You Play Word Games … Victims Were Silenced

It was heart-breaking to watch. Last Friday, at a hearing in Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Michigan, Randall Margraves, the father of three daughters who had been sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar, suddenly lunged at Nassar. It came right after one of the daughters, Lauren Margraves, said in her impact statement that her parents regretted ever taking her and her sisters to Nassar. “I see the look in their faces, and I know they want to be able to do something, but they can’t,” she told Nassar. “The guilt they have will never go away. All this is because of you.” Randall Margraves was forcibly removed from the courtroom but was allowed to return several hours later. Judge Janice K. Cunningham said that there are over 265 victims so far, some of whom have chosen to remain anonymous.

(c) Time Magazine

The week before, Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics and a Michigan State University sports clinic, was sentenced at another hearing in Lansing, Michigan, to 45 to 175 years in prison for multiple accounts of sexual abuse. During this seven-day hearing, more than 150 women confronted Nassar and spoke openly of his abuse. Rachael Denhollander was the last victim to speak and blasted MSU. “You keep saying there is no criminal cover-up, but you play word games,” she said. “No one knew because no one handled the reports properly. Victims were silenced.”

In the face of what has been described as the largest sex abuse scandal in US sports history, Nassar remained defiant. In a letter submitted to the court, Nassar said that he was upset about how he was treated in a separate child pornography case. He then claimed that the young women who accused him were simply out for money and media attention. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” Nassar wrote.

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina responded, “This letter tells me that you have not yet owned what you did. You still think somehow you are right, you’re a doctor, that you’re entitled so you don’t have to listen. That you did ‘treatment.’ I wouldn’t send my dogs to you.”

We have been sickened by the stories, which are eerily consistent. For decades, Nassar was well known as a sports medicine physician who served as the lead gymnastics doctor for both the US and International Olympic Committees as well as collegiate and high school athletes. Nassar sexually abused the girls he treated by penetrating their vagina and/or anus with ungloved fingers, usually without consent or explanation, and justifying the abuse as a “medical” procedure.

(c) CBS News

The abuse began in 1992, with untold damage to young girls and their families and no accountability from MSU, the US Olympic Committee, or US Team Gymnastics. In 1997, 1999, and 2000, at least three women athletes gathered up the courage to report Nassar’s abuse to Michigan State University coaches and/or head trainers, with no response. In 2004 local police were notified but did not bring charges. Over the years, fourteen MSU officials received reports of Nassar’s abusive behavior, including the MSU police. Two of the girls that Nassar “treated” committed suicide, and the father of one victim who was abused from the age of six killed himself.

As more complaints were file, a ripple effect finally began, as other women felt empowered to step forward with their own stories. A Title IX complaint was filed and reported all the way up to the President of MSU in 2014. Nassar’s boss restricted his skin-to-skin contact with patients and required that he not be alone with the women, yet the abuse continued. Even the FBI failed to act in a timely manner after first beginning their investigation in July 2015, resulting in forty more girls and women allegedly being molested. A 2016 Title IX complaint and an Indianapolis Star article finally result in Nassar’s firing.

According to a January 31 interview by Morgan Lee in Christianity Today, “Sixteen years after Larry Nassar first sexually abused her, Rachael Denhollander decided to publicly reveal that she had been one of the many victims of the USA Gymnastics team doctor. The former gymnast, who was a 15-year-old homeschooler when she says Nassar started abusing her, became the first to publicly make allegations against the respected Michigan State University faculty member.”

(c) Christian Post

In the interview, Denhollander said, “In the beginning, I wrestled with God’s perspective on abuse, where he was, why he didn’t do anything, and whether or not I was guilty or stained by it. I worked to get to a place where I could trust in his justice and call evil what it was, because God is good and holy.

“One of the areas where Christians don’t do well is in acknowledging the devastation of the wound. We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.”

As part of her impact statement at the hearing in Lansing, Denhollander said directly to Dr. Nassar, “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.”

What stung the most in Denhollander’s interview was the lack of support she received from the church when she finally found her voice and spoke up against her abuse. She said, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.

The average number of victims of a pedophile is 260, almost exactly the number of Larry Nassar’s reported victims to date. Untold numbers of children and youth damaged, untold lives ruined, untold grief and guilt experienced by parents and loved ones who were not aware. What do we need to do?

  • The harm done by sexual assault is extreme, and it is lifelong. We must listen to and believe our children and youth when they share that they have been abused. Then we must act immediately to protect them. There is no choice. And we must seek the very best medical and psychological help we can for the victims, including adults.
  • We must hold accountable those who abuse children or youth, with no exceptions. And we must hold accountable those with authority who refuse to act when faced with allegations. In the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, after several decades passed before anything was done, Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis resigned and the entire USA Gymnastics Board resigned. MSU is the ninth largest university in the US.
  • The protection of individuals is always more important than protection of the organization, and the culture of many of our schools and universities must change. Ingham County Circuit Judge Aquilina said, “There has to be a massive investigation as to why there was inaction, why there was silence… Justice requires more than what I can do on this bench.”
  • We must have child protection/sexual abuse policies in all of our churches, without exception. Every staff member in our churches must receive a background check. And we must not only communicate those policies to all members and friends, but we must enforce those policies. There is nothing more important than the safety of our children and youth.
  • There is a Sexual Ethics Conference sponsored by the Commission on the Status and Role of Women from October 11-13, 2018. Please consider sending several people from your church.

I pray for the day when no one is ever silenced again, there are no more word games, and no parent ever again has to listen to the testimony of three daughters.

11 thoughts on “You Play Word Games … Victims Were Silenced

  1. Bishop Laurie, each week I read your blog knowing you will speak out for humans as no one else has ever done. In our Christian love, we can make sure every child has a book, but if we aren’t protectors of their private rigjts, we are “nothing but a clanging gong”.
    Continue to guide and direct us..put us to action!!!

  2. When Ad Councils are weighing the cost of background checks against the damage that results to individuals who are victimized by a church member whom “we all know,” I hope they are all given a printout of this. Another excellent and timely blog post. Thank you!

  3. I pray we, the church, can now give Rachael Denhollander a very different perspective. May we truly provide a “safe sanctuary” that does not tolerate the victimizing of the innocent and vulnerable 🙏🏼 Thank you, Bishop Haller, for reminding us that we are called to be transforming disciples and that such a stance, though right, may not be easy.

  4. My call to ordained ministry came as a result of my anger toward God for allowing such things to happen. And I am still sad and angry when I encounter such pastors at annual conference who were allowed to retire, rather than being stripped of their credentials and benefits. We still don’t publish names, and they are still among us. Yes, the church is one of the least safe places for victims. I would be glad to meet and share the few names I know of.

  5. Thank you, Bishop Laurie. To be able to print this and hand it off to victims in my congregation is truly a blessing. They know they are loved here in Council Bluffs – but your words remind them that they are loved by the Connection – and for that, I give thanks. Your words are both empowering and encouraging – so glad Iowa has been blessed by your leadership.

    • I also passed this along to a former church member who had been sexually abused by her father. Men in our church testified what an outstanding man he was in his court trial. He was put on “probation” and allowed to return to his home to live with his three daughters. Upon reading this by our bishop, the member called me in tears and said how grateful she is that the church is changing their stance on sexual abuse!! She repeatedly thanked me for standing by her when no one else was! Even though it was 19 years ago, she said she will never forget my response, even though it hurt my standing with key leaders of the church!

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