Sexual abuse survivor's memoir is an important religion story

(OPINION) Countless books have landed on my desk over decades and rarely have I cited one as a “must read” or “book of the year.”

The cover of  What is a Girl Worth?

The cover of What is a Girl Worth?

But such descriptions are appropriate for Rachael Denhollander’s candid memoir “What Is a Girl Worth?” about exposing the vast sexual-abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. The evangelical Tyndale House issues her book on Sep. 10 alongside a four-session study guide, and the author’s non-salacious “How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?” for young readers.

Attorney Denhollander, the first person to publicly lodge accusations against MSU athletics osteopath Larry Nassar, has a unique status. She is a heroine named among Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Glamour’s Women of the Year, recipients of ESPN’s Courage Award and Sports Illustrated’s Inspiration of the Year. At the same time, she’s the wife of a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, while raising four young children and she uses her celebrity to present Christian truth.

An account of the worst sex abuse case in its history is obviously a landmark for U.S. sports, but this is also a vitally important story for religion writers, and most certainly for Denhollander’s fellow evangelical Protestants, who are now following Catholicism in stumbling through #MeToo crises. (Along the way, journalists will relish the inside account of her byplay with investigative reporters and the media horde.)

Denhollander alone bravely lodged public accusations against predator Nassar, a big shot in gymnastics. Eventually, he faced 332 accusers of all ages including Olympic superstars, the Feds unearthed his stash of 37,000 child pornography files and he was sent to prison for life. MSU was forced to pay $500 million in damages, but any USA Gymnastics payout is problematic because it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

What’s vitally important in this sordid narrative is helping readers comprehend the severe psychological damage that sexual abuse creates in the victims. “It follows you. It changes you forever.” And then why, like Denhollander, victims often raise protests long after the incidents, or never raise them at all. They feel nobody will believe them, and for good reason. And they fear the cost that will be paid by the accuser. For Denhollander, that cost was enormous.

Denhollander writes credibly that she went public to gain justice and protect future youths, not for fame or fortune. But here the book has a major and obvious flaw. Editors at Tyndale should have insisted she tell how much she got from that huge university settlement and how she intends to use the money.

This is an important religious book because many victims cast aside faith even though it could help them work through the turmoil. Denhollander may have ended up as a powerful Christian voice, but she “wrestled with my faith — over and over and over again. … Does God care? If He does, why didn’t He do something?” She concluded her moral outrage depended on the reality of good and evil, which in turn depended on the reality of God. Once again, religion beat reporters will find themselves in “theodicy” territory.

Long before encountering Nassar, she was molested by a college student in her childhood church. That situation should be pondered by every pastor and lay leader. Family members, especially husband Jacob, and other Christians provided strategic backup that all too many victims lack.

Reporters especially need to examine another church situation here, perhaps filling in some crucial gaps.

After moving to Louisville for Jacob’s seminary study, the family joined a church (left unnamed) that worked with a congregation (unnamed) in the Sovereign Grace Churches movement. At the very moment Denhollander was working to expose Nassar she dealt with accusations that SGC mishandled and covered up abuse and its "high-profile" leader (unnamed) was defended by “prominent Christian leaders” (unnamed).

She did not conclude who was guilty of what abuse, but insisted that a truly independent investigation was necessary. The Denhollanders were advised to keep quiet, then frozen out of their church fellowship when they needed it most, and had to switch to a different congregation (unnamed). This important aspect of her story cries out for comprehensive reporting.

The author blames such situations on excessive authority for pastors, "refusal to engage with secular authorities or abuse educators outside the church," and bad theology by which abusers were "forgiven" while "victims were silenced." She also warns that sexual predators seek out churches" because of such dynamics.

Contact for Tyndale and Denhollander: Todd Starowitz at toddstarowitz@tyndale.com and 630–784-5397, or publicity department colleagues via company switchboard 855–277-9400.

We can expect lots of coverage on this one. Thus, see this early example — a Louisville Courier-Journal feature that has just come out.

This piece first appeared at Get Religion.