The Woman Taking on Sex Abuse in the Church

For several years, reports and allegations swirled around the legacy of Ravi Zacharias, the famed apologist and preacher who passed away in May of last year. RZIM, the evangelist and apologetics organization he founded, was well-respected for its winsome arguments for Christianity, but became the subject of increasingly troubling accusations in the years leading up to its Zacharias’ passing. Then in February, a four-month investigation revealed the shocking truth: During his life, Zacharias heaped abuse upon massage therapists in the U.S. and abroad, including sexual abuse, spiritual manipulation and an allegation of rape.

In addition to the victims who had already come forward to tell their stories of Zacharias’ sexual misconduct at the Atlanta-area day spas he co-owned, the investigation found five other victims in the states and numerous stories of sexual abuse in Malaysia, Thailand and India. The investigation found that Zacharias had solicited hundreds of images of young women, some of them naked, and continued to do so up until just a few months before his death.

Zacharias used tens of thousands of dollars in ministry funds to provide four massage therapists with monthly support for their “schooling and housing,” according to the report. One woman who received the funds said that Zacharias “required” sex from her over a period of many years, which she described as “rape.” The woman told investigators that Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God.” She also said Zacharias told her not to tell anyone, telling her that “she would be responsible for the ‘millions of souls’ whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged.”

In all, the reports paint a picture of a serial abuser who leveraged his reputation as a spiritual leader to get what he wanted from women, and a team of allies who looked the other way.

It’s only the latest story of a respected Christian leader being exposed as a hypocrite, a sexual predator, a serial manipulator or some mix of all of the above. Earlier in 2020, Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz was removed from leadership after getting caught in an ongoing extramarital affair. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Christian circles, you probably have plenty of your own examples. 

So does Rachael Denhollander. Denhollander first made headlines in 2016, when she became the first woman to speak out against Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics’ team doctor who is now known to be one of the nation’s most prolific sexual predators. Denhollander’s courage to speak up soon led to over 300 other women sharing their stories of Nassar’s abuse, which led to his life of imprisonment. 

Now, Denhollander is an attorney and the author of What Is a Girl Worth? who focuses her efforts on advocating for survivors of sexual abuse in churches and Christian organizations. She’s been enlisted to consult RZIM on the necessary steps to address its legacy of sexual abuse and that’s just one part of her vision.Ultimately, Denhollander hopes to be part of building a new world in which the Church is no longer at best apologizing to and at worst ignoring victims of assault, but is instead their fiercest champion. 

We’re speaking on the heels of another major revelation and it feels like we get one of these about once a quarter. What is it about these Christian institutions that seems to just invite these sorts of scandals? 

There’s really two parts to that. The first is that sexual abuse is far more prominent than we want to acknowledge in our culture. This is not just a Christian problem. This is a problem that spans all socioeconomic barriers. It spans all types of institutions. I don’t think we’ve really grappled yet with really the epidemic levels that we have of sexual abuse in society. That being said, we also know that there are some hallmarks for why abusers are able to abuse for so long, particularly in Christian organizations. We know that around 90% of abusers self identify as religious or very religious, that means they can blend in very well with religious communities.

There is a very famous psychologist and author who has done some incredible work on delving into the mind of an abuser and how they operate. One thing that came out in her research was that abusers actually do target faith communities, and they target faith communities because our misuse and misunderstanding of our own theologies, very commonly the forgiveness of justice, our ideas of what it means to not gossip or to be unified and our idea of and understanding of authority. Those are often theologies found in scripture are twisted and weaponized, and very misunderstood in faith circles. It creates the perfect dynamic for an abuser. We have a big misunderstanding in our faith communities of what abusers look like and of what makes a person a wolf or a sheep.

 

What needs to happen so that we can keep the wolves out?

One of the things we really have to grapple with is our belief systems. If those belief systems are not accurate, our actions aren’t going to be either. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of focus on actions to make sure your child protection policy is right. What are your nursery guidelines? Those things are important. Of course, the policies are only as good as the people enforcing it and only as good as their understanding of it. Here’s where, again, we’re finding a lot of misuse of our theology.

Oftentimes, justice and forgiveness are really taught as if they’re dichotomous, opposed to each other. If you truly forgive, you will not talk about this. In reality, justice and forgiveness are found both in the character of God and their dependence upon each other. Christianity is the only framework that provides us a mechanism for forgiveness because justice is always needed. That’s our doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. We don’t apply it well at all when it comes to issues of justice in the Church. When victims come forward and they are desiring to speak up, they’re immediately pitted as bitter, angry, vengeful people.

The Church’s current understanding of what it means to be unified often becomes a plot against survivors to say, “Don’t speak up about what happened to you. That’s not seeking unity.” But we’re told in scripture to shine a light in the darkness; bring it out and expose it. 

What do you think the people who want to do a better job of this fail to understand?

Victims and perpetrators are both always watching. Perpetrators are highly skilled predators. They look for dynamics that are going to ensure that if anybody ever speaks up, they won’t be believed. They look for places that don’t understand trauma and abusive dynamics, that aren’t going to bring in outside accountability and outside help.

Victims also look for those dynamics. They watch how we talk about issues of abuse, and they know that’s what they would think about me. Victims are always watching how we talk about abuse because they know that’s what they would really say about them.

One of the things that came out of the Miller and Martin report [about Zacharias’ abuses at RZIM] is that, that’s exactly what happened to so many of the women who were abused by Ravi. They watched what happened to Lori when she spoke up and they said, “Nobody cares and if they did that to her, that’s what they’re going to do to me.”

How we talk about abusive dynamics, how it is preached on, how it is communicated on our social media platforms, the priority and emphasis we place upon it in our ministries. That really is the most critical dynamic. That’s what signals to abusers. It is absolutely critical that we start really grappling with the realities of abuse and abusive dynamics with our theology of authority, our theology of forgiveness and start delving into where we have gotten this so wrong. If we understood the epidemic-level proportions and the catastrophic life-changing consequences of this, we would treat it so much more seriously.

On average, one in four women and one in six men suffer sexual abuse. As a pastor is looking out at his congregation or ministry leaders looking out at their following, they’re looking at 25 percent of women and a substantial portion of men who have suffered from sexual abuse. If you factor in domestic violence, it’s even higher. 

If you had 25 percent of your congregation suffering from cancer or 25 percent who were unemployed, or who had suffered miscarriages, you would probably have ministries geared towards them. You would be preaching on the types of things your congregation is facing. You would have practical care for those people. You would have support groups for those people. But we don’t show anywhere near that kind of intentionality when it comes to abuse, both sexual and domestic, even though statistically, once you add domestic violence in there, around a third of the women in the congregation have experienced one or the other.

An issue you hear a lot in these conversations has to do with timing. “Why is she talking now?” 

Most victims cannot identify or articulate the full extent of their abuse statistically, either because they were abused for so long that their perception of normal has completely shifted or because they froze or dissociated during the time of their abuse. Their ability to put words to what they’ve experienced often isn’t there until a very long time after the abuse, especially for long standing abuse.

The average age of disclosure for someone who has experienced childhood sexual abuse, depending on the study you look at, is anywhere between late 30s and early 40s. For men, it can be even later into the 50s.

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Delayed disclosures are the norm, not the exception. Most of the time, the ability to articulate it isn’t there because of the intense shame that accompanies abuse and because victims know what they’re facing when they come forward. The cruel irony when a victim speaks up is the immediate response: “He or she is in it for money. They’re in it for attention. They’re trying to destroy a good person. If this was really true, why did it take so long?

These people are demonstrating right now why it took so long: “Because I knew you were going to do this to me.” It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Out of every 300 rapes reported to the police, only about six results in any kind of criminal charges being levied. Whether or not those charges are anywhere near the level of the offense that was actually committed, it’s an even harder bar to meet. Only six out of every 300 result in criminal charges, only five out of every 300 results in conviction or jail time. According to the department of justice, the federal justice statistics, the average sentence for a sexual offender, including child sex offenders, is less time served than the average sentence for possession of a controlled substance. You can literally have weed on you and spend more time in jail than you will spend if you rape a child.

That’s because our justice system, our evidentiary codes, our statute of limitations, our detectives, our prosecutors are not only not prepared to handle those things, but oftentimes approach them in ways that are deeply, deeply damaging to survivors.

I know you saw a lot of the chatter that came out in the immediate wake of this report was some Christian men — some of them very prominent — saying things like “there but for the grace of God go all of us.” That was the big takeaway for many people. What’s your reaction to that?

I think this is one area where you see theological concepts that are twisted and wielded very wrong. Could any of us become that type of person? Yes. Technically, any of us could become that type of person. But to use it the way it’s being used in that context really normalizes sexual abuse. “I’m one step away from becoming a serial predator.” Brother, if you are one step away from becoming a serial predator, you’ve got other problems. It is a way to emotionally identify with the perpetrator instead of with the victim. Statistically, the more correct response would be, “There, but for the grace of God, go, I” in reference to the victims. That could have been me.

It’s an emotional identification with the perpetrator, whether or not it’s intended to be. It is used in a way that minimizes sin, as though this was an almost normal type of behavior. The message that sends to survivors and perpetrators is that abusive dynamics aren’t well understood, and that the people around them are not safe. I think it should legitimately raise the question: why do we think sexual predation is so normal that everybody’s just barely on the cusp of it? That’s not normal behavior.

You’ve eaten, slept and breathed this whole thing for a long time now, at personal cost to you and your husband. Do you see the tide turning on this issue?

We have this perception after the Me Too Movement that if you just put a tweet out there with the hashtag, you can basically destroy a man’s life. That is not how it works. 

By and large, we have seen zero shift in our conviction and prosecution rates. Our legal system is so far behind where it needs to be and the training that it needs to have. There’s been no shift whatsoever in our legal system, in our relationships and in our communities. 

Really, we have to get to the point of seeing a shift in how the community responds when the abuse is in its own community. When it’s in your own community, when it would cost to care, are you able to see clearly? Are you able to push for the right things?

The shift is very, very slight. I think we need to be examining our political communities. How are we responding when somebody in our political community is accused of abuse? Does it matter enough for us to say this person who has been credibly accused or a subject of credible allegations for felony level sexual assault probably should not be entrusted with this type of authority? Does it matter enough to us? Really starting to wrestle with how we will respond when it would cost us to care. What we will do when it’s in our own community. That’s really the measuring stick for how far we’ve come. Based on that measuring stick, we have not come very far.

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