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Spiritual and civil remedies

Larry Nassar’s serial abuse and the Parkland shooting hold important lessons for churches dealing with serious accusations

Spiritual and civil remedies

Rachael Denhollendar (David Harrison/Genesis)

In the current issue of WORLD, I profile Rachael Denhollander, a Christian attorney, wife, and homeschooling mom who took down one of the worst known sexual predators in U.S. sports history.

In Louisville, I visited the Denhollanders’ church and their small home near the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Rachael’s husband, Jacob, is pursuing a Ph.D.

When I visited late on a Monday night, the couple had put their three small children to bed in their home filled with bookshelves that brimmed with theological volumes and works by authors like C.S. Lewis. (Their 6-year-old son is already delving into a box set of The Chronicles of Narnia.)

Rachael was the first woman to speak publicly about being assaulted by Larry Nassar, the former gymnastics physician eventually sentenced to hundreds of years in prison for sexually assaulting patients under the guise of medical care.

One of the most tragic parts of the case: At least a dozen girls told adults at Michigan State University about Nassar’s perverse “treatments” over the course of 20 years. None of the adults went to the police.

At least a dozen girls told adults at Michigan State University about Nassar’s perverse “treatments” over the course of 20 years. None of the adults went to the police.

At USA Gymnastics—where Nassar also worked—records showed the agency kept files on complaints against dozens of coaches for years.

In the Denhollanders’ living room, we talked about how Nassar could have been stopped two decades ago. Instead, he stands accused of abusing at least 256 people. The actual number is likely far higher.

Two days after our visit, a few hundred miles south, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire on students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people and wounding more than a dozen.

One of the most tragic parts of the case: At least four dozen calls about Cruz or his brother reportedly came in to local police over the course of a decade. After the Parkland massacre, the FBI acknowledged it didn’t act on a January tip from a woman worried about the possibility of Cruz going into a school and “just shooting the place up.”

I couldn’t help thinking about the connections between the cases of Nassar and Cruz—particularly the horrible consequences of people in authority mishandling or ignoring clear warnings about dangerous men.

It’s a message the Denhollanders hope sinks into the ears of evangelical churches as well.

On that front, Rachael points out that it’s dangerous for church leaders to handle cases of abuse in-house, without reporting them to civil authorities ordained by God to respond to criminal acts and prevent more abuse from happening.

That’s not a new idea.

Romans 13 makes clear the role of civil authorities instituted by God to punish evildoers. When it comes to criminal matters, pursuing spiritual restoration in the church while allowing civil authorities to pursue justice in the courts aren’t mutually exclusive endeavors. They can and should happen at the same time.

Courts aren’t perfect, and they sometimes get things wrong, but mistrust of civil authorities doesn’t provide a warrant to ignore those authorities in matters of crime and punishment. As believers, we obey God’s commands, trust Him in His provision of civil authorities, and ask Him for just ends.

It’s a Biblical principle the Apostles articulated in a New Testament era when civil authorities often persecuted Christians. The Apostles Paul and Peter didn’t ultimately entrust themselves to courts—they entrusted themselves to God, and acknowledged the civil authorities as instituted by Him.

The Biblical command to submit to civil authority (unless authorities demand disobedience to God) brings clarity to complex and painful cases involving criminal activity.

“I’m becoming more convinced that the way for the church to become more progressive on these issues is to look back and reapply what’s always been there,” says Jacob Denhollander. “I think the answer is to become more Christian.”

And it’s worth noting that authorities often do get it right. Shortly after Rachael reported Nassar’s abuse to authorities in 2016, police obtained a search warrant for his computers: They found 37,000 images of child pornography. After decades of abuse, Nassar’s downfall was swift when police took reports of abuse seriously.

Nassar’s downfall left scores of victims in his wake, and the Denhollanders hope churches will not only learn to report cases of abuse, but also learn to help victims face the trauma that many grapple with for a lifetime.

As Rachael says, forgiveness and justice helps, but it “doesn’t make the nightmares go away.”


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  • VISTA48
    Posted: Mon, 03/05/2018 05:03 pm

    With thousands of prosecutors on both the State and Federal payrolls, why do we wait so long for action? I understand that they can't do much about the things they're not aware of, but what about they blatant disregard and violation of laws by officials at all leves of government that are in the news every day? 

  • RC
    Posted: Wed, 03/07/2018 10:15 am

    Why did the police only mentioned the child pornography Mr. Nassar had on his computers?  What about any other porn? They won’t say, because it was legal?  I expect Mr. Nassar’s sexual addiction problem did not start with child porn.  We are lost because it is legal to take advantage of vulnerable young adults and sexually exploited them because they are not young enough to protect.  We are shocked at the sexual exploitation in the political and entertainment realms along with mass killings at schools and churches, while 90% of the Hollywood’s products are soaked with sex, violence and other forms of immorality.  These films have been feeding dozens of others who have the potential to be just like Larry Nasser, for years.  I fear we are only at the beginning of finding out about damage which is occurring to American children which will explode in our face before long.  I only hope I am wrong.