Listen to audio of Gateway Church leader announcing Robert Morris’ resignation over child sex abuse scandal

Four days after learning of decades-old allegations of child sexual abuse against their senior pastor, Robert Morris, hundreds of Gateway Church employees poured into an auditorium in Southlake, Texas, on Tuesday. to know his fate.

Some staff members looked solemn as they found their seats. Others looked angry. One participant took out her cell phone and secretly pressed the disk. She later shared the audio with NBC News and described the meeting in an interview. A second person present confirmed his account and the authenticity of the recording.

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

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

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 made Gateway one of America’s largest megachurches and who served on former President Donald Trump’s spiritual council board — had admitted to engaging in “inappropriate sexual behavior” with a child.

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

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

“What we didn’t know was that she was 12.”

Cindy Clemishire, the woman who accused Morris of molesting her when she was a child, disputed the notion that Morris had been transparent. In a statement to NBC News, she said she was troubled that Gateway alumni were debating whether or not to remove him from leadership.

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

Clemishire and her attorney, Boz Tchividjian, argue 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 the Gateway website.)

Morris has not been charged with a crime and did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The allegations were made public Friday in an article 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 molested her for years starting on Christmas night 1982, when she was 12 years old.

Initially, Morris and Gateway elders responded Friday and Saturday by acknowledging in statements that Morris had multiple sexual relationships with a “young woman” when he was in his 20s and saying he had been transparent about the matter. of his sin and that he had repented.

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

But some parishioners and Gateway staff viewed the statement itself as a moral failure. Why did Church leaders describe the alleged sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl with euphemisms?

Fambro did not address that issue in his speech Tuesday, and he and other church elders did not respond to messages seeking comment. A Gateway spokesperson also did not respond.

The person who recorded Tuesday’s staff meeting said she shared it with a reporter because she believed the alumni council was “gaslighting” employees on its initial defense of Morris and should be replaced. NBC News is not naming the woman because it fears retaliation.

Pastor Robert Morris greets President Donald Trump as he arrives for a discussion on the campus of Gateway Church Dallas in 2020.File Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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

He said leaders deliberated in hours-long meetings Monday and Tuesday and were following advice they had long received from their now former senior pastor.

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

Fambro also told employees that he and other alumni “had great compassion” for Clemishire and did not condone what happened to him.

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

But, he added, that does not mean “that we do not love Pastor Robert, that we do not defend him.”

He then spoke at length about the profound impact Morris had on his life and the lives of tens of thousands of church members. Fambro encouraged the audience not to let revelations of child sexual abuse cause them to 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 were things that were done. Both can exist.

Fambro asked staff to pray for Morris’ family, including his son James Morris, who serves as senior associate pastor and was expected to succeed his father when he retires planned for next year.

Robert Morris is still running for Gateway, Fambro said, which is why he is resigning.

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

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 for decades? ” she says. “It’s disgusting.”

Although the elders asked those in attendance not to record Tuesday’s meeting, Fambro seemed to sense his words could potentially reach a wider audience. He said he was concerned that someone would “take a soundbite, a snippet, a part of a sentence” and distort its meaning.

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

“I can dwell on the past,” he said. “You can too. 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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