GRACE Investigation & Assessment REPORT

May 16, 2023

Highlands Family,

In October 2020, Highlands entered into an agreement with GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) to perform an independent investigation into the credible sexual abuse allegations brought forward by two men against Derek Nelson, a former pastor at Highlands.

GRACE completed their investigation and provided us with a final report on April 18, 2023. One of GRACE’s recommendations is to work with the two reporting survivors to develop a distribution plan. Because we want to follow GRACE’s recommendations and honor the survivors, we have been seeking their input and input from trauma-based professionals to develop our distribution plan. Based on this input, Highlands is making paper copies of this report available. We have redacted the abuse story of one survivor because we did not receive permission from him to share his story.

This report contains graphic, sexual content, as well as spiritual and emotional abuse descriptions, and it may be triggering to those with a history of abuse. Please use wisdom and discretion in sharing this report. You may pick up a paper copy of this report at Highlands starting on Wednesday, May 17. There will also be copies of the report available on Sundays May 21 and May 28. If you wish to request that we mail a copy to you, please complete an online request form.

After prayerfully reading and reflecting on this report, we want to share several initial responses.

First, we are deeply grieved reading this report and repent for our many leadership failures. We believe that it was courageous of these men to bring forward these initial allegations, and we continue to believe their testimony about the abuse they suffered after reading the GRACE report. The grooming, manipulation, and spiritual and sexual abuse experienced by the two initial reporting survivors from a former pastor and leader at Highlands is horrific. We lament this took place under our ministry and under our leadership. We lament the pain that the two reporting survivors and their wives have experienced and continue to experience in their marriages related to Nelson’s abuse during the “pre-marital” counseling incidents. We lament our failures in responding to the reports shared by these two men and how our failures compounded their pain. We are grateful for these two men and for the courage they displayed by coming forward initially and sharing their story with GRACE. This courage paved the way for others to come forward and share additional stories of grooming, manipulation, and spiritual abuse by Derek Nelson, some of which took place while they were minors in our student ministry. We are alarmed that one of our pastors persisted in these behaviors for years, unchecked and without consequence. We failed to understand grooming behaviors and missed signs that grooming of young men was taking place in our church. We allowed Nelson to operate for years with significant, unchecked power and authority that enabled him to perpetuate this behavior. We failed to provide sufficient ways of reporting concerns, and we failed to create a culture of safety, transparency, and appropriate behaviors and boundaries. As the elders of Highlands, we are deeply sorry.

Second, we apologize for the many ways we failed in responding to the initial abuse allegations. In particular, in our June 11, 2020 communication, we focused more on governance than survivor care. We gave Nelson a voice and platform to speak. We discouraged people from seeking support outside the church. We too quickly assured our church that there were no other survivors when we had not adequately investigated the truth of that assertion. And further, we failed to apologize to the initial reporting survivors for these matters once they were brought to our attention. This apology is long overdue, and we are very sorry.

Additionally, in the August 2020 meeting between staff and elders, we lament pressuring the two reporting survivors to disclose their identities. This was unfair, wrong, and focused more on our organizational and former lead pastor’s needs than the support and care needed by the two survivors.

Further, we lament that we did not reveal the gender of the two reporting survivors at an earlier date so as to encourage other survivors to come forward and share their stories. We lament that our former lead pastor sent a letter to Reporting Victim 1 that did not demonstrate care or support for him. We are sorry for the painful, re-traumatizing process that both survivors, their wives, and their families experienced during the preparation of their claims and during mediation, and we regret that we did not adequately support them during this process. We are sorry for our communication silence to the two survivors and for how this caused the survivors to feel isolated and unsupported by Highlands.

Third, we receive GRACE’s recommendations with seriousness and will diligently begin implementing them. We have already begun taking immediate steps to address GRACE’s recommendations and will continue to do so in the coming weeks and months. We are grateful for the clear recommendations that GRACE provided. We desire that our church will be a safe place to worship and build community for people of all ages, and we are committed to taking practical steps towards promoting safety, transparency, and accountability.

To the initial reporting survivors:
As the elders of Highlands, we want to express our deepest apologies to you. We are sorry for the grooming, manipulation, spiritual abuse, and sexual abuse you experienced from Nelson, and we repent for the ways our leadership failings have both caused and contributed to your pain. We have not listened and cared for you the way we should have. Please forgive us. Thank you for your courage in sharing your story and for bringing forward the initial allegations in June 2020, as well as sharing your valuable perspective about the leadership failures that have since taken place. We receive your rebuke, and we want to grow from it. We understand that repentance involves admitting to wrongdoing and changing course, which in many ways can only be measured over time. We hope in the years ahead, by God’s grace, to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

To additional survivors:
As the elders of Highlands, we are deeply sorry for the grooming, manipulation, and spiritual abuse you experienced from Nelson. We did not protect you like we should have. Thank you to those of you who bravely participated in the GRACE investigation. If you did not have the opportunity to participate, please know that we desire to listen to you and support you while you engage in the process of healing.

To those who participated in the GRACE investigation:
Thank you for participating and providing much needed perspective about the sin and dysfunction that we allowed to persist. We are deeply sorry for how our leadership failings affected you or someone you love.

To our congregation:
We understand that these events and our leadership failures have affected the entire Highlands community, and we apologize for the pain we have caused. We also understand that this process may be painful for survivors of abuse unrelated to these events. To survivors of any and all abuse, we grieve with you, pray for you, and want to be a safe place for you to pursue healing.

Next Steps
While there is much work to do, here are some immediate next steps we will take:

  1. We have begun to address GRACE’s recommendations and will develop an action plan to address each recommendation moving forward.
  2. We will be hosting a congregational meeting at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, May 30, 2023 which will include time for you to ask questions, corporately confess our sins, and lament in prayer together as a church.

If anyone believes they may be a victim of grooming or abuse, we invite you to contact Pastor Barry Brenden or Judy Fetzer, who can direct you to resources either within or outside of Highlands. If you wish to speak with someone outside of Highlands, you may contact the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center or GRACE’s Witness Support Specialist, Kathy Weins.

Finally, please join us in praying. Our God is a refuge for those who mourn, faithful to those who repent, and gives wisdom to those who humbly ask. Specifically, we invite you to join us in asking God to:

  1. Heal and comfort the reporting survivors who participated in this investigation, as well as their families.
  2. Heal and comfort all in our congregation who have been impacted by the abuse and leadership failures within our church.
  3. Humble us, convict us, and forgive our sins.
  4. Empower our leadership team to make the necessary changes to promote accountability, transparency, trust, and safety for our community.
  5. Give us wisdom as a church to perceive danger and respond appropriately.

GRACE Report Request

The Board of Elders
Highlands Community Church