Crime and Courts

Robert Morris warned sex abuse accuser she could be prosecuted for seeking compensation, emails show

Emails from 2005 released by Cindy Clemishire show how megachurch pastor Robert Morris responded after she asked for “restitution” for sex abuse she says began when she was 12.

Two decades before pastor Robert Morris publicly confessed last week to engaging in “sexual behavior” with a child and resigned from Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, his accuser had confronted him and sought compensation, according to copies of emails obtained by NBC News.

“Twenty-three years after you began destroying my life, I am still dealing with the pain and damage you caused,” Cindy Clemishire, 35 at the time, wrote to Morris on Sept. 20, 2005, according to partially redacted emails provided to NBC News by her attorney.

“I want some type of restitution. Pray about it and call me.”

Morris responded two weeks later.

“Debbie and I really do care for you and we sincerely want God’s best for you,” he wrote, referring to his wife, Debbie Morris, according to the emails. Robert Morris wrote that he’d long ago confessed his sins to Clemishire’s father and believed that he’d “obtained your forgiveness as well as your family’s.” 

Morris ended his reply with a legal warning.

“My attorney advises that if I pay you any money under a threat of exposure, you could be criminally prosecuted and Debbie and I do not want that,” he wrote. “If you need more information, have your attorney contact mine.”

Morris’ email was the final exchange in a series of messages that year between Clemishire, Morris and a former Gateway elder, Clemishire said. The emails, spanning from April to October 2005, appear to reveal Clemishire’s attempts to get Morris — who later rose to become a leading evangelical figure who served on former President Donald Trump’s spiritual advisory panel — to compensate her for the trauma she says he inflicted on her as a child.

“Men that have over 100 counts of child molestation go to prison,” Clemishire wrote to Morris in one of the messages. “Men who pastor churches that have over 100 counts of child molestation go to prison and pay punitive damages. You have not had to do either.”

Cindy Clemishire at age 12 with her older sister.
Courtesy Cindy Clemishire

At the urging of a retired pastor, Clemishire went public with her allegations against Morris last week in a post published by The Wartburg Watch, a website focused on exposing abuse in churches. In the post and in a subsequent interview with NBC News, Clemishire accused Morris of molesting her for years beginning at her home in Oklahoma on Christmas night in 1982, when she was 12. 

Morris hasn’t been charged with a crime. He didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Last weekend, Morris and Gateway’s elders initially responded to Clemishire’s allegations by acknowledging in statements that Morris had several sexual encounters with a “young lady” when he was in his 20s and saying he had been transparent about his sin and had repented. On Tuesday, following days of backlash from church members and elected officials, Gateway’s board of elders announced it had accepted Morris’ resignation

“The elders’ prior understanding was that Morris’s 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,” the church leaders said in their statement.

Clemishire and her lawyer, Boz Tchividjian, contend that Gateway elders should have long ago investigated Morris’ account of a consensual relationship. 

Gateway officials did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment. The board of elders announced this week it had hired a law firm to investigate the matter.

The 2005 emails reveal that at least one Gateway Church elder, Tom Lane, was aware that Clemishire had been in touch with Morris and seeking compensation. The emails do not indicate, however, whether Lane, who has since left the church, was aware that Clemishire was accusing Morris of child sexual abuse. The initial email Clemishire sent is missing from the chain shared with NBC News; Clemishire’s lawyer said she could not locate it. 

In a statement to NBC News on Friday, Lane said that, until Clemishire went public with her story last week, he “did not fully understand the severity and specifics of the sexual abuse she experienced, nor did I know she was 12 years old when the abuse began.”

Lane’s spokesperson, Richard Harmer, said in an email that Lane was under the impression that Clemishire was under 18, but old enough to consent to a sexual relationship with Morris, who would have been in his early 20s. (The age of consent in Oklahoma, where the abuse is alleged to have occurred, is 16.)

“I am deeply saddened by the pain Cindy Clemishire has endured and the recent revelations regarding Pastor Robert Morris,” Lane said in his statement. “My deepest sympathies go out to Cindy, and I pray her suffering is fully recognized and validated.”

In April 2005, Lane wrote to Clemishire on behalf of Morris, after Clemishire initially reached out in the email that NBC News has not seen. Lane asked to speak with her, and Clemishire replied that she wanted to address the matter with Morris directly. 

Lane then wrote that he and the other Gateway elders wanted Clemishire to “find help and healing.” 

Lane told Clemishire that Morris had been “completely open with the Elders of Gateway Church about his past and specifically about his indiscretion with you.” He said Morris and his wife had treated Clemishire with “caring concern but their responses apparently have not brought the healing you seek.”

“The ‘Blessed Life’ that Robert writes about in his book and you refer to in your email, is not one of perfection but one of submission and obedience to God, something that he has made diligent effort to walk in, both in failure and success, for more than twenty years,” Lane wrote to Clemishire. “Robert and Debbie have done what they can to help you heal. Our church believes in healing, forgiveness, and restoration of all individuals. We would like to help you find that healing for your life.”

The emails shared by Clemishire’s lawyer do not include a response from her to Lane’s message. 

In a statement, Tchividjian, Clemishire’s lawyer, questioned why Lane and other Gateway elders didn’t investigate Morris’ claims.

“It seems as if it was preferable for them to simply accept his vague narrative instead of seeking the truth regarding a sexual offense perpetrated upon a minor,” Tchividjian said. “The leaders at Gateway had the responsibility to find out what happened and not to blindly accept his words.”

Five months after Lane’s message, on Sept. 9, 2005, Clemishire wrote again directly to Morris.

“I am giving you one last chance to call me,” she wrote. “You really have no idea how devastating it will be if you don’t. I don’t want Tom or anyone els to contact me. This is your issue not his.”

A week later, Morris wrote to say he was praying about how to respond, and he followed up several days after that to ask what Clemishire wanted.

Clemishire wrote back less than two hours later: “I have suffered almost my entire life from the emotional damage you inflicted on me. If you want to know what I want, call me.”

Morris never called, Clemishire said, although she said she did speak briefly with his attorney to discuss setting up a meeting with Morris but never followed up.

In his final reply included in the messages shared by Clemishire, Morris told her she was wrong to believe that he’d benefited from keeping secret what happened between them.

“You see the blessings God has poured out on my life and conclude that it is because I have hidden my past,” Morris wrote. 

“God does not work that way. He will not be mocked by deceit.”

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