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Why survivors aren’t surprised by sexual abuse inside Southern Baptist churches

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., with nearly 15 million members. Now, it’s facing a reckoning over allegations of sex abuse and concealment revealed by a Houston Chronicle investigation. Judy Woodruff speaks to Rachael Denhollander, a survivor of sexual abuse both by the church and Larry Nassar, about her optimism for the forthcoming reforms.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With nearly 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Now it is facing a reckoning of its own over sexual abuse.

    A Houston Chronicle investigation found hundreds of clergy or staff allegedly committed abuse or misconduct over two decades. This week, delegates of Southern Baptist churches approved changes for the first time to make it easier to expel churches that cover up sexual abuse cases.

    Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar. He's the former sports doctor at Michigan State University who was convicted of assaulting multiple girls and women.

    Denhollander spoke at the convention on a panel with fellow sexual abuse survivors and is on the denomination's sex abuse study group. She is also the author of "What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics."

    Rachael Denhollander, thank you very much for being with us.

    So, you — we know now that the church has made these changes. You have been talking to a number of survivors. I want to understand what your sense is of just how widespread this abuse was.

  • Rachael Denhollander:

    You know, unfortunately, the Houston Chronicle article didn't reveal anything that survivors and advocates haven't known for a long time.

    And that is that we have a severe problem in Protestant circles with sexual abuse, not just by pastors, but by members of the church, and a severe problem with how churches frequently handle disclosures of abuse.

    The top Protestant insurance companies receive more claims of sexual abuse by clergy than even the Catholic insurance companies receive. And the number one reason that Protestant organizations have been held liable in federal court for more than a decade is with — is for the issue of sexual abuse.

    So this has not come as a surprise to survivors and advocates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have said on your own that you believe that the church, in your experience, has not provided the kind of support, the relief to survivors of sexual abuse that it could.

    What do you base that belief on?

  • Rachael Denhollander:

    Well, again, we see the numbers in terms of the rate of abuse. We see the numbers in terms of how many churches are found liable for mishandling sexual assault claims.

    And, in addition to that, the survivor community has repeatedly said that the church has, unfortunately, been one of the worst places to go. In a recent survey that asked survivors what they thought would be the most helpful vs. what actually ended up being the most helpful, churches were listed as one of the things — one of the institutions thought to be the most helpful, until survivors went for help.

    And when survivors actually went for help, unfortunately, churches ranked dead last behind the option of other. And so, unfortunately — again, this is not a problem that is new to survivors and advocates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In your own experience, has that been the case?

  • Rachael Denhollander:

    I have received both ends of the spectrum.

    I was abused in a church setting when I was 7 years old. And I have — I have had very negative experiences with the church. I have also had very positive experiences with the church. And so my hope is that, as the SBC is moving forward with these reforms, and with a growing awareness of the problem, that more and more survivors will be able to experience the help and the comfort and the community that I experienced for one of my churches.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so these changes that were voted on by the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC, to require churches to — in effect, to require more disclosure, to ask the churches to step up, to do more, are these the kinds of changes that you think are going to make a difference?

  • Rachael Denhollander:

    I think these are absolutely the first steps that need to be taken.

    One of — one of the critical steps that the SBC took was to amend the constitution to create a credentialing committee who can examine claims of abuse and of churches mishandling abuse.

    And this is critical, because that provides greater transparency, greater accountability, and it puts the framework in place as we have never had before for being able to deal with these claims. The curriculum that has been put together to help equip churches on the journey towards understanding abuse and being able to both prevent and respond to it is a critical first step.

    That being said, again, survivors and advocates are aware that this is a first step only. The frame and the foundation is going to be only as good as what's built upon it. And so my hope is that, as the SBC moves forward, they will build upon this solid frame and foundation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's my understanding that, at the same time, you have said that some in the Southern Baptist Convention are undermining these changes, that they were clearing some of the local churches that should have been punished, should have been reprimanded.

    Why did you make that statement?

  • Rachael Denhollander:

    Well, unfortunately, that's a matter of public record.

    The SBC president, J.D. Greear, had put forward a list of churches that he believed merited closer scrutiny for how they had handled sexual abuse claims. But, within a matter of days, the SBC's Executive Committee, who was in charge of doing that investigation, cleared seven out of those 10 churches, without talking to survivors, and, unfortunately, did so on a four-pronged basis that was almost useless in evaluating whether churches mishandle abuse.

    And advocates and survivors and experts in the field of abuse could have explained to the Executive committee that those four prongs that they were using to evaluate were not the correct standards to be using. They were not helpful guidelines to be using.

    But, unfortunately, expert advice wasn't sought. And so why that was done, I think is something that the Executive Committee needs to wrestle with. I believe there are some in the Executive Committee that made those decisions out of ignorance. They simply didn't know. And there were some that made those decisions knowing that those criteria they established were not helpful and useful criteria.

    So, unfortunately, we have seen efforts to undermine what is being done in the SBC. That being said, the steps that were taken today by the majority of SBC messengers, I think, are very positive. And so I am hopeful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I wanted to ask you, if you overall still have confidence that it's moving in the right direction.

    I do want to bring us back to Michigan State University, because today, as we reported earlier, the former dean, who was also the boss of Dr. Larry Nassar, was convicted. He himself has now been convicted of criminal conduct, neglect of duty, acquitted of criminal sexual misconduct, though, but he could still face up to years — up to five years in prison.

    What's your reaction to all this?

  • Rachael Denhollander:

    You know, Dean Strampel's negligence in supervising Larry, his deliberate return, putting Larry back in the office, when he was under police investigation, is something that we have known for quite a long time.

    So I am grateful to see the conviction for that conduct. I think it is necessary and I think it is just. I am disappointed and discouraged to see that the survivors who reported assault by Strampel, by Dean Strampel himself, were not believed by the jury, because we know, we understand what Dr. Strampel's conduct was.

    His personnel file was full of warnings about his predatory behavior. And so I am disappointed to see a jury acquittal on that count.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    More broadly speaking, Rachael Denhollander, we know that a lot has happened since you initially came forward to be the first person to accuse Dr. Nassar.

    We know that a number of institutions have made changes as a result of the disclosures by you and so many other — so many other women who suffered sexual abuse.

    What do you think it all adds up to? Do you think things have changed enough? What do you think has been done right, and what more do you think needs to be done?

  • Rachael Denhollander:

    I think there is an extent to which we overestimate the change that has been made, honestly, because where the — where the real test comes is how we respond when it's in our own community.

    How do we respond when it's our university, when it's our favorite sports team, our favorite coach, when it's in our religious institution, or it's our political candidate, when it would cost something to care?

    And, by and large, we are still seeing a circling of the wagons. The statistics on the ability to convict sex offenders have not shifted. We see an excellent case of this with the University of Southern California, USC, where a gynecologist at USC, Dr. George Tyndall, has had over 500 women report sexual abuse.

    There are decades of evidence of nurses reporting Dr. Tyndall's conduct, and yet there has not been a single criminal charge filed in his case.

    So, the idea that we have had a massive cultural shift that makes it easy for survivors to speak up and easy to get justice, that's simply not accurate. We have a great deal of work left to do. And it starts with how we respond when it's in our own community.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very discouraging, but very important to hear.

    Rachael Denhollander, thank you very much.

  • Rachael Denhollander:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, for the record, we invited J.D. Greear, who's the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, to join us for an interview. He declined our request at this time.

    And, tonight, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops voted to create a new national hot line for reporting sex abuse allegations. It would be run by an independent group, who would relay claims of abuse to regional supervisory bishops. The service is supposed to begin operating within a year.

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