Lawyer for megachurch pastor blamed 12-year-old for initiating ‘inappropriate’ sexual conduct

In 1982, pastor Robert Morris was a 21-year-old husband and father who traveled the country telling young people about Jesus.

Cindy Clemishire was a 12-year-old girl who dressed in flowery pink pajamas and still liked to play with Barbie dolls.

On Christmas that year, Morris — who would go on to found Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, and become a leading figure in the American evangelical movement — began what he would later describe as “inappropriate sexual behavior” with Clemishire while he was staying at her parents’ home in Oklahoma. Clemishire said Morris told her to come see him in his room before bed, and she was the type of girl who listened to instructions from trusted adults.

But 25 years later, when Clemishire hired an attorney and threatened to sue Morris, accusing him of repeatedly molesting her as a child, a lawyer representing Morris responded by blaming Clemishire for what happened to her, according to 2007 correspondence obtained by NBC News.

“It was your client,” wrote lawyer J. Shelby Sharpe, referring to Clemishire at age 12, “who initiated inappropriate behavior by coming into my client’s bedroom and getting in bed with him, which my client should not have allowed to happen.”

For more on this story, watch NBC’s “Nightly News with Lester Holt” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT.

Cindy Clemishire sit for an interview in Grapevine, Texas, on July 2, 2024. (Nitashia Johnson for NBC News)

Cindy Clemishire sit for an interview in Grapevine, Texas, on July 2, 2024. (Nitashia Johnson for NBC News)

The Feb. 6, 2007, letter was one in a series of exchanges that year between Sharpe and Gentner Drummond, a lawyer who represented Clemishire at the time. Clemishire said in an interview last week she had been seeking $50,000 in restitution from Morris to cover the cost of counseling. Morris, through his lawyer, instead offered to pay $25,000, but the talks fell apart, Clemishire said, because she was not willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Drummond, who is now Oklahoma’s attorney general, confirmed Clemishire’s description of the 2007 negotiations and declined to comment further.

Reached by phone Monday, Sharpe said that he had no recollection of the $25,000 settlement offer or NDA demand and that he no longer represents Morris. He denied knowing at the time that Clemishire had been a child when Morris began engaging in sexual behavior with her. However, the initial correspondence Drummond sent to him stated clearly that Clemishire was “twelve years old” when the abuse began.

“I don’t ever remember seeing that,” Sharpe said after a reporter read the document to him. After a reporter offered to share a copy of the messages, Sharpe said he did not have time to read them and declined to share an email address.

“I can tell you that the letters that you’ve seen, they speak for themselves,” said Sharpe, who has also served as a personal attorney to Paige Patterson, a Southern Baptist Convention leader accused of mishandling or concealing sexual assaults that date back to the late 1980s. “I will not amplify beyond those letters, because they speak for themselves.”

Morris did not respond to messages.

Robert Morris, founding pastor of the megachurch Gateway, delivers a sermon at the church in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2018. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times / Redux Pictures)

Robert Morris, founding pastor of the megachurch Gateway, delivers a sermon at the church in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2018. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times / Redux Pictures)

Clemishire went public with her accusations last month in a post published by the church watchdog site The Wartburg Watch. Morris responded with a statement admitting to “inappropriate sexual behavior” and saying he had long ago confessed and repented. Gateway Church leaders initially said Morris had been “open and forthright about a moral failure he had over 35 years ago” but later said they did not know Clemishire was a child at the time.

Within days, Morris resigned as senior pastor of the megachurch he started in 2000, and Gateway elders hired an outside law firm to investigate the matter.

Lawrence Swicegood, a Gateway spokesperson, said church leaders had not seen the 2007 letters between Drummond and Sharpe. Swicegood said that before Clemishire went public with her story last month, “the current Elders did not have all the facts.”

While the internal review is underway, four Gateway officials have agreed to take leaves of absence from the board of elders, the church announced last month. One is pastor James Morris, Robert Morris’ son. The three others served on the board of elders during the critical period from 2005 to 2007 when Clemishire was seeking damages.

“Gateway Church is committed to protecting people — first and foremost children and the most vulnerable,” Swicegood said in an email. “Abuse simply cannot be tolerated.”

Clemishire, now 54, sees the 2007 letter from Sharpe as part of a pattern of Morris and his associates’ attempting to make her feel guilt and shame for what he did to her.

“They don’t look at a child as someone to protect,” Clemishire said.

Clemishire said she struggled for years with “profound confusion” over what Morris did, believing for nearly two decades that she was to blame. She said Morris molested her more than 100 times over 4½ years. After the first encounter on Christmas in 1982, Clemishire said, “it just progressed to a lot of kissing and touching and inserting fingers into my body.” She said Morris pressured her to have intercourse, but she refused. Morris has acknowledged “kissing and petting” and argued that the number of incidents was a fraction of what Clemishire alleges.

file photos of Cindy Clemishire and Robert Morris (Courtesy Cindy Clemishire)

file photos of Cindy Clemishire and Robert Morris (Courtesy Cindy Clemishire)

Clemishire said that in the mid-2000s, after years of counseling and after having watched a television interview about grooming and sex abuse, she realized what happened to her was a crime.

She began writing to Morris at his Gateway Church email address in 2005, asking that he compensate her for the trauma she says he inflicted. In 2007, she hired Drummond to make a formal demand, according to documents provided to NBC News by Boz Tchividjian, the lawyer she hired last month.

On Jan. 30, 2007, Drummond wrote to Sharpe on behalf of Clemishire, using her legal name at the time, Cindy Clemishire McCaleb. Drummond detailed the sexual abuse Clemishire says she suffered from 1982 to 1987 and how Morris “led her to believe that they were having a special relationship that had to remain secret.”

“Morris convinced Ms. McCaleb that she was responsible for what he did to her,” Drummond wrote, “and he convinced her that she was the offender.”

Drummond attached a draft of a lawsuit he said Clemishire planned to file if Morris failed to respond within 15 days.

Sharpe responded a week later, on Feb. 6, 2007, with his letter casting Clemishire as the one who initiated sexual contact with Morris.

Sharpe also claimed in the letter that Clemishire “acted inappropriately with two other men who stayed in her home between 1982 and 1987,” when she was between the ages of 12 and 17. And Sharpe wrote that Clemishire had “confessed her conduct” to Glenda Faulkner, a woman who attended Shady Grove Church near Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1980s, when Morris was a pastor there.

Faulkner, now Glenda Faulkner-Woodliff — a licensed counselor who later attended Gateway — did not respond to messages requesting comment.

In an interview, Clemishire disputed Sharpe’s characterizations. She said two other men touched her inappropriately at her home when she was a child, but she said she did not initiate those interactions. In one instance, Clemishire said, it was Morris who instructed her, when she was 13, to go into a bedroom at her childhood home where another traveling evangelist was staying. Once she was inside, she said, the man, whom she declined to name, began to kiss her but eventually pulled away and told her she was too young.

In another instance, in 1986, Clemishire said, another man who was staying with her family climbed on top of her while she was sleeping on a sofa bed next to his 3-year-old daughter. She believed he planned to rape her, but she said the man suddenly got off of her.

“I really think God intervened,” Clemishire said. “God made him feel like someone was walking by, and he just rolled off of me and left.”

It was that incident, Clemishire said, that eventually led her to confide in Faulkner-Woodliff, also a family friend. Faulkner-Woodliff asked whether anyone else had ever touched her that way, Clemishire said. Clemishire then reluctantly explained what Morris had done to her, she said. Afterward, Clemishire said, Faulkner-Woodliff insisted that she tell her parents.

That’s how, in March 1987, her father learned that Morris had been sexually abusing her, Clemishire said. She said her father was enraged and contacted Olen Griffing, the senior pastor at Shady Grove Church, to demand that Morris step out of ministry.

Clemishire remembers getting a call from Morris’ wife, Debbie, a few days later.

Debbie told her, “I forgive you,” she said.

“I’ll never forget that,” Clemishire said. “They wanted me to believe that I — me, the child — was responsible for what happened. And they’ve never stopped trying to make me believe that.”

Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas on July 2, 2024. (Nitashia Johnson for NBC News)

Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas on July 2, 2024. (Nitashia Johnson for NBC News)

Griffing, now in his 80s, later served as a pastor and elder under Morris at Gateway Church. He did not respond to messages.

Clemishire’s older sister was living with her family in 1987 and corroborated Clemishire’s account of conversations that took place that year among her sister, her parents, Faulkner-Woodliff, Griffing and the Morris family.

In the years since then, Morris has repeatedly told a sanitized and, at times, distorted version of the story. He has spoken often from the pulpit of struggling with sexual immorality and having to step out of ministry in 1987. But in public tellings, he says sinful pride was the reason, omitting mention of his years of sexual contact with a child.

In a sermon at Gateway on June 10, 2017, in a message titled “The Principle of Honesty,” Morris described going through a “restoration process” about seven years into his marriage — which would have been in 1987. Morris said God told him he needed to confess “everything that I’ve ever done” to two people: Griffing, the former Shady Grove senior pastor, and his wife, Debbie.

He said he told Debbie, “I need to tell you who you really married.”

The confession took several hours, Morris said in the 2017 sermon, but he did not mention specific sins from the pulpit.

“I’ll never forget what she said,” Morris said, setting up a line that drew laughter from the Gateway congregation. “She said, ‘Robert, I knew you were bad when I married you. I didn’t know you were that bad.’”

When he told that story again on Aug. 28, 2022, in a sermon titled “Passing the Purity Test,” Morris presented his openness about his past failings as something congregants should emulate.

In that sermon, he recounted the Old Testament story of King David’s son Amnon, who is said to have raped his half-sister Tamar when she was a teenager. After he raped her, the Scripture says, Amnon’s love for Tamar turned to intense hatred, Morris said.

Morris presented the passage as a cautionary tale for “young ladies” in his congregation — a warning about what can happen when girls allow men to have sex with them before marriage.

“When love turns to lust and lust is fulfilled, then love can turn to hate, and here’s why,” Morris said. “One of the reasons, young ladies, that he loves you is he respects you. The very thing that the world tells you to give him so you can keep him could be the very thing that causes you to lose him.”

Because, he said, “you can’t love someone you don’t respect.”

People gather outside Gateway Church in protest of child sexual abuse in the church (Chris Torres / Fort Worth Star-Telegram via Getty Images)

People gather outside Gateway Church in protest of child sexual abuse in the church (Chris Torres / Fort Worth Star-Telegram via Getty Images)

As she has watched Morris grow in power, prominence and wealth over the years, Clemishire said, she has always believed none of it would have been possible had he not hidden the truth of what he did to her.

On Feb. 16, 2007, Sharpe, Morris’ lawyer, sent a follow-up letter to Drummond indicating a desire to keep her allegations out of court. He proposed settling the matter through “Christian arbitration consistent with 1 Corinthians 6:1-8,” referring to a Bible passage evangelicals often cite to argue it is immoral to sue other Christians.

Sharpe said he had one goal with the suggestion: “I was at the time trying to reach a good resolution for everybody.”

But Clemishire, who did not agree to the arbitration, believes the true goal had been to keep her quiet and protect Morris from the types of repercussions he has faced since she went public last month.

“I don’t think there was any true repentance or sorrow for what happened,” Clemishire said.

Otherwise, she said, “that would not have been the response.”

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