Rachael Denhollander Shares on the Relationship of Forgiveness and Justice

Former gymnast and sexual assault survivor Rachael Denhollander spoke to Liberty University students during Convocation April 9 on the topics of forgiveness, justice and the “power of the Gospel” in the face of abuse and sinful actions of the world.

Denhollander was the first woman to publicly make allegations of sexual assault against the former USA Gymnastics Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar, who pleaded guilty to 10 accounts of sexual assault and was sentenced to a maximum of 300 years in prison. A total of 265 girls accused Nassar of sexual misconduct following Denhollander’s first outspoken allegations against Nassar in May 2017.

It was during her first visit to court when Denhollander said Nassar had sexually abused her on five doctor’s visits in 2000 when she was 15 years old. Seven months later, more than 150 women would follow in suit, testifying at Nassar’s sentencing in January of this year.

Denhollander was joined on the Convocation stage by Senior Vice President for Spiritual Development David Nasser, who asked Denhollander questions about her story in dealing with her abuse and how she was able to lean on God in forgiving her abuser.

Once she fully comprehended what Nassar had done to her as a teenager, Denhollander told students that she struggled for years to comprehend her faith in God while also facing what had happened to her. She based much of her discussion in Convocation on the question of, ‘Where was God in this, and why did this happen to me?’

She concluded with telling students that it was actually through her abuse that she was able to develop a stronger relationship with God and regain trust. She repeated to students her belief that God is sovereign, yet also said she believes it was not right to blame God for what happened.

“Larry was not a puppet in God’s hands,” Denhollander said. “Larry is responsible for his conduct, not God.”

During her lowest moment, she said it was only God who she really trusted, and she mentioned that trust is the hardest to regain for many victims of sexual assault.

“I had to really wrestle with not just what I do, but does what justice looks like, and how this meshes with my faith — ‘Where was God when his happened? What does he say about my abuse, and how can I trust him?’” Denhollander said. “One of the things that is really taken from you in any form of abuse is the ability to trust.”

Two video clips of Denhollander’s testimony during Nassar’s sentencing were shown to students. In the clips, Denhollander stood before Nassar and the trial’s judge and publicly forgave him, yet encouraged the judge to hand down to Nassar the highest sentencing possible under law.

After the first clip was shown, Denhollander was given a standing ovation from students.

“I was able to close out (Nassar’s) sentencing hearing, and God really guided my words, and I’m very grateful for his direction,” Denhollander said. “I really had to wrestle with what I had to say, with what Larry needs to hear. And ultimately, what he needs to hear is the gospel, because it is the greatest hope for Larry, it is the greatest hope for me, and it is the greatest hope for all of us.”

A large part of the conversation between Nasser and Denhollander spoke to students at Liberty who may have also undergone abuse or have been wronged. The sexual assault survivor used much of her time on stage to encourage other students who have dealt with abuse and harassment to pursue justice and find forgiveness through God.

She also spoke to the abusers. Similar to her court testimony in Nassar’s sentencing, she encouraged those who have done wrong to acknowledge their wrongdoing, to feel “the soul-crushing weight of guilt,” and through that, repentance from God.

Nasser, too, encouraged students to find the right avenues to pursue justice if they have been assaulted or harassed. He mentioned that Liberty is not set up to deal with possible legal issues of sexual assault, but that there are departments at the university like the Title IX Office are set up to support victims of assault.

Denhollander later spoke to students at 4 p.m. Monday in Liberty’s School of Law in a talk titled “The Lion and the Lamb,” where she continued her thoughts on the intersection of justice and forgiveness. There, students were also given a chance to ask Denhollander questions.

Along with Liberty, Denhollander has spoken to students at other United States colleges including Harvard University. She said that she has plans to continue to speak at universities and cities across the country and push for legislation to further protect victims of sexual assault.

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