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Texas megachurch pastor Robert Morris' alleged sexual assault sparks protests, congregation seeks answers

Gateway Church congregation reeling after Robert Morris revelations
Gateway Church congregation reeling after Robert Morris revelations 03:21

SOUTHLAKE — Gateway Church leaders addressed their congregation for the first time since founding pastor Robert Morris resigned after being publicly accused of sexually assaulting a child in the 1980s, allegations that have part of the North Texas community asking the megachurch for accountability. 

It was a packed house at Southlake, one of nine Gateway Church locations across the region, as they held their service on Saturday.

The congregation is still reeling from the news that their founding pastor was accused of abusing a young girl beginning in 1982, when she was just 12 years old. A church elder began Saturday's service with an emotional message for the church community.

"As an elder, I did not know the truth and, frankly, like many of you my wife and I are shocked, devastated and grieving," said Tra Willbanks, a Gateway Church elder. "I'd like to express my personal compassion for Cindy Clemishire, I can't imagine carrying a burden like that for so many years and I want to say to you, Cindy, I'm so sorry."

Clemishire said the abuse continued until 1987. Morris was a traveling evangelist at the time and had become close to the alleged victim's family.

In a statement to the Christian Post, Morris admitted to "inappropriate sexual behavior" and a statement posted on social media from elders at the church said the allegations were brought to light 35 years ago; at the time, Morris stepped away for two years to receive counseling. Church elders now said they were told by Morris that he had had a relationship with a "young lady" but they didn't know the victim was 12 years old at the time. 

"Simply put abuse in any form cannot be tolerated and we as elders have the responsibility to do whatever it takes to learn the truth," Willbanks said. 

Protests against Robert Morris outside Gateway Church

Outside Saturday's service, protesters held signs supporting Morris' accuser and called on the church to protect children. Some got into heated exchanges with church members.

"When I heard that this pastor had got away with molesting a child and is now worth $100 million and has people following him in this church I felt like a voice needed to be heard for the voiceless," said protester Lori Arnold.

Protesters also called for accountability from church leadership.

"To find out who really knew about this from the elders from their leadership it would be nice to see pastor Morris go to jail," Arnold added. 

But longtime church members like Lou Comunale said it was important for them to be here today to hear what church leadership had to say on the matter. 

"I think it was on target, I think he did not hide behind the shame there was a certain amount of shame that it brought to the church but we went beyond that and we're not just looking to one man, were looking to Jesus Christ and this church is going to thrive because they fessed up," Comunale said.

The church said it hired an outside law firm to conduct an independent inquiry into the allegations. 

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