By Erin Woo
In 2016, Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and former gymnast, accused USA Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar of sexual assault, becoming the first of hundreds of women — including Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney — who would come forward with allegations of their own as the #MeToo movement swept through the public consciousness.
In January, over 150 of Nassar’s alleged victims spoke at his sentencing hearing. Denhollander, the first to accuse him but the last to speak at the hearing, told Nassar that she extended him her personal forgiveness, even as she called for him to receive the maximum possible sentence under his plea agreement.
On Wednesday, Denhollander discussed how her Christian faith helped her balance those twin concepts of forgiveness and justice in front of an audience of hundreds at Paul Brest Hall.
“Forgiveness is not dependent on society’s response,” she said. “It can’t be. [Criminal justice] systems are broken and they can often betray us.”
Forgiveness, she said, is a personal act: an individual’s decision to let go of bitterness, resentment and a desire for vengeance. Justice, she compared, holds the accused to an outside standard.
In Nassar’s case, justice equated 40 to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes, on top of a 60-year sentence for child pornography convictions, judge Rosemarie Aquilina ruled on Jan. 24.
For Denhollander, Christianity and her certainty that there is a moral standard that comes from beyond human perception have helped her understand sexual assault as “absolute evil,” even in a society that she said often encourages survivors to minimize their experiences.
Denhollander’s own experience with sexual assault began when, as a seven-year-old, she was abused by a pedophile in her church. When her parents raised the alarm, Denhollander said, their parish mobilized against Denhollander’s family instead of against her assaulter.
“I learned that … if you cannot prove your abuse, do not speak up, because it will cost you everything,” Denhollander said. “I carried that lesson to the exam room, where I became yet another statistic.”
Eight years later, Denhollander would become a victim at the hands of Larry Nassar. Nassar, she said, assaulted her during five different sessions under the guise of performing medical treatment — a method hundreds of other women have said he used on them as well.
For the next 16 years, Denhollander dealt more privately with the trauma of her experiences, telling her audience on Wednesday that “there is no 12-step process for how you recover from trauma.”
In 2016, when The Indianapolis Star published an investigation into how USA Gymnastics protected its coaches accused of sexual assault, she decided to come forward, setting in motion a stream of events that culminated in Nassar’s sentencing.
Though Denhollander emphasized that “one of the things you have to learn as a survivor is that you don’t owe anyone your story,” she stressed the importance of listening to survivors when they do come forward.
“If you have an accusation, you need to treat it as the truth unless you have very good evidence to the contrary,” she said, citing statistics that find that between 2 and 8 percent of sexual assault accusations are false.
Denhollander called for survivors and allies alike to “use [their] voice and [their] platforms” to support survivors of sexual assault, and to understand the weight of what survivors have experienced.
“A lot of times, in conversations with sister survivors, when we talk about how difficult this is, inevitably someone will say, ‘It’s okay,’” Denhollander said. “And I always say, no, it’s not. No, it’s not okay. It should not be this way.”
Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.