In 2016, Rachael Denhollander decided to tell her story one more time. This time, the attorney and young mother of three knew full well the powers that she faced in accusing USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault.
During a recent interview for her book What is a Girl Worth? Denhollander told CBN News that she knew the prestigious institutions backing Nassar would use all their resources to discredit her.
"I saw the dynamics. If I speak out against Larry I'm speaking out against a Big 10 university. I'm speaking out against an Olympic governing body – the sport that makes the most money in the summer Olympics," she said. "That touches the USOC. That touches the Senate. That touches money."
What prompted Denhollander to publicly tell her story and take on a case that would take an incredible toll on her and her young family? Denhollander says it was years of wrestling with her own trauma and struggling to understand both the concepts of forgiveness and eternal justice. She also wanted to stop Nassar from what she believed was a life-long pattern of abusing his patients.
How Did it Happen?
Denhollander first encountered the renowned doctor at age 11 while watching the 1996 Olympics. She saw him on television helping injured gymnast Kerri Strug and immediately understood the prestige and respect that he had earned in the gymnastics community.
So at age 15, while suffering from several gymnastics-related injuries, she was hopeful when she was able to get an appointment with Nassar at his Michigan State University sports medicine clinic.
When he sexually assaulted her on the exam table with her mother in the room, she was confused but assumed it was legitimate medical treatment for her pelvic issue.
Later, Denhollander and her mother would realize otherwise and reported his repeated sexual assault of her to her coach. But her coach cited the doctor's outstanding reputation and an apparent lack of other complaints and told her to keep quiet.
In 2016, Denhollander decided to report Nassar again, after reading an IndyStar report on USA Gymnastics burying reports of abuse. It encouraged readers to send tips on other cases.
Denhollander talked first to an IndyStar reporter and then to Michigan authorities.
Her story emboldened other Nassar victims to come forward. She gained further public attention when she spoke on behalf of the victims in court.
"I'm asking that when we leave this courtroom we leave knowing that when Larry was sexually aroused and gratified by our violation, when he enjoyed our suffering, when he took pleasure in our abuse – that it was wrong and evil," she told Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.
Praying for Her Abuser's Salvation
But she also stunned the room when she told Nassar that she was praying for his salvation.
"I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so that you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me, although I extend that to you as well," she told the doctor.
Aquilina sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison for first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving more than 160 girls and women over more than two decades.
Today, Denhollander says her confrontation with Nassar in court, including the admission of her prayer for him, followed years of working through what had happened.
"I think when you're able to understand both the concepts of forgiveness and the concepts of eternal justice and how much God hates sin and how He comes back to defend and protect His children and how final redemption comes – that frees you up as you heal to be able to want that even for the worst of criminals," she said.
Denhollander also credits the support of her husband Jacob from his initial response to her story when they dated to his emotional availability throughout the legal process. "He was my safe place to talk," she said. "Or just to sit and be together."
Denhollander recounts her journey in the book What is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. She says it's not just for survivors of abuse.
"I wrote it for people who are walking alongside survivors or want to understand better because all of us have survivors in our circle of friends," she said. "You may not know that yet but all of us do."
"They Watch How You Talk About Abuse"
She also wrote it for the church. Abusers target communities of faith, she said, which means leaders must respond carefully to accusations.
"I think that's something people don't realize is that survivors are always watching and predators are always watching," she said. "They watch how you talk about abuse. They watch how you respond to other instances of abuse and they know that's how much you really understand. That's how much you really care. That's what's going to happen if I speak up."
Denhollander never wanted abuse to become her issue. But she believes God has placed her as an advocate for now. She wants church leaders to admit if they're not equipped to handle abuse and get the necessary help.
Repent in Detail
She also believes that leaders must repent specifically when they've mishandled reports of abuse.
Denhollander says she expects no less from her children when they've done wrong.
"I require my children to say 'I am sorry that I did …' and to identify specifically what they did and to identify the damage that was done and then to ask 'how can I repair the relationship?'" she said.
Denhollander now has four children. She wants them and their generation to know just how much they are valued. It's why she wrote a companion book How Much is a Little Girl Worth? for children.
She wrestles with the knowledge that despite her best efforts she cannot assure that her children will never be abused. It's why it's important for her to provide a safe place for them where they can always share their thoughts.
"We treat their concerns like they matter because I want them to know that what you're thinking and what you're feeling matters to mommy and I'm going to listen to you."
It's what Denhollander wants for all victims – to be treated like they matter.