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North Texas is home to the nation’s highest concentration of evangelical Christians, and until now, Morris could boast that he was pastor to approximately 1.2% of all North Texans through Gateway’s nine campuses across the region. Photo by Weston Brown

On Friday, religious watchdog blog The Wartburg Watch posted a story that shocked the nation’s evangelical community. The epicenter? Tarrant County.

As of this week, 100,000 local churchgoers found out that their lead pastor, Robert Morris of Gateway Church, confessed to sexually abusing a child repeatedly over a period of more than four years.

Or, rather, their former lead pastor.

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On Tuesday morning, Gateway Church called an all-hands meeting for their more than 900 staff members to announce that as of June 18, they had accepted Morris’ resignation from the Southlake megachurch that is also the parent church of Mercy Culture on the North Side. North Texas is home to the nation’s highest concentration of evangelical Christians — making up 38% of all North Texas religious groups — and until now, Morris could boast that he was pastor to approximately 1.2% of all North Texans through Gateway’s nine campuses across the region.

It’s not the first time that Morris’ victim, Cindy Clemishire, now in her 50s, has come forward about the abuse that began when she was 12 years old. Morris, then a 21-year-old traveling evangelist and young father, was a regular visitor in her parents’ small-town Oklahoma home. In 1982, the pastor and former spiritual advisor to disgraced former president Donald Trump allegedly initiated a years-long pattern of sexually abusing Cindy, beginning on the night of her 12th Christmas. Morris, his wife, and their 9-month-old son Joshua were staying as guests in her family home over the holiday.

As reported by The Wartburg Watch, Morris allegedly continued to sexually abuse Clemishire until 1987, both in her Oklahoma home and his home in North Texas, over four and a half years (during which time Morris’ wife Debbie had given birth to their second son, James). After Morris attempted to initiate intercourse with Cindy in his car, she finally confided in a friend about the abuse. Her friend counseled her to tell her parents, who in turn reported Morris to his head pastor at Shady Grove Church in Grand Prairie.

What happened next was an all-too familiar coverup of Biblical proportions.

As The Wartburg Watch says, Cindy’s father “demanded that Morris get out of ministry” or he would report the abuse to authorities. Shady Grove’s elders were informed, and Morris was supposedly removed from his position with the ministry of televangelist James Robison for a period of two years before returning to pastorship in 1989. According to Texas law, any adult who suspects child abuse is required to report their suspicions to law enforcement or the Department of Family Services. Neither were contacted.

With his reputation unmarred by legal proceedings, Morris went on to found Gateway Church in Southlake in 2000. The congregation grew rapidly with a recognizable blend of inspirational messages and a popular music ministry. Now, it is the largest church in the United States and one of the largest and fastest-growing megachurches in the world.

Art by Libby Newell @libby_newell

As an adult, Cindy told The Wartburg Watch and WFAA News that she had spent a decade in counseling due to the sexual abuse she endured as a child. In 2005, she filed a civil lawsuit against Morris for $50,000 to cover counseling fees. The pastor’s attorney counter-offered $25,000 if she would sign an NDA, implying Cindy was culpable in the situation for being “flirtatious.” She was 12 years old at the time.

After The Wartburg Watch published Cindy’s story on Friday, Robert Morris’ leadership team at Gateway sent an internal memo to church staffers with a prepared statement from the church elders and Pastor Morris. In the memo, Morris (in the kind of passive PR-language that would make even the most morally bankrupt celebrities and politicians proud) confesses to “being involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with a young lady” which “was brought to light” in March 1987. He says he was asked to “step out of” ministry to go through counseling and “freedom ministry” (a church-based program addressing extramarital affairs, pedophilia, same-sex attraction, and trans identity equally, even offering exorcisms).

“I looked for girls that did not have a good relationship with their father,” the megachurch pastor told Gateway members in a 2014 sermon. “I learned to spot that. I looked for girls that were insecure.”

In his message, he admitted to “multiple, multiple affairs.” The candor with which he has spoken of the incident led many to interpret his statements as referring to an extramarital adult relationship early in his marriage to Debbie. His further elaboration that “the appetites that were created in me [that] … God never intended to be created” may be up for reinterpretation in light of these new revelations.

Since founding Gateway in 2000, Robert Morris has amassed a personal net worth estimated at $117 million dollars and established himself as a leading figure in the American evangelical movement, serving on Trump’s evangelical advisory board. This isn’t the first time the celebrated pastor has come under legal scrutiny. The Texas Tribune and ProPublica have previously investigated him for endorsing political candidates from the pulpit in violation of IRS law. He is active in North Texas politics, urging parishioners to vote for church member candidates such as far-right Colleyville Mayor Bobbie Lindamood (who himself confessed to drunkenly fondling his stepsister) and Grapevine-Colleyville school board member Kelly Nakamura.

When Morris returned to ministry in 1989 following his reportedly two-year “restoration process,” he claims to have had “the full blessing of the elders and [Clemishire’s] father.”

Cindy Clemishire unequivocally denies her father supported Morris’ return, telling NBC News that he’d said to Morris, “You’re just lucky I didn’t kill you.”

Clemishire aptly observed, “He wouldn’t be allowed to work in the nursery at his church if he had disclosed the truth.”

Morris’ shocking reveal comes during the same week local megachurch pastor Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship stepped down “due to sin.”

Under Texas Penal Code, members of the clergy are liable for charges of sexual assault if they use their position as a “spiritual adviser” to cause someone under their care to “submit or participate” in acts defined as sexual abuse, regardless of the victim’s age.

Despite stating to Gateway Church elders that he was absent from church ministry between 1987 and 1989, Morris contextualized the same absence in his 2005 book From Dream to Destiny as “the Lord [having] orchestrated the circumstances for me to step out of ministry” and that after only one month in a secular-sector job, he went back to the ministry, albeit with a demotion — quite a different timeline than what his statement on June 14 reported.

A statement from current Gateway leadership released Tue., June 18, reads, “Regretfully, prior to Friday, June 14, the elders did not have all the facts of the inappropriate relationship between Morris and the victim, including her age at the time and the length of the abuse. The elders’ prior understanding was that Morris’ extramarital relationship, which he had discussed many times throughout his ministry, was with ‘a young lady’ and not abuse of a 12-year-old child. Even though it occurred many years before Gateway was established, as leaders of the church, we regret that we did not have the information that we now do.”

What might have become a story of redemption had Robert Morris turned himself in for felonious sexual abuse against a child is instead a “gut-wrenching” — in Clemishire’s words to WFAA — example of Christian leaders conspiring to prioritize their ministry over the safety of a child.

A researcher and community organizer, lifelong Fort Worthian Amelia Wheeler examines the social influence of fundamentalism on culture and politics.

 

This column reflects the opinions and fact-gathering of the author(s) and only the author(s) and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. He will gently edit it for clarity and concision.

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