MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Birmingham, Ala., this week, Southern Baptist Convention leaders are gathered for their annual meeting, a meeting that this year is dominated by one issue - how to address sexual abuse at their churches. Earlier this year, reports emerged that nearly 400 male Southern Baptist Church leaders have been accused of sexual abuse over the last two decades. Yesterday, SBC pastors voted to change its constitution, making it easier to kick out churches that do not take abuse claims seriously. And the SBC has launched new guidelines for church leaders wrestling with the issue.
Among those who have helped shape those guidelines is Rachael Denhollander. She's a lawyer and an author and a survivor of sexual abuse. You may remember her name from the Larry Nassar case. He is the former head doctor of the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team. He was sentenced last year to up to 175 years in prison for sexual misconduct. And Rachael Denhollander was the first to come forward and file a criminal complaint against him. She joins me now. Rachael, good to speak with you again.
RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER: It's great to be here.
KELLY: Let me start with your reaction to this big vote in Birmingham this week to change the constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention. What do you think?
DENHOLLANDER: You know, I'm encouraged by the step. It makes it easier to deal with churches that have enabled or covered up sexual abuse. That being said, it is a framework only.
KELLY: A framework only - what do you mean?
DENHOLLANDER: Well, it creates a new committee by which these claims can be vetted. What we don't know yet is who is going to be on that committee, what questions the committee will be asking as they consider whether or not churches are in violation of the SBC standards on sexual abuse. And so it really remains to be seen what is built on that framework.
KELLY: Talk to me about the culture. I'm thinking of some reporting that our religion correspondent, Tom Gjelten, has been doing this week. He's been interviewing Southern Baptist women. And they describe a culture that is resistant to change. Has that been your experience as you've interacted with church leaders?
DENHOLLANDER: You know, the honest truth is I think there's a quite significant divide. Many of the leaders that I have interacted with are very committed to change. They recognize and understand the damage of sexual abuse. They are broken over what has taken place. That being said, there is certainly a faction within the SBC that remains resistant to change and that most importantly does not really understand some of the theological misinterpretations that so often lead church leaders to mishandle abuse, misunderstanding concepts of forgiveness and grace and dealing with abuse in the church instead of relying on outside experts to handle both the investigation and the counseling dynamics.
KELLY: What made you want to take this on?
DENHOLLANDER: You know, there are a lot of reasons. You know, the issue of abuse is obviously something that is very personal to me. I have lived the damage. I have seen the damage. In addition to that, I do come from a Christian perspective, a faith perspective. And so in many ways, this is part of my community. And you are most able to make change in the communities that you hold closest to you.
KELLY: You reminded me of something you told me last year. I interviewed you from the court as Larry Nassar was being sentenced. And you started talking about your kids, and you told me you want your son to grow into a man who is a protector and defender, and you want your daughters to grow into warriors.
KELLY: And I remember being struck by how this fight was something it felt like you needed to do for you but also for the next generation. Do you feel those stakes as you work with the Southern Baptist Convention on this?
DENHOLLANDER: I think by and large that's the motivation for all the survivor community, to protect the next generation, to do what we can to ensure that this does not happen to another child and that if it does, the help and support is there for them in ways that it wasn't for us.
KELLY: It was you coming forward that helped open the floodgates in that case with Larry Nassar. Do you believe there are other abuse cases in the Southern Baptist Church that have yet to come to light?
DENHOLLANDER: Oh, absolutely. You know, survivors live in silence for so long. And one of the reasons that they do - the main reason they do is because they watch how society talks about abuse. And they watch how our culture treats abuse victims. And that's one of the primary things we need to change. We have to let them know that they are safe when they come forward before they're going to be able to speak up. Our cultural and societal response to those survivors who have spoken up is really going to set the tone for whether or not others feel free to come forward.
KELLY: And may I ask, as someone who's prominently working on this within the church while obviously wanting to respect the anonymity of people coming forward, do women come to you and tell you their stories?
DENHOLLANDER: They do all the time. And oftentimes, I am the first disclosure. And I consider that an absolute privilege to be trusted with their stories. It's not something I ever take for granted.
KELLY: Attorney and advocate Rachael Denhollander talking there about the Southern Baptist Convention and her work to put in place new guidelines for how the church handles sexual abuse. Rachael Denhollander, thank you.
DENHOLLANDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.