative out of the control of the abuser. And the vast majority of victims never have that kind of community support.

And so, it is not that they are not willing to speak up, it is that there is nowhere to speak up. I think that's the biggest dynamic we really need to pay attention to on a community level. Yeah, I get asked all the time. What made you finally willing to speak up? And that's not the right question, because I was never unwilling to speak up. Once I got to the point that I realized what Larry was doing wasn't medical and it was abuse, I was always willing to speak up, but there was never an opportunity to be heard. And as a community, we have to do a much better job creating opportunities for victims to be heard and paying attention to our own responses and our own biases so that we create safe places for victims' allegations to be taken seriously.

Sean McDowell: Rachael, I'm wondering, what does this look like? There's a lot of discussion right now related to the Me Too movement and saying we believe all women, and then some people being skeptical. How do we give that voice in a balanced way that allows people to come forward and be heard, and yet, there have been some cases that have come forward of people that are at least questionable? How do we find that balance so people feel like they have the voice that you're talking about?

Rachael Denhollander: Yeah. The very first thing we have to do, really, is live in the reality that we have. And the reality is that between 92 and 98% of sexual assault allegations are true. False allegations do happen and we do need to be on guard for them. We need to acknowledge that reality. We've all seen them. But the actual reality, statistically, is that the vast, vast majority of sexual assault allegations are true, particularly when they come from a child or when they're accompanied by prior disclosures, timeframes in which the victim told about the abuse around the same time that it happened. So the vast majority of allegations are true and we need to approach sexual assault with that reality in mind.

Then we also need to do a much better job understanding the dynamics of abuse and the dynamics of trauma so that we know what is and isn't evidence of sexual abuse, because most of the time, the knee jerk community response to an allegation of abuse is something that is really based on a rape myth. Well, if that was really true, she would have spoken up earlier. Actually, we know that the median age of disclosure for sexual abuse is somewhere between 35 and 40 years old. It often takes more than a decade. Most of the time, takes more than a decade for the victim to be able to speak up. And there are many reasons for that. Some of it is, in the cases of childhood abuse, in particular, not knowing that it was abuse, like we talked about. Some of it is the freeze response. A lot of it is the incredible shame that accompanies abuse and the knowledge that you won't be taken seriously.

Victims are very aware of the uphill battle that they are going to be facing. Out of every 300 rapes reported to the police, only about five result in jail time. So our ability to convict and jail sexual abusers is extremely low. Most of the time, the victims are subjected to very attacking forms of investigation, very victim blaming forms of investigation. It is a choice to release all control that you have and put the most shameful and intimate details of your life in the hands of detectives who may or may not handle those disclosure well. And so, victims are very aware of this uphill battle and they lack the hope of being believed. And that is part of the dynamic for why they don't speak up.

And so, we often really see a self-fulfilling prophecy, where our community response to allegations of abuse creates the very conditions that we are using to push away those disclosures. Well, why didn't she speak up earlier? If it was really true, she would have told somebody. We often don't understand trauma responses and so we look at what are actually normal trauma responses, like the freeze response, and we use that as evidence that it didn't occur when, in fact, it fits exactly with what we know about trauma.

So as a community, we need to do a much better job understanding what abuse looks like, what abusive dynamics look like, understanding how abusers work, how they manipulate, so that we don't rely on things that actually aren't evidence that a claim is false and use it as evidence. We also need to do a much better job in our community response of not immediately attacking the victim, but taking those allegations seriously.

Every victim, every victim that I know when they speak up, one of the top responses that they get is, you're in this for attention or you're in it for money, or you're just trying to ruin a good man. Our immediate response to survivors is not to take their allegations seriously, but rather to turn and attack the survivor. And we attack them with rape myths and stereotypes that aren't actually evidence that the abuse didn't occur. So we need to do a much better job understanding all of those dynamics, so that when a victim discloses, we understand how to handle that allegation in a way that helps the victim feel safe and doesn't shut down the chain of evidence that could be forthcoming.

Scott Rae: Rachael, I think that the most startling thing about your story was that the abuse from Dr. Nassar took place actually while your mom was in the exam room with you. That just is mind boggling to me, how that could happen. Was that a part of your feeling like, this must be okay, because my mom's in here with me? I trust my mom, and if something improper was going on, she would certainly have said something.

Rachael Denhollander: Absolutely. And what I didn't know at the time, of course, was that my mom couldn't tell what was going on. And so, what Larry really did is what many abusers do. He took the relationships that were most precious to me and he wielded them like a weapon. I had no idea that I needed to tell my mom what was going on, because he was skilled enough at hiding what he was doing that she couldn't see. But of course, I didn't know that. And so again, it wasn't an unwillingness to speak up. I had no idea I needed to describe to her what was going on because I didn't know she couldn't see. And she had no idea she needed to ask questions, because Larry had described very specifically what he was going to be doing, but had done it in a way that had only focused on one aspect of what he was doing.

And unfortunately, this is one of the rape myths that we typically hold to culturally. We have this idea of what an abuser looks like and what abusive dynamics look like. And oftentimes, we think of it as the dangerous man in the trench coat out in an isolated field or in a white windowless van. And that's not really what abuse typically looks like. Abusers are typically someone you know, they're typically someone that you trust or should be able to trust, and abusers actually create environments where it seems impossible to abuse. Abusing very close to or in front of a parent is actually not abnormal at all. Abusing close to or in front of other people is not abnormal at all.

Abusers create those dynamics because they know it will create confusion in the victim and they know it will create confusion in the community that surrounds the victim and the perpetrator, so that if the victim speaks up, the response is going to be, how is that possible because? And what we need to start understanding as a community is at the very dynamics we rely on to say, that's not possible, those are the very dynamics giving the predator that power, keeping the victims silent, and making sure it looks like abuse couldn't have occurred. And when we have that community knee jerk response, that's not possible because, we have actually done exactly what the predator wanted us to do.

Sean McDowell: Rachael, you shared your experience with a ton of people, from counselors to physical therapists to coaches, and with grace, you describe how a lot of people failed to respond the way they should have. Can you tell me a story of somebody through this entire process that when you shared with them what happened, responded in a way that was helpful and maybe what we can learn from that?

Rachael Denhollander: Yeah. So one of the very first people that I told outside of my family was an attorney named Keith Robinson. And when I realized I had a chance to speak up to the Indy Star, I wrote to them the, the newspaper that had broken the story about sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics in general. Larry wasn't mentioned in that report, but I could tell the reporters took that story seriously and that they had knowledge of abusive dynamics in a way that might make them able to believe what I needed to tell them. So I wrote to those reporters right away and they were interested in helping me get the truth out.

And so, I wrote and spoke to a friend of mine named Keith, who was an attorney. And I said, "Can I just describe to you what happened and you give me your professional opinion as a prosecutor, would you pick this up? Can you help me navigate this?" And so, he did. He listened, but then he went above and beyond what I had ever dared to ask for. He helped me do the legal research so that I could look at exactly how the courts had treated the statutes that Larry would be tried under and the criminal codes that Larry should be tried under. And he said, "Rachael, I will help you do it."

And he offered to come to court with me as a character witness. And he wrote a letter on my behalf vouching for my truthfulness that I could take with me to the detectives and the police when I reported Larry. And he used his time and his energy and his resources to help me when I couldn't offer him anything. And then, he also reminded me that justice was God's pursuit and it was part of God's character. And he said, "I'm going to pray with you that you see justice here on earth."

And his response was just incredible, and it's everything we need to see on a community level. He listened to me. He understood the dynamics of abuse. He understood the idea of a delayed disclosure and the probative value, the weighty evidence that some of my prior disclosures had in proving, look, I'm telling the truth. My stories have been consistent.

He understood what wasn't evidence. There was a particular nurse I had told, for example, who was trying to help me navigate some of the medical complexities of what Larry was doing. And she had inaccurately transcribed some of the things I had told her. She had listed Larry as an orthopedic surgeon. He wasn't an orthopedic surgeon. He was a doctor of osteopathy. She did not transcribe the name I gave her. She only transcribed the university that he worked for. And an average person might look at that and say, "Oh, well, what you're saying happened doesn't line up exactly with those doctor's notes."

But what Keith realized as an attorney is there are often these little discrepancies, because we're humans and humans make errors. And so, Keith didn't take something that wasn't evidence and use it against me. He recognized that that really didn't have any bearing on whether or not I was telling the truth. And so, he responded positively to the evidence that I had, understood what evidence looked like, and he understood what wasn't evidence. And then, he worked with me not just to remind me of God's grace and God's pursuit of justice, but to help me in very practical, tangible ways to pursue justice here on earth.

Scott Rae: Now, Rachael, you describe in the book that the abuse you experienced, not only in Larry Nasser's office, but you experienced abuse earlier in a different setting. Can you say just a little bit about that, how this got started?

Rachael Denhollander: Yeah. So my first experience with abuse was actually in my church around age seven. And at that point, I experienced both the positive and negative results of a community that is and isn't trained in how to respond to abuse. So there was a gentlemen, a man in our church who was a predator and he was pursuing me and one other little girl around my age. And we had a group of adults in that church who were trained sexual assault counselors, and they recognized some of the warning signs and they came to my parents and said, "I think we have a problem."

And no one knew yet that anything had happened, but they recognized those red flags. And they came right away to my parents, and my parents took immediate steps to protect me. And because of those adults who were trained to understand the warning signs of abuse and who were willing to say it and take action, I was saved from further abuse.

But I also experienced the negative response at that point in time, because adults who were not trained in my church, many of whom were pillars of the congregation, leaders in the church, they viewed my parents' protective measures as making an accusation without foundation. I hadn't verbalized the abuse yet at that point. And the fact that I was afraid of this person and that trained sexual assault counselors were seeing warning signs was not enough for them. And their response was, well, if this is what you're going to do, we're not going to go around your children anymore.

And we were really isolated and ostracized from the rest of the church. And I really internalized that message, particularly when I got a little bit older around 12 and 13 and disclosed to my parents what had happened and started asking questions about why we had to leave the church and what was going on during that time period. The message I took away from that was, if you cannot prove your abuse, do not speak up because it will cost you everything.

And that is the message that survivors are given over and over and over again. Survivors are always watching how the community around them talks about issues of abuse, because issues of abuse are constantly coming up. They come up in the news cycle, in athletic context, political context, church context. There's always discussions swirling around the issue of abuse. And survivors watch how we talk about predators, how we talk about people who bring allegations. They watch how they talk about institutions and leaders who cover up abuse or do not respond properly to allegations of abuse. And we know, that's what you would really think of me. That's how much you understand the dynamics of abuse. That's how much you would be able to understand what happened to me. That's how much support I would get from you.

And it communicates very clearly how safe or unsafe a community is to speak up, and I learned that lesson very well from a young age. And those adults in that church, they were close friends of my family. It was not malicious, but it did incredible damage. And that's something that we all need to grapple with is that when our community response to abuse is damaging, you do not have to be malicious to do incredible damage and to create a situation where a victim cannot speak up and a perpetrator is able to continue preying on children without any fear of repercussion.

Predators are very skilled at watching the community response every bit as much as victims are. And one thing that we know about predators from massive amounts of research and case studies that have been done is that predators often seek out faith communities, because misapplications of our theology and our desire to want to see restoration often leads faith leaders to respond improperly to allegations of abuse. And that's created a situation where victims know they're not safe to speak up, but even worse, predators know that they are safe to prey without any fear of repercussion. And that is something we've got to grapple with. Our community response creates safe havens for abusers and they know it.

Sean McDowell: Rachael, it sounds like there's quite a few parallels between the culture of gymnastics, at least the way it was, and the culture of the church. What are some of those parallels that you see?

Rachael Denhollander: It really is the same dynamics across the board. Gymnastics is a sport that is very ripe for abuse, because it has a strong top-down authority structure. Parents are often isolated or separated from their children because of the rigorous training hours. And you do see some of those dynamics in church, particularly when it comes to a misapplication of pastoral authority or religious authority, one that does not recognize the significant limitations on a pastor's authority in particular, or the importance of speaking up. Dynamics that attack victims or people who bring allegations or express concern as causing division in the body is a very common response among faith leaders.

But one thing that I do find very interesting is that while there are certain dynamics that are consistent across the board, regardless of the institution, the more conservative evangelical institutions have a very distinct flare to why they respond improperly to abuse, and it is more theologically motivated than anything else. And that is actually what makes it so difficult to deal with in the church.

Because when you are dealing with a secular institution, a university, a sports governing body, there comes a point where you can put enough outside pressure on that organization to help force them to do the right thing, even if they don't really care and don't really want to. Because they're afraid of liability, they're afraid of losing money. They're afraid of losing a reputation. And if you can put pressure in the right places, you can help turn them towards doing the right thing regardless of their heart motivation, because they just don't want to be exposed to the liability.

That's not actually the case with most religious institutions. In many cases, particularly in the more conservative denominations and branches, most of the time when faith leaders abuse allegations improperly, it is because of misunderstanding and misapplication of theology. And so, what typically happens in those contexts is when someone raises an alarm about how a denomination or an institution has handled claims of abuse, the immediate response is, you're attacking us because of our faith. You're trying to bring down men of God. You're trying to destroy the church. And the church actually folds in tighter and pushes back harder, rather than being motivated to do the right thing. And it is those misapplications of theology and ideology that really have to be dealt with in conservative churches if we are going to do this well.

Sean McDowell: And that is really sobering and heartbreaking. And it's just a great wake up call, so to speak. Let me ask you this, if it's all right. I know, given you said that it's 10 years it often takes between abuse and between when somebody shares, that there's probably some people listening to this who are in that window, so to speak. What words of encouragement, just about healing and coming forward and sharing, would you give to some people who've experienced abuse, even if it's years in the past? And I ask, because one of the things that really hit in your book, to me, was just how deeply this affected you. And you tried to move on, but it just kept coming back. And it really wasn't until you were able to come out and really share this that you experienced the healing. So what would you share with other people who've experienced that kind of abuse?

Rachael Denhollander: I think there are a couple dynamics that are really important to note. And one of them is exactly what you said, the depth of the damage. We know based on, again, years and years of study that out of every crime committed on a person who survived, sexual assault has by far the longest reaching implications. In fact, sexual assault victims have the highest rates of PTSD out of every group in our country, except for combat veterans.

And so, the ramifications of sexual abuse are extensive. Significantly higher rates of suicide and attempted suicide, significantly higher rates of drug abuse and alcohol abuse, significantly higher rates of PTSD and mental health issues. And so, the very first thing we do have to grapple with is the depth of the damage and recognizing that sexual abuse isn't, as Brock Turner's father put it, 15 minutes of action.

It really does change the trajectory of a person's life. It takes every concept that we normally use for healthy human interaction, concepts of trust, concepts of security, concepts of bodily autonomy, and it not only destroys those concepts, but more often than not, it actually takes them and twists them and wields them against the victim. Because again, the perpetrator is more often than not someone the victim knows who should have been safe, who used those concepts of healthy human interaction to gain access, to violate.

And so, sexual abuse really does destroy and change the trajectory of a person's life. And so, the first thing I say to assault survivors in that context is that they're not being crazy. They're not crazy. They're not making it up. The damage is real. The depth of the damage is real. And then, my encouragement is to find somewhere safe that you can express that. A trained trauma counselor, a trained psychologist who specializes in trauma, someone who is going to understand what you have been through and a place where it is going to be safe to express those things.

I am a big proponent of journaling and finding other forms of self-expression to help put words and expression to what you are feeling inside and to the depth of the damage. But it really is important to find a trained counselor or a trained trauma therapist that you can work with. And then at that point, where you go with that is really going to depend a lot on the person and the community that surrounds that person.

There are some people like myself that have a supportive family and, by and large, have a supportive community where it is going to be safe to share at your pace. There are a lot of survivors that don't, and I do think that needs to be recognized for many survivors. Their family and their community is not a safe place to share. And so, there should be no false guilt or false pressure on those survivors. Nobody is owed their story. But for the purposes of finding healing and help, finding a trained trauma counselor is going to be important.

Scott Rae: Rachael, one final question. We really appreciate your vulnerability and your willingness to share some of these really deeply felt things in your life. But what advice would you have for churches, in particular, and other organizations? I know you do a lot of consulting with churches and organizations who want to be sure that the things that happened to you never happen in their particular organization.

Rachael Denhollander: Yeah. There are so many dynamics to that, but really the very first thing that churches and institutions need to do is realize the depth of the problem. We often treat sexual and domestic violence as if it's a side issue, alongside the meal train and the singles support group and the college ministry. And then over here, we might, might have a sexual assault ministry or some awareness that that's needed. But what we really have to realize is the depth of the problem.

And the reality is that we know that rates of sexual abuse are no better in the church than they are out of the church, which means that at minimum, the best studies show that one in four women have experienced sexual assault and one in six boys have experienced sexual assault. One in three women have experienced domestic violence. So pastors, when you are looking out at your congregation on an average Sunday morning, realize that a quarter of the women you are looking at have experienced sexual violence. A third of the women you are looking at have experienced or are experiencing domestic violence.

And that really puts a different perspective on it. If you, as a pastor, we're dealing with a congregation where a quarter of the congregation had cancer or a quarter of the congregation were unemployed, or were facing some specific, definable issue, I would hazard a guess that you would have a ministry for those people. You would be intentional about addressing the issues that such a significant number of your congregants are facing. We need to realize that we have to do that, that intentionally, with the issue of sexual and domestic violence, particularly because you will never know what congregants are struggling through those symptoms, through the PTSD, through the trauma.

And you will never know what congregants are currently suffering sexual or domestic violence, unless you have communicated very clearly over and over again that your church is a safe place to speak up. So that's the very beginning step, is realizing the depth of the problem and that this is not a side issue. This is something that takes significant intentionality to be able to minister to these survivors and to be able to be a safe place for them to receive help.

Once we get that far, recognizing the depth of the problem, there's an extensive amount of training that really does have to be done to understand how to deal with this. From the child abuse protection policy standpoint, there are a lot of practical issues that churches are going to have to navigate that many haven't thought through. How do you handle it if a registered sex offender wants to come to your church? How do you handle it when someone discloses abuse? How do you respond when there is a family that is walking through domestic violence?

On a very practical level, there are many policy things that need to be in place. And the group that I recommend for policy training is called GRACE, Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment. They do a fantastic job pulling from a wide panel of experts to really put together a very comprehensive program. It's the best one I've seen. And it really also goes to the heart of the abuse issue and looking at our ideas, not just our policy, and that's key.

Being able to be connected with resources in your state and in your locality for ministering to victims of sexual and domestic violence. Having help with very basic things. What kind of safety plan do you put in place, or how do you help a woman create a safety plan if she discloses to you that there is domestic violence going on? How do you recognize domestic, and at times, even sexual violence? Because the frank reality is most pastors are not very good at detecting domestic violence and they don't understand normal trauma responses. And so, when a victim is trying to tell them something, oftentimes they don't even realize what they're being told.

So there's a great amount of training that does need to go into understanding all of those dynamics. There's a curriculum that I was a part of called The Caring Well curriculum that is available for free. It uses a combination of video modules and a textbook, a written book. And that helps start give an overview of some of these areas that pastors are going to face. And I do recommend that curriculum. And then, there are significant trauma workshops that can be brought into your church or that you can send counseling members of your church to. Those are done by a woman named Diane Langberg, who's a Christian psychologist who really pioneered a lot of the understanding of trauma and church responses to trauma. She's a phenomenal, godly woman.

So the resources are out there, but they really do have to be pursued intentionally. And we have to recognize that this is a gospel issue. Again, this is not a side issue. How survivors understand concepts of justice, how survivors understand concepts of God's holiness and forgiveness, and how those are intermingled in the gospel really do make this a gospel issue.

And when a pastor's response communicates to a victim that what they have been through is really not that big of a deal, what the pastor has done is paint an inaccurate picture of an all Holy God and an inaccurate picture of the gospel. And oftentimes, that pushes survivors from what should be the safest refuge, because it really communicates to them, God doesn't care all that much about what you've been through. And so, we have to shift our ideology and then we have to be proactive in reshaping our mindset and gaining the practical skills that we need to have to be able to accurately represent Christ in this area.

Scott Rae: Wow. That is so helpful. Yeah. Rachael, thank you so much. I mean, this has been a really eye-opening conversation. I hope our listeners appreciate not only what you've been through, but the wisdom that you have for churches and organizations. I want to commend to our listeners again your book entitled, What is a Girl Worth? by Rachel Denhollander. It is a fabulous read. I mean, I literally could not put it down. It was such a compelling story.

So Rachael, thank you so much for coming on with us. This has just been a wonderful conversation. We wish you all the best as you continue to impact organizations and other cultures, other church organizations, to help prepare them to be better equipped to deal with these kinds of things. So, much appreciated. Thank you so much for coming on with us.

Rachael Denhollander: Thanks so much for having the conversation.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Rachael Denhollander, and to find more episodes, go to biblically. That's biblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.