Notice to my readers: The following monthly letter contains a story that I believe you will not forget. It is the edited transcript of a recent Family Talk radio interview with Rachael Denhollander. She was a victim of child abuse as a little girl, and then suffered repeated assaults as a teenager. In this interview, she names prominent people, one of them a sitting governor who refused to prosecute the perpetrators. But Rachael would not be silenced. She is now an attorney who is fighting the outrage of sexual abuse wherever it raises its ugly head. Here is her incredible story.
Greetings to you all as we introduce a brand new decade. Today, we're going to address the deeply disturbing subject of sexual abuse, especially when it involves children and teens. As you know, it is a national tragedy. When I served on the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography 35 years ago, we heard testimony that indicated the average pedophile sexually assaults more than 300 children in a lifetime. That was in a less sexualized era. Now, pedophilia is even more ubiquitous.
Pedophiles lurk everywhere today—in pizza parlors, in churches, in boys' and girls' camps, in neighbor's houses, in restrooms, in Grandpa's den, in automobiles, or anywhere children congregate. Parents must be vigilant, because they can't afford to give an abuser even one shot at their kids. This is why I am devoting my letter this month to that cause. If we can protect one child by sounding the alarm, it will be worth it.
Dobson: My guest today is a woman who experienced repeated sexual abuse in a physician's office. You may have heard of her. She is Rachael Denhollander, who wrote a book describing her desperate effort to be heard and believed. Its title is, What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Former Doctor Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics.
Rachael, welcome to our program today. You are an incredibly courageous woman, and it is an honor to have you here to tell your story. You were first abused as a very young girl, weren't you?
Rachael: Yes, I was molested by a college student in our local church. I was only seven years old.
Dobson: Did it happen in a Sunday school class?
Rachael: No, I was assaulted at an off-church site Bible study, but the connections went through the church. The way my church handled it was deeply problematic.
Dobson: How did your church deal with it?
Rachael: There were trained sexual assault counselors there who saw the warning signs and had deep concerns about what they were observing. They reported their concerns to my parents who immediately took steps to protect me. Unfortunately, some of the leaders of the church claimed the charges against the young man were false.
What we found out years later was that the church leaders had a consistent pattern of covering up and mishandling instances of sexual abuse, including some of their own staff members and even former pastors. That scenario plays itself out over and over again. I was a victim of not only my abuser, but of the church's misunderstanding and improperly applied theology.
Dobson: Tell us about your childhood. Were you raised in a loving Christian home?
Rachael: I was raised in an incredible family. My parents understood child development and nurturing, and how to put up healthy boundaries. However, that is often not adequate.
It is believed that if they just do the right things, if they parent correctly, they can protect their kids. That is not always enough.
Dobson: Let's fast forward another seven years to your experience as a talented young gymnast. There, you began to be sexually assaulted by the team physician. Who is he?
Rachael: Larry Nassar is his name. He provided a gold standard of good medical care. He was the best of the best. He was the Olympic team physician and the medical coordinator for our elite gymnastics programs. That meant he traveled internationally with our teams. He was there at the Olympics. He's one of the doctors who helped Kerri Strug off the mat in the 1996 Olympics. Even though she was injured, she still made an iconic winning vault.
Larry Nassar was a professor at Michigan State University and also practiced medicine at their sports medicine clinic. He was the medical coordinator for one of the biggest and most competitive gyms in Michigan and also worked for a local high school. He had many patients. He had written books. He treated elite gymnasts across the world. If a gymnast was injured, Nassar was the best option for treatment.
Dobson: (shocked) Did I understand you to say that the girl seen by millions of viewers on an Olympic telecast—she was the one who injured her foot but still competed on the vault and was carried off the floor. Was that man Dr. Nassar?
Rachael: Yes, he was one of the physicians who treated the champion, Kerri Strug. If you see some of the photographs of her being lifted down from the mat, you'll see a man in the lower right-hand corner with dark hair reaching his hand out to receive her. She's being carried off the mat. That was Larry at the 1996 Olympic Games.
Dobson: Tell us how you met Dr. Nassar. You were also injured and were referred to him, right?
Rachael: Yes, that's correct. It was considered a privilege to see Larry, but he began abusing me right away at the very first visit. He started doing procedures that were abusive. I just thought this was what he did routinely. I thought, surely, if people in authority knew what was going on in there, they would make sure that it was a legitimate medical procedure. The fact is he was treating all the girls this way, and had been for years. It was all part of what he called a "thorough medical procedure."
It wasn't only Larry that I trusted. It was the community of authority figures around him. What we now know, because of everything that's transpired in the past three years, is that I was right on two points. Larry was abusing girls every day. He was doing his "procedure" routinely. Many children and women had sounded the alarm and described exactly what he was doing. He was assaulting us all under the guise of "medical treatment." But I was wrong in expecting those in authority who heard those reports of abuse to do the right thing.
Dobson: Were you and the other girls talking to each other about what you all were experiencing?
Rachael: Many of us did. My friends actually thought that it was normal. Nassar did it with everyone. Surely if he was doing this every day, we assumed it was a legitimate medical treatment.
Dobson: Were you at Michigan State University at the time?
Rachael: I was not a student there, but Larry practiced medicine out of their sports medicine clinic, so the vast majority of us saw him through his role at Michigan State University. It happened on campus property.
Dobson: When did you figure out what this doctor was up to?
Rachael: It took a couple of years after seeing Larry that I began to fully understand what he was doing. I did extensive medical research to put the pieces together. When I realized I had been abused, I was heartbroken, not just for me but for many, many girls before me.
I realized that unless he was stopped, he was going to continue abusing. Not only were we being assaulted repeatedly, but the girls weren't being listened to. They and I were being silenced.
When I came to that realization, I said to my mom, "This is not going to be done quietly. I'm going to have to create media pressure. Somebody's going to have to come forward very publicly. Somebody has to be able to wrestle control from the organizations that are supporting Larry and keeping him in power. But doing it quietly isn't an option."
Dobson: What did your parents do once they knew what was going on?
Rachael: We talked about what I should do. We considered going to a news station to see if we could get someone to publish my story so that we could reach other survivors and take control. Unfortunately, that just wasn't an option then. The media handled sexual abuse claims differently.
Dobson: Why was going to the press not an option?
Rachael: News agencies were concerned about defamation lawsuits. The media wouldn't publish a story until an arrest was made or there was at least a trial going forward. But, in Larry's case, we couldn't get to that point without publicity. It was a very different playing field back then.
Dobson: How fearful were you about going public?
Rachael: You know, I can honestly say I was not afraid of the fallout. I had no desire for my abuse to become an international news story, which is what I knew would happen if I came forward publicly. But I was willing to go through it if I had a chance at stopping Nassar. But that wasn't going to happen in the culture at the time without media pressure, without the ability to take control from the organizations that were surrounding this doctor. They were formidable.
Dobson: Was there pushback against you for coming forward? Did anybody in a position of authority reach out to you?
Rachael: When I did come forward 16 years later, absolutely. But it was an incredible uphill battle. In fact, what we now know is exactly what I suspected was going on at that time. Not only had Michigan State University repeatedly silenced victims and squashed reports of abuse, so did the United States Association of Gymnastics (USAG), the national governing body for elite gymnastics and the Olympic gymnastics team. We now know that it had a corporate policy of not responding to complaints of sexual abuse in most cases. It wasn't just Larry they were shielding. There have been dozens and dozens of sexually abusive coaches that USAG has also shielded.
What we now know is that there were at least four different law enforcement agencies that were involved in helping cover this up, either by mishandling and botching police investigations, or in the case of the FBI and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, actually refusing to investigate. Larry's abuse had been reported to the head of the FBI two years before I came forward. Even though they knew Nassar was a pedophile, they didn't launch an investigation. Larry even went out and had drinks with Steve Penny and made him a job offer. Penny was essentially bribed for his silence.
Dobson: Who is Steve Penny?
Rachael: Steve Penny was the president of USAG at the time that the organization received multiple disclosures of sexual abuse and that Larry was a perpetrator. Penny didn't report it right away. He waited several weeks. Then, when he did report it, Larry wined and dined the head of the FBI division that was receiving the reports. Nassar recommended Penny for a cushy job at the United States Olympic Committee.
We also know that Steve Penny texted the head of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and asked the head of their child sex abuse unit for help with "body-slamming the sources" for that news story. We have multiple police agencies that botched investigations. There was also a botched Title IX investigation. Two separate law enforcement agencies maliciously covered for Larry.
Dobson: Obviously, you were up against powerful forces, weren't you?
Rachael: Yes, but I wasn't the only one. Children as young as eight were abused for years even after these reports were filed.
Dobson: Do you have any idea how many?
Rachael: There were dozens of girls who came forward after those reports.
Dobson: Have they now told of their abuse?
Rachael: Many of them have.
Dobson: Because of you?
Rachael: Yes, and I'm very grateful that so many have found their voices. Now there's a group working together for change. But change is very slow in coming, and there are many [in authority] who still don't want change to occur.
Dobson: How could that be?
JCD: Rachael's answer here is difficult to understand, but it is very important. My interpretation of what she said was that people in high places have competing interests at stake. Some try to protect the reputations of the abusers; some are shielding athletic interests; some fear exposing themselves to charges of libel. Concerning the U.S Olympic Committee, Rachel said, "It was very much a matter of money and medals. They wanted to win and win at all costs."
Dobson: Did Michigan State University push back?
Rachael: Very hard. They pushed back very hard. In fact, they hired private investigators to try to dig up dirt on one of the other survivors who came forward, and I have good evidence that they were following me as well. They hired people to monitor our social media accounts. They actually exchanged emails multiple times mocking my video testimony. The dean of the medical school, Larry's boss, sent emails around mocking my video testimony. We were called "ambulance chasers." We were accused of enjoying the limelight. The typical thing sexual assault victims face is the claim, "You're making it up, you're in it for money, you're in it for fame." We've received all of those and more.
Dobson: Regrettably, the victims of abuse who desperately need powerful people to fight for them often find themselves alone.
Rachael: Yeah. You see a lot of enabling in this culture of abuse. That is one of the aspects of legislative change that I have been working on. Failing to report alleged violations is usually criminal. Frequently they're felonies, or they're at least high-level misdemeanors. Often prison is the result. But, many times there are loopholes in mandatory reporting laws. For instance, in Michigan, coaches are not required to report. So, a number of coaches who knew of Larry's abuse did not file complaints and could not be prosecuted for their silence. In addition, most states have a very short statute of limitations on failure to report, maybe only one or two years. By the time a survivor . . .
Dobson: [interrupting] You can't be serious! Is that really true?
Rachael: Yes, one or two years. By the time a survivor has spoken up it is too late to prosecute. There's no accountability, so there's no motivation for institutions to change and to do what is right.
And remember that victims are afraid to come forward. This is a question I hear all the time. People ask, "How do we get victims to speak up?" That's really the wrong question to ask. The right questions are: "How do we make it safe for victims to speak up? How do we create a society and a culture where voices can be heard so that the abused will speak up?"
Dobson: Alright, let's continue with your story. How did you finally help bring Nassar to justice? What happened to him when you exposed his secret?
Rachael: The first opportunity that I had happened in August of 2016. The Indianapolis Star released the results of an extensive investigation into how the United States Association of Gymnastics had handled complaints of sexual abuse against coaches. Larry wasn't named in that report, but when I read it, it was very clear to me that these reporters understood the dynamics of abuse. They understood how corrupt the USAG was, and they saw the importance of shining a light into that darkness.
As soon as I saw that, I wrote to them immediately. I said, "I wasn't abused by a coach, but I was abused by the USAG's team physician." I told them what had happened and said,
"I will come forward as publicly as necessary if you can just get the truth out."
Dobson: What was the fallout from your disclosure?
Rachael: It was immediate. There was a backlash from both USAG and MSU. They claimed we were lying, that we were making it up. USAG found out who one of my teammates was and attempted to discredit her. There's evidence that MSU hired private investigators to follow me. They hired people to monitor our social media accounts. They sent out emails mocking our testimony—just anything you can imagine.
Dobson: Did your disclosure result in charges being brought against Dr. Nassar?
Rachael: An incredible legal team and other professionals came together to defend us. Still it took 18 months for the case to break. Then when the public began hearing and seeing women who were finding their voices and speaking up, everything changed. My book describes the drama of that trial.
A detective who was passionate about exposing the truth led an extensive investigation. We also had a prosecutor who was willing to fight for us when the others refused to bring charges. This team was passionate about doing the right thing and bringing the guilty to justice. I'm deeply grateful for them. But people need to understand that most survivors don't have that support. That is why it is so critically important to give voice to their cause.
Dobson: I think you said that as many as 16 other girls eventually came forward. Despite this, prosecutors didn't want to press charges.
Rachael: It looked like there weren't going to be charges brought at all. Even though my situation was an international news story (and by that time more than 50 women had come forward and their complaints were on record), a decision was made by the county prosecutor to let Larry plead guilty of child porn in exchange for dropping all existing claims, including mine.
Dobson: That makes my blood boil. Thankfully, some influential people joined your cause.
Rachael: We were incredibly blessed, because we had a police chief who called the attorney general, and he asked him to take the case. He agreed and sent one of his best prosecutors to pick up our files. She said, "I will fight for every one of them." For the next year, that's what she did.
Dobson: Where is that prosecutor who refused to bring charges?
Rachael: She is currently the governor of Michigan.
Dobson: What is her name?
Rachael: Her name is Gretchen Whitmer. Now, she has been active in other legislative reform, and so I'm hoping to continue working with her on these things. But again, I think something people need to understand is prosecuting these cases is difficult, and it's very hard to find someone who's willing to bring charges.
Dobson: What is so alarming is that, although sexual abuse of women and children is so common, there are few people in power who are willing to fight for them.
Rachael: It takes place in every political party. It takes place across the spectrum. Victims face their nightmare alone.
Dobson: Your book says that Larry Nassar was convicted of sexual abuse. He was sentenced in 2018 to 60 years in federal prison and 40 to 175 years in state prison. Some of those who have been abused were awarded $500 million in a civil lawsuit against Michigan State University.
Rachael: Justice has still not fully been served. Michigan State University has still refused to accept any responsibility. They did settle that lawsuit with the first group of survivors, but they are continuing to fight the second group in a civil court. They have refused to identify even one thing that was done wrong on their campus. They have refused to commission an independent investigation into what went wrong so that those problems can be fixed.
USAG is in an even worse position. They have refused to settle anything with the survivors. They still disclaim any liability. They just think they have a publicity problem. They do not believe they have an abuse problem. They have yet to identify a single abusive coach. They have yet to identify a single thing that they have done wrong. In fact, both institutions and members of their institutions are still attacking the survivors.
Dobson: Rachael, how are you dealing with these memories now?
Rachael: You know, it is a great burden to carry, not just my own situation, but when you are engaged in the world of advocacy, you are constantly surrounded by the evil and darkness. It includes every facet of society, every political party, every religious institution, and even the church. You are constantly surrounded by that world of darkness.
Dobson: Are you angry today?
Rachael: I am not angry. I am horrified. I am disgusted. I am deeply grieved. Sexual abuse is not the topic I would've chosen to teach if I had a choice, and I do grieve that survivors are continually put in a position where they have to fight not only their abusers, but they have to fight against society as well. That's something that I would like to see changed, where abusers are identified and prosecuted.
Dobson: What advice do you offer to parents today?
Rachael: It is so important that parents engage their kids in age appropriate conversations about bodily autonomy, about "good touch and bad touch," about privacy and respect, and about reporting anything that makes him or her feel uncomfortable. Tell them that there is nothing they can't talk to you about as their mother or father. Make sure they know that if anything is bothering him or her, you will always be there to listen and understand. Assure them of your love, and promise to be there whenever you are needed. This understanding is vital to the prevention of abuse.
Dobson: That's great advice! After parents have laid this foundation, they must watch their children every moment of the day. Pedophiles look for easy opportunities to pounce on an unprotected child. I am very concerned, for example, about children who are unsupervised after school. That is a recipe for disaster.
How do you feel about the sport of gymnastics now?
Rachael: I still love the sport. I think there are incredible things that can be learned from it. But right now, the organization is still so corrupt and there's so much abuse, not just sexual abuse, but verbal, physical, and emotional abuse that goes on in the world of gymnastics, that I find it very difficult. When I see those little girls up there now, these incredible elite athletes, the realization is what many of them have gone through to get to where they are. Very few of them are coached in a way that's truly healthy, and that's really a shame, because there is so much we can learn from athletics and from sports if we approach it the way it was intended to be.
During the radio broadcast, I spoke with attorney, wife, and mother of four, Rachael Denhollander. I am so sad about the abuse to which Rachael and thousands of other boys, girls, teens, and women have been subjected. Thanks to Rachael for her courage in shining light in a dark world. May God bring healing and wholeness.
Thank you for staying with us through this disturbing interview. I ask you to speak boldly for reform, for justice, and for compassion on behalf of victims of sexual assault. America is better than this.
To those of you who contributed to our ministry at the end of the year, thank you so much for your generosity. By God's grace, this year marks our 10th anniversary! And given the perilous moral state of our country and the upcoming election season, I view 2020 as one of my most critical ministry years ever. Thank you for standing with us, and know that we will use every dollar carefully and wisely to support the work God has called us to do.
Sincerely in Christ,
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