Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics trainer and convicted pedophile Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, revealed on Monday that she was sexually abused for the first time at 7 years old at a church.
Denhollander, an attorney and activist who’s been outspoken about sexual abuse in the church, reflected on the abuse in an essay for The Washington Post published early Monday morning. She wrote that she was sexually abused by a college student who attended her small church in Michigan, where she grew up. Denhollander described a tight-knit community in the church which she wrote was “Baptist in theology” but independent from any denomination.
At the age of 7, Denhollander wrote, something changed. She stopped hanging out with the other children at church and began isolating herself.
“I spent a lot more time hiding in the girls bathroom, shaking and wishing someone would ask what was wrong but knowing I wouldn’t know what to say if they did,” she wrote.
“I had been abused and was still being preyed upon by a college student at the church,” Denhollander continued. “He’d managed to do it while sitting me on his lap during a church Bible study. No one knew except me, and I wasn’t sure what I knew, except that I felt terrified and physically ill. I wasn’t about to describe what made me feel that way, either. So I hung out in the washroom, the one place he couldn’t find me.”
Denhollander wrote that one day her abuser simply never returned to church. It wasn’t until she was 12 years old, when she confided in her mother about the abuse, that she learned what had really happened.
Her abuser had been asked to leave the church after several female college students made complaints about his inappropriate behavior. Other adults, including Denhollander’s parents, had complained about the man’s behavior toward Denhollander and another young girl at the church ― not realizing he had already abused 7-year-old Denhollander.
Although her parents prevented further abuse, Denhollander reflected on how they were ostracized from the community for accusing the young man of sexual abuse. This experience, she wrote, informed how she later handled Nassar’s abuse.
“It also left me with a lesson I’ve never forgotten and had in fact taken into the exam room with Larry: If you can’t prove it, don’t speak up. Because it will cost you everything,” Denhollander wrote.
Denhollander publicly accused Nassar of sexual abuse in September 2016, telling the Indianapolis Star that he molested her during an appointment in 2000 when she was 15 years old.
Nassar, the former sports medicine doctor at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, was a renowned trainer at the time. Denhollander endured an onslaught of victim blaming and character assassinations when she first came forward.
It wasn’t until a few months after she came forward that other athletes read her story and realized they had also been abused. Nassar, suspected of abusing nearly 500 athletes under the guise of medical treatment, is currently serving a life sentence on child pornography and child sex abuse charges.
Head over to The Washington Post to read Denhollander’s full essay.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.