When I sat down to read Rachael Denhollander's victim statement I admit I was unprepared for its effect on me.
Like anyone else who has not been living under a rock in recent weeks, I was aware of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor recently sentenced to 175 years in prison for systematic sexual abuse.
His trial culminated in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowing each victim to have their moment in court, and over the course of seven days, 156 women took the opportunity, waiving their anonymity to speak out about the abuse they had endured. Finally, it was Rachael Denhollander’s turn.
Denhollander is a Christian, and her words in that courtroom rang with truth, and with grace:
Hearing Denhollander’s words is hard, inspiring, horrifying and encouraging. And I would encourage you, if you have not already, to take the time to do so. Not because it is easy to hear, but because her words deserve to be heard.
She did not shy away from speaking candidly of what she had endured, nor calling to account with frank and forthright words those in power who had failed her and other victims.
But she also did what many of us would struggle to do, even though we know it is what the Bible asks of us. She forgave:
"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.
"In the Bible you carry it says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
"The Bible 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."
She also referred to the cost of going public with her truth, and how it cost her friends, and her church. She didn’t elaborate further, but I hope that its inclusion rings loud as a warning bell to us all.
The first victim to publicly speak out after the Indianapolis Star newspaper broke the story about Michigan State University covering up allegations of sexual abuse, it was Denhollander’s testimony that sparked the tidal wave of revelations that followed. Judge Aquilina called her a "five-star general" for an army of abuse survivors.
Choosing to speak out has cost her dearly. And because what she said, and the way that she said it, is such an object lesson to us all in how to be gracefully assertive; single-minded in the pursuit of justice and yet wholehearted in her forgiveness of her perpetrator.
Silence is indifference
As the mother of two daughters also, I share her pain, outrage and terror that systematic abuse like this has been allowed to continue for so long, unabated, within an institution that was unwilling to listen.
It is every parent’s nightmare to entrust their children to the care of other adults, or an organisation whom they expect to protect and nurture their children, to instead discover that they have systemically allowed abuse to flourish simply by not listening, by not valuing, and by allowing people in power to become untouchable, unquestionable, unfallable.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God
British Statesman Edmund Burke once said that "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." I hope that in each and every case where it has the opportunity to do something about the evils in this world – whether it is rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, poverty, addictions – that the Church does not do nothing. That is does not turn away in fear or disgust or disbelief, but that we all, always, take the opportunity to look the full horrors of life fully in the face and do all we can to confront and arrest them.
The Bible is full of stories of Jesus stopping for the overlooked, the young, those who were marginalised and oppressed. And we, his Church, are called to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice." (Proverbs 31:8-9 NLT).
In her closing statement, Judge Aquilina said "Inaction is an action. Silence is indifference. Justice requires action and a voice."
May we, the Church of Jesus Christ, always take action and always be a voice for justice. May we never turn our back on those who have been abused. And may we always forgive, just as Racheal Denhollander has shown us how to this week.
Emma Fowle is a freelance writer living in sunny Cornwall with her husband and two children. Part of the leadership team at Wadebridge Christian Centre, she also writes at emmajfowle.com