Woman who accused ex-Trump adviser of molesting her says he shouldn’t lead a church

Pastor Robert Morris, a Texas megachurch pastor who served as a spiritual adviser to former President Donald Trump, has confessed to a “moral failure” four decades ago after a woman accused him of repeatedly molesting her as a child.

The woman, Cindy Clemishire, told NBC News that Morris, now a senior pastor of Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, was staying with her family on Christmas night in 1982. She was 12; he was 21. Clemishire, now 54, said he invited her to his room, where he instructed her to lie on her back. He then touched her breasts and felt under her panties, Clemishire said — the first of several similar encounters that would span the next 4½ years, she said.

“Never tell anyone about this,” Clemishire recalled him saying. “It will ruin everything.”

Cindy, the accuser, at age 12, with her older sister.

Cindy Clemishire, left, pictured at age 12, with her older sister.Courtesy Cindy Clemishire

Clemishire’s accusations were made public Friday on The Wartburg Watch, a website focused on exposing stories of abuse in churches. Responding to questions about Clemishire’s account, Morris acknowledged Saturday in a statement to The Christian Post, an evangelical news site, what he called “inappropriate sexual behavior with a young lady” when he was in his 20s.

“It was kissing and petting and not intercourse, but it was wrong,” Morris said in the statement. The same written statement was sent to Gateway Church employees Friday within hours of Clemishire’s story being published in The Wartburg Watch, according to a copy of the message reviewed by NBC News.

Without naming Clemishire, Morris said the sexual encounters happened on “several occasions” over the next few years, until “the situation was brought to light” in March 1987 — seeming to confirm the timeline Clemishire described. Morris said he confessed to church elders at the time and sought forgiveness.

“Since that time, I have walked in purity and accountability in this area,” Morris said, according to the statement. “The sin was dealt with correctly by confession and repentance.”

Morris has not been charged with a crime. He and Gateway Church officials did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment. In the message to employees Friday, Gateway officials said Morris had “properly disclosed” the matter to church elders.

“Since the resolution of this 35-year-old matter, there have been no other moral failures,” the message said.

Morris’ reach and influence extend far beyond his role leading one of the country’s largest megachurches. He served on Trump’s spiritual advisory board during his first presidential campaign and while Trump was president. In a statement Monday to NBC News, campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung distanced Trump from Morris and said the former president had not been aware of the allegations.

“He does not have a role with the 2024 campaign,” Cheung said. “President Trump’s broad appeal among faith communities across the country is a testament to his unwavering commitment to upholding faith and the protection of religious liberties.”

Robert Morris, center, founding pastor of the megachurch Gateway, during a service at the church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Morris is known nationally for his efforts to advance conservative Christian morality through government and Republican politics.Ilana Panich-Linsman / The New York Times / Redux file

Clemishire said she was disgusted by Morris’ description of her as a “young lady.” She also noted that in his 2005 book, “From Dream to Destiny,” Morris wrote that he stepped away from ministry for two years in the late 1980s because God revealed he had become too prideful, omitting any mention of the sexual misconduct that church leaders now say prompted the temporary departure.

“I don’t know if anybody deserves restoration to a position when they were doing criminal acts to a child,” Clemishire said Monday. “I believe that people can be restored when caught doing something if there’s true repentance, but when you lie about it, I don’t believe that’s true repentance.”

Clemishire’s attorney, Boz Tchividjian, is a former prosecutor who has spent three decades investigating sexual misconduct and child abuse. Tchividjian, a grandson of the famed evangelist Billy Graham, said the use of phrases such as “moral failure” and “young lady” is meant “to sanitize something that is criminal.”

“I was responsible for putting people in prison who are still there to this day for doing the same things that Robert Morris did to my client,” Tchividjian said. “They’re sitting in prison, and he’s preaching in front of thousands, week in, week out.”

When Clemishire’s family met Morris, he was a traveling evangelist who spoke at churches and high school assemblies under the tutelage of James Robison, a televangelist and leader in the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s. By 1987, Morris was a pastor at Shady Grove Church, located between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Clemishire said that, at the urging of a friend, she finally told her father that March, at age 17, about how Morris had abused her over the years. She said her father, furious, called the lead pastor at Shady Grove and threatened to file a police report unless Morris stepped down from ministry.

What followed, according to the staff message from Gateway elders, was a “two-year restoration process,” including professional counseling. In his statement, Morris said the girl’s father blessed his return to ministry at the end of the two years, which Clemishire denies.

“My dad said, ‘I’ve turned you over to God; you’re just lucky I didn’t kill you,’” Clemishire said. “So that was not a blessing.”

A decade later, in 2000, Morris founded Gateway Church in Southlake, which has grown into one of the country’s largest megachurches, with an estimated weekly attendance of 100,000 people at several campuses.

Clemishire, who works as a real estate agent in Oklahoma, said she has tried repeatedly over the years to tell church leaders about what she says Morris did to her as a child — at Gateway and at other congregations. Her story came out last week only after a retired pastor suggested she speak with The Wartburg Watch. It has been painful, Clemishire said, to watch Morris grow in prominence and influence.

“He wouldn’t be allowed to work in the nursery at his church if he had disclosed the truth,” she said. “Why should he be standing in the pulpit?”

Today, Morris is known in Texas and nationally for his efforts to advance conservative Christian morality through government and Republican politics. Like many evangelical leaders, Morris remained loyal to Trump after his attempts to overturn the 2020 election helped fuel the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Eight months later, in September 2021, Morris joined a conference call of pro-Trump evangelical leaders and prayed that the nation would “never have another election stolen from the American people” — echoing Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud.

In 2017, Morris called on parishioners to support a bill — pitched by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, as a way to “protect the safety of women and children” — that would have banned transgender people from using public bathrooms that correspond with their genders.

He has also preached about dangers posed to children in public schools, where Morris said Satan has been attacking students through curricula and libraries. Ahead of Election Day each of the last four years, Morris has promoted local conservative school board candidates who ran on promises to defeat the spread of critical race theory and LGBTQ inclusion policies in schools.

“If you haven’t looked at the material that is in schoolbooks that are in our school libraries, I want you to look,” Morris said from the pulpit in May 2022. “It is as pornographic as anything you’ve ever read.”

Like most evangelical pastors, Morris teaches a strict adherence to sexual purity outside of marriage. In a 2014 sermon, he spoke of his own struggle with sexual immorality when he was a teenager. To satisfy his sinful lust, Morris said, he “learned to lie and manipulate” and to target “girls that were insecure.”

“Girls were made to be held by men,” Morris told his congregation before he referred to a Bible passage about rape. “If that need is not met in a healthy way by their father, they will meet it in an unhealthy way.”

Speaking to the women in the congregation, Morris then said that when a man seeks a sexual relationship outside marriage, such as when he is flirting at the office, it is because “he’s satisfying an appetite that you created in him.”

“I’m not saying that it’s right,” Morris said, “but I’m trying to get you to understand how important it is not to create an appetite in someone.”

Clemishire said she felt ill when she saw a video of the sermon this week. To her, it sounded as though Morris was blaming girls and women for the sins of men.

“When he presented himself to be vulnerable onstage and share all of his shortcomings, of course people are going to be drawn to that,” Clemishire said. “I don’t think they would have been drawn to the fact that he molested a 12-year-old child.”

woman who accused ex-trump adviser of molesting her says he shouldn’t lead a church
Mike Hixenbaugh

Mike Hixenbaugh is a senior investigative reporter for NBC News, based in Maryland, and author of "They Came for the Schools."

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