‘Even the largest churches can fall.’ Will Gateway survive Morris sex abuse scandal?

Southlake’s Gateway Church is reeling from the shocking child sex abuse allegations against its founder Robert Morris, prompting questions of how one of the country’s largest churches will weather the scandal.

Morris resigned from the church last week after allegations surfaced that he sexually abused a 12-year-old girl in the 1980s.

Gateway Church has seen protests and even more allegations of sex abuse after Cindy Clemishire spoke out about the alleged abuse, which she said occurred when she was between 12 and 16.

The Southlake-based megachurch held its inaugural service at the Hilton Hotel in Grapevine in April 2000 and moved to Southlake in 2003. It moved into its 64-acre campus there in 2010 and went on to become the ninth largest church in the country, according to Outreach magazine. Its auditorium was around half-full for the first Sunday service since Morris resigned.

Only time will tell if Gateway will survive the scandal. It depends on how much of its congregation it can hold onto, according to religion experts and activists with experience with church sex abuse scandals. Gateway says on its website that over 100,000 people attend services at its 10 campuses each weekend.

“If it affects membership, if it affects donations, then even the largest churches can fall,” said Warren Throckmorton, a former psychology professor at Grove City College, a Christian university in the Pennsylvania town of the same name. Throckmorton writes a blog and books about church and religious issues.

Throckmorton wrote extensively on the collapse of Seattle-based Mars Hills Church in 2014 after pastor Mark Driscoll faced multiple allegations of verbally abusive and coercive behavior toward elders and church staff.

“I think there’s a very real potential that can happen with Gateway, because the public just lost confidence in Morris,” he said. “If Mars Hill Church can go down based on Mark Driscolls’ behavior, then how much more should Gateway follow suit? But it is big. It’s a bigger organization, bigger business than Mars Hill.”

Were Gateway to fail, it would not be the first in North Texas to dissolve as a result of a sex scandal. Harvest Church in Watauga lost over a third of its congregation after pastor Ollin Collins was accused of sexual misconduct in 1998. Membership rebounded slightly after a change in leadership, but the church is no longer functioning today.

Others watching the Gateway scandal aren’t as inclined to believe that Clemishire’s allegations have turned off enough of Morris’ flock to bring about the church’s demise.

Dee Parsons writes for The Wartburg Watch and broke the news of Clemishire’s allegations against Morris. She expects the church to lose around 10% to 20% of its congregation, but thinks it will ultimately weather the storm.

“I’m not convinced Morris is out of the game yet,” she said. “I think he is the church, and I have a feeling he’s part of the infrastructure of the church.”

She said that while even more members may “trickle out” over time, there are enough “true believers” to keep the church going even after Morris’ demise.

“He was grooming his church by talking about repentance and forgiveness and, ‘Oh, by the way, the devil made me do it, there are demons and so forth.’ He’s very, very clever,” she said. “I think he has a fair number of people who actually believe that that was too long ago, and he’s been restored, and what’s the big deal?”

Gateway Church did not respond to voicemails, email and social media messages requesting comment.

What are Gateway’s ‘restoration’ and ‘freedom ministry,’ and how do they work?

According to an internal memo circulated among Gateway staff that was leaked to the watchdog blog Watchkeep, Morris claimed to have undergone a two-year period of “restoration” after Clemishire’s family became aware of the abuse in 1987.

The memo included a statement attributed to Morris in which he referred to 12-year-old Clemsishire as “a young lady” and said the abuse involved “kissing and petting and not intercourse.”

The elders at the church where he served at the time advised him to take a leave of absence and “receive counseling and freedom ministry,” he said.

“Since that time, I have walked in purity and accountability in this area,” he said.

Parsons noted how Morris wrote in a book published in 2011 that he temporarily stepped down from the ministry when he was 25 due to issues with pride. During that time, he got a job as a hotel security guard.

“After a month of working nights at Motel 6, I felt I had made great strides toward humility,” Morris wrote.

There is no universally accepted concept of restoration in the Christian church, according to Throckmorton.

“It varies among evangelical churches,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything uniform.”

For some churches, restoration can involve anything from mentoring or counseling with elders, while others may simply impose a period of removing the offender from the public eye, Throckmorton said.

“It’s just stay out of sight. They don’t really do much, but usually there’s some version of what they call counseling, but it’s not like mental health counseling, although I guess some probably do that,” he said.

One Christian missions organization, DOVE International, has clear guidelines for discipline and restoration on its website, which include making the sin public as part of the process. Morris’ restoration process did not include this step.

Gateway Church’s website has a page outlining its “freedom ministry,” the goal of which is to help people “find freedom from bondage in their life.”

“It is our position that demonic forces can influence a person in varying degrees from an external position as well as an internal position,” the page reads. “When we live by the flesh, we give the devil an opportunity.”

For Parsons, who emphasized that she is a Christian, and others seeking accountability for sexual abuse in churches, restoration is possible on a personal level, but not on a professional one.

“Restoration is roundly decried by people who are involved in the sex abuse crisis within like the Southern Baptist Convention and other places,” she said, noting how other professions like counselors, physicians and social workers lose their licenses in cases of sexual abuse.

“It is really awful when the secular world has higher moral values than the church itself has,” she said. “What they should do is kick them out of the church first. When you mess with a kid, you’re out of the church. Now, do some repentance, and if you really repent, we might let you come back to church. And if you super duper repent, we might let you take communion again, but you never are going to stand behind the pulpit again, and that is what most people that are in these circles now believe.”