Gateway Church elder says accepting resignation of pastor in sex abuse scandal was ‘difficult' decision

A secret recording reveals how church elders broke the news of Pastor Robert Morris’ resignation to staff members at the Texas megachurch he founded

FILE - Pastor Robert Morris.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Four days after they learned of decades-old child sex abuse allegations against their senior pastor, Robert Morris, hundreds of Gateway Church employees filed into an auditorium in Southlake, Texas, on Tuesday to learn his fate.

Some staff members appeared solemn as they found their seats. Others looked angry. One attendee pulled out her cellphone and secretly hit record. Later, she shared the audio with NBC News and described the meeting in an interview. A second person who attended confirmed her account and the recording’s authenticity.

Kenneth W. Fambro II, a real estate executive who serves on Gateway’s board of elders, struggled through tears as he delivered the news that employees had come to hear: Morris, one of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders, was resigning from the church he’d founded 24 years earlier.

“This,” Fambro said of accepting Morris’ resignation, “has been one of the most difficult decisions in my life.”

Gateway elder: ‘One of the most difficult decisions in my life’

Source: NBC News

The recording of Fambro’s remarks reveals the deeply conflicted feelings of church leaders as they come to terms with the knowledge that their founding pastor — the man who’d built Gateway into one the largest megachurches in America and served on former President Donald Trump’s spiritual advisory board — had confessed to engaging in “inappropriate sexual behavior” with a child.

Fambro opened Tuesday by acknowledging that he and other church officials had long known that Morris had admitted to sexual misconduct when he was young. It was a story Morris told so often over the years from the pulpit and in one-on-one meetings that “you can get kind of numb” to it, Fambro said, according to the recording.

“Pastor Robert did a phenomenal job of being open and transparent about his transgressions and his past, his moral failures,” Fambro said, speaking on behalf of the elders board, which is charged with governing the church. 

“What we did not know was that she was 12 years old.”

Gateway elder says he didn’t know Morris’ ‘moral failure’ involved a 12-year-old

Source: NBC News

Cindy Clemishire, the woman who accused Morris of molesting her as a child, disputed the notion that Morris had been transparent. In a statement to NBC News, she said she was disturbed that Gateway elders struggled over whether to remove him from leadership.

“What is so difficult about accepting the resignation from a man who repeatedly sexually abused a little girl for almost five years and then lied about it?” Clemishire said after having reviewed a transcript of the recording provided by NBC News. “Why wasn’t he terminated?”

Clemishire and her lawyer, Boz Tchividjian, contend that she contacted Morris and church officials with her allegations in 2005 and 2007 and that Gateway’s board of elders should have long ago investigated Morris’ version of events. (Fambro began attending the church in 2006 and became an elder in 2014, according to Gateway’s website.)

Morris hasn’t been charged with a crime and didn’t respond to messages requesting comment.

The allegations were made public Friday in a post published by The Wartburg Watch, a website focused on exposing abuse in churches. Clemishire, 54, described in the post and in a subsequent interview with NBC News how Morris had molested her for years beginning on Christmas night in 1982, when she was 12.

Initially, Morris and Gateway’s elders responded Friday and Saturday 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.

“Since the resolution of this 35-year-old matter, there have been no other moral failures,” the elders said in a message to employees Friday.

But some Gateway parishioners and staff members viewed the statement itself as a moral failure. Why had church leaders described the alleged sex abuse of a 12-year-old with euphemisms?

Fambro didn’t address that question in his remarks Tuesday, and he and other church elders didn’t respond to messages requesting comment. A spokesperson for Gateway also didn’t respond.

The person who made the recording of Tuesday’s staff meeting said she shared it with a reporter because she believes the board of elders is “gaslighting” employees about its initial defense of Morris and needs to be replaced. NBC News isn’t naming the woman because she fears retaliation.

At the meeting, Fambro defended the board of elders, which he said had been fielding criticism from members who felt leaders had taken too long to respond to the crisis.

He said leaders had deliberated during multiple hourslong meetings Monday and Tuesday and were following the guidance they’d long gotten from their now-former senior pastor. 

“If you’ve been here long enough, you’ve heard Pastor Robert say, ‘Before we can move, we need to hear God,’” Fambro said. 

Fambro also told employees he and the other elders “have great compassion” for Clemishire and don’t condone what happened to her.

“You won’t hear us try to explain it away,” Fambro said. 

But, he added, that doesn’t mean “we don’t love Pastor Robert, that we’re not defending him.”

He then spoke extensively about the profound impact Morris had on his life and on the lives of tens of thousands of church members. Fambro encouraged the audience not to let the revelations of child sex abuse make them lose sight of the good that God had done — and would continue to do — through Gateway and Morris.

“So yes, there is an anointing on this house. Yes, there is an anointing on Pastor Robert,” Fambro said. “But both/and, yes? There was some stuff that was done. They both can exist.”

Gateway elder says there is ‘an anointing’ on Morris

Source: NBC News

Fambro asked the staff to pray for Morris’ family, including his son James Morris, who is associate senior pastor and had been scheduled to succeed his father upon his planned retirement next year.

Robert Morris is still pulling for Gateway, Fambro said, which was why he is stepping down.

“Pastor Robert wants to see Gateway Church succeed in the body of Christ,” Fambro said. “Pastor Robert wanted to resign to not be a distraction.”

Worshippers at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, in April 2023. (Danielle Villasana for NBC News)

Clemishire said the elders’ continued support for Morris “makes me sick.”

“How can a church believe that a man can be anointed by God after sexually abusing a child and then lying about it for decades?” she said. “This is repulsive.”

Although elders had asked those in attendance not to record Tuesday’s meeting, Fambro seemed to sense that his words might eventually reach a broader audience. He said he worried someone would “take a sound bite, a clip, part of a sentence” and twist its meaning.

In closing, before another church leader stepped forward to describe the counseling services that would be available to employees, Fambro encouraged the audience members to focus on what they can do to help the church succeed.

“I can dwell on the past,” he said. “You guys can, as well. Or I can choose to say: ‘That’s a data point. How can I affect the future?’”

“‘How,” Fambro added, “do we move forward?’”

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