Rachael Denhollander: Christian Colleges Key in Condemning Sex Abuse

Rachael Denhollander speaks during the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Washington.
RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Abuse survivor and activist Rachael Denhollander brought her advocacy to presidents of Christian colleges, urging them at their annual conference to not discount sexual abuse but to instead support survivors who report it.

“As Christian institutions you are the most equipped to condemn sexual abuse and objectification,” she told dozens of attendees of the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities on Jan. 31 in Washington. “You are the most equipped to help survivors to understand and teach your students to understand this is wrong. It is evil. And it matters to me because it matters to God.”

Denhollander is a lawyer and former gymnast who was the first woman to publicly accuse former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault. She has been encouraging denomination leaders and churches to increase their attention and response to sexual abuse and has recently authored the book What Is a Girl Worth?

“What you need to understand is that when you do not do this with your policies, your counseling programs, your classes, and how you are educating the next generation—when you do not do this, you are not in agreement with what God says, you are not properly portraying the character of an all-holy God.”

Banner archives: Rape Culture and Christian Colleges (Feb. 2017); Vantage Point: Denial Perpetuates Rape Culture (May 2017)

Shirley V. Hoogstra, CCCU president, introduced Denhollander to the conference, a three-day gathering of 100 presidents of evangelical higher education institutions, and affirmed the need to address the issue with faith and compassion.

“Human beings take advantage of others for their own purpose, but, because of our faith, we can actually look unsparingly at these events,” said Hoogstra, whose organization timed the discussion to pending changes in Title IX regulations that govern how colleges address sex discrimination. “We can face the real facts and potentially be a redemptive force amid human failing.”

Kathryn Nash, a higher education attorney with the firm Lathrop GPM, joined Denhollander and Hoogstra for the plenary titled “The Lion and the Lamb: How Christian Theology Shapes Our Approach and Response to Abuse.”

Presidents of Calvin University, Dordt University, Redeemer University—all members of the CCCU and owned or affiliated institutions of the Christian Reformed Church—attended the conference.

Denhollander said institutions, including faith-based ones, should worry less about reputation and more about repentance.

“If we truly believe in the power of repentance and the importance of truth, then our Christian institutions should be the first to repent of where we have erred,” she said. “We should be the first to acknowledge and pursue the truth when it looks like something might have been handled wrong. But more often than not the immediate response is to clamp down and protect liability and reputation at the expense of the victim and justice.”

The Banner has a subscription to Religion News Service and occasionally re-publishes articles of wide Christian interest, according to the license. This story has been edited for length. Links to related Banner stories and the list of presidents of Christian Reformed-affiliated universities  have been added. The original story can be found here.

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Adelle Banks, Religion News Service