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Gateway Church settles lawsuits alleging child sex assault, harassment: "God gave her cancer to teach her a lesson"

Gateway Church settles lawsuits alleging child sex assault, harassment: "God gave her cancer to teach her a lesson"
Gateway Church settles lawsuits alleging child sex assault, harassment: "God gave her cancer to teach her a lesson" 02:14

SOUTHLAKE — The North Texas megachurch embroiled in controversy over its founder's alleged child abuse settled multiple unrelated lawsuits in the months before that accusation went public, court records show.

Gateway Church recently settled two lawsuits: one in April and another one in June.

Gateway Church 2020 lawsuit

The case settled in April involved accusations that multiple church pastors covered up the alleged sexual abuse of a child by a member of the congregation in March 2018. The child's mother filed the lawsuit in Tarrant County in 2020, which also claimed pastors encouraged members of the congregation to ostracize her.

The lawsuit also claimed that church leaders conspired when they failed to inform law enforcement that they were aware of the alleged abuse and had spoken with the church member accused. It also said the church leaders tried to discredit the allegations.

For its part, the megachurch said it is not guilty of any cover-up or failure to report, stating that the incident from the 2020 lawsuit did not happen on a Gateway campus or at a Gateway event, but between two teens during a sleepover at a family home.

The church said a third teenager was told about the incident and later relayed it to his mother, a Gateway Church staff member, who reported it to "proper authorities within 48 hours."

"The mother of the victim was irate and claimed [Gateway Church] intentionally hid the story for weeks and failed to report it to authorities," the church said in a statement to CBS News Texas. 

"She decided to file a lawsuit against [Gateway Church] … After the mother of the girl went through [six] different attorneys the insurance company decided to provide a settlement to avoid further litigation and expense. This was the 'compromise of disputed claims,' which Gateway justly defended in court," the church added.

Gateway Church 2023 lawsuit

As the accusations that church founder Robert Morris sexually abused a child decades ago gained national attention, Gateway Church settled an unrelated case brought by an employee who claimed she was discriminated against and sexually harassed by her boss, one of the church's pastors, who allegedly told her "God gave her cancer to teach her a lesson."

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff began working at the church in 2018 as an administrative assistant having recently finished treatment for cancer.

The lawsuit claimed that a pastor she worked for made derogatory remarks about her appearance as well as unwanted "romantic advances."

The woman reported this alleged behavior by the pastor in 2018, and was told not to be alone with him and was encouraged to apply for a more senior position, according to the lawsuit. 

The plaintiff said she did apply for a new role within the church and was told during the interview process that she was "more than qualified," but that they actually wanted to hire a man for the senior position because "our congregation responds better to men." She did not get the job and a man was hired for the role, according to the lawsuit.

She said she was forced to continue working with the pastor as he continued to make inappropriate remarks and tried to physically touch her. The lawsuit also claimed that when she requested to report to a different pastor she was accused of being insubordinate.

On one occasion in 2021, the pastor asked the plaintiff during lunch if she knew "what opened Pandora's box for the MeToo movement" and if she knew what started that movement. After saying she did not, the pastor responded: "It all started with the false accusations against Bill Cosby. Then that opened Pandora's box for all the false allegations," the lawsuit said. 

That pastor was terminated later in 2021 with two years salary severance pay, and, according to the lawsuit, the plaintiff was told it was her fault, and offered six months severance payment if she would resign that day. A few months later, the plaintiff was fired during a Zoom call.

Both cases were settled for undisclosed amounts.

The scandal surrounding Gateway Church's Robert Morris

The public controversy for the megachurch began in June, when Cindy Clemishire publicly claimed Morris sexually assaulted her starting in 1982 when she was 12 years old. Morris was a traveling Evangelist in his early 20s and had become close with her family. 

Those allegations were first published by The Wartburg Watch, a North Carolina-based church watchdog blog, and then picked up by The Christian Post. Clemishire told The Wartburg Watch the alleged abuse continued until 1987. 

Morris acknowledged in a sermon in 2014 that he was "sexually immoral" when he was a young man and admitted to "inappropriate sexual behavior" In a statement to the Christian Post.

"When I was in my early twenties, I was involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with a young lady in a home where I was staying," he said. "It was kissing and petting and not intercourse, but it was wrong. This behavior happened on several occasions over the next few years."

Church elders said Morris disclosed to them he'd had an extramarital affair, but not that he had allegedly abused a 12-year-old.

On June 18, Morris resigned from his position as senior pastor at Gateway Church.

Clemishire said she has mixed thoughts and feelings regarding Morris' resignation and believes she is not the only victim.

"Though I am grateful that he is no longer a pastor at Gateway, I am disappointed that the Board of Elders allowed him to resign," Clemishire wrote in a statement. "He should have been terminated."

She rebuked church elders for knowing and acknowledging her claims of sexual abuse, but intentionally embracing "the false narrative Robert Morris wanted them to believe."

On June 23, protesters gathered outside the church as a church elder addressed the congregation for the first time after Clemishire's statements.

"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."

Four members of the Gateway Church Board of Elders, including Robert Morris' son, were put on temporary leaves of absence as an outside legal team investigates the sexual abuse of a child accusations against Morris, the church said on June 28. 

Founded in 2000, the Southlake-based Gateway Church expanded to become one of the largest congregations in the nation, drawing approximately 100,000 attendees each weekend to its nine campuses. Morris broadcasted his weekly program live online to over 190 countries, reaching even wider audiences.

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