Can Southlake pastor’s accuser bring charges against him? Here’s what Texas law says

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A woman accused the pastor of a North Texas megachurch over the weekend of sexually abusing her when she was 12 years old.

Robert Morris of Southlake’s Gateway Church has admitted to his congregation that his “rebellion took a form of immorality” that consisted of one night stands as a teenager. Leaked internal church documents show that he admitted to being “involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with a young lady in a home where I was staying.”

The abuse started on Christmas Day 1982 and continued for more than four years in Texas and Oklahoma, accuser Cindy Clemshire told The Wartburg Watch, a blog dedicated to exposing sexual abuse in churches.

After the abuse became known to both the Clemshire and Morris families when she was 16, Clemshire’s father reportedly gave Morris an ultimatum: either step down from the church or the sheriff will get a phone call.

Said call was never made, and Morris never faced charges. He took a short hiatus, but returned to the clergy after two years, according to the leaked letter to church elders. He ultimately went on to found one of the country’s largest churches with campuses in 10 cities as well as online and prison ministries.

He also served on former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council. Trump said at a roundtable discussion at Gateway Church’s Dallas campus in June 2020 that Morris had a “great reputation.” The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Four decades after the alleged abuse took place, what legal recourse does Clemshire have to obtain justice? Here’s what Texas law and legal experts say about the options available to her.

What is the criminal statute of limitations on child sexual abuse in Texas?

There is no statute of limitations for criminal charges of continued sexual assault against a minor, per the Texas Criminal Code of Procedure. The Texas Penal Code defines a child as someone under the age of 17.

However, this does not mean that criminal charges can be brought against Morris for his alleged abuse of Clemshire when she was a girl, according to Dallas-based personal injury attorney John Arnold.

“As long as the legislature extends the criminal limitations period before the victim’s limitations period has expired, the victim can benefit from the changed law,” Arnold said in an email exchange.

But Clemshire’s limitations period ended long ago, he said.

The Texas Legislature removed the statute of limitations for this crime in 2007, he said, but the change was not made retroactive. This means that the statute of limitations in force at the time of the alleged crime still applies.

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The criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse at the time of Morris’ alleged crimes was five years from the date of the offense. That limit was upped to 10 years in 1991, then in 2000 it became 10 years from the date the victim turned 18.

Following the news of Morris’ alleged abuse, state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Collin County Republican, announced that he plans to hold interim hearings on changing the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases.

“There must be no safe haven or security for anyone who abuses a child in Texas,” he told the Quorum Report, adding that any changes would “substantially” change the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.

Leach did not immediately respond to a request for comment seeking details on the changes he will seek.

What is the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse?

As of 2019, the statute of limitations to file a civil suit in cases of child sexual abuse is 30 years from the victim’s 18th birthday. This statute went from five to 15 years in 2015.

It appears that it is too late for Clemshire to bring a civil case against Morris, considering she turned 18 in 1988, Arnold said.

There is a tolling, or means of extension, of the statute of limitations for a victim who has been of “unsound mind” throughout the 30-year period.

“In other words, a child grows into her teen years and into adulthood and doesn’t really remember what happened, because they’re so traumatized,” he said. “It takes some kind of triggering event later on in adulthood to bring the repressed memories flooding back.”

This tolling can be difficult to obtain, as there is disagreement in the psychological community about the validity of repressed memories, Arnold said.

He referred to a similar case out of the Houston Court of Appeals in which men alleging to be victims of Southern Baptist leader and Republican activist Paul Pressler, who died earlier this month, attempted to sue him for sexual assault citing the unsound mind tolling.

The court denied that suit, but left open the possibility of using the unsound mind tolling to sue alleged abusers after the statute of limitations has passed.

Clemshire likely will not be able to use the unsound mind tolling. She hired an attorney to file a civil suit against Morris in 2005, The Wartburg Watch reported. An attorney for Morris reportedly implied that the abuse was her fault, calling her “flirtatious” as a child.

She was offered $25,000 to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but she refused.

Clemshire did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Arnold told the Star-Telegram that he hopes that her case will encourage other victims to come forward.

“These clergy sex abuse victims need to be informed and motivated to call the police and take action,” he said. “Too many of them don’t, for different reasons.”