The Gateway abuse scandal demands change in 21st-century megachurches

Child sex abuse can’t be tolerated at any level within houses of God.
People gather on June 22 outside Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas., to protest child and sexual abuse in the church. (Chris Torres/McClatchy Tribune)

Credit: Chris Torres

Credit: Chris Torres

People gather on June 22 outside Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas., to protest child and sexual abuse in the church. (Chris Torres/McClatchy Tribune)

Tragically, sexual abuse is nothing new in the church. Understandably, global focus has been on the decades of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic faith. Those crimes, once uncovered, resulted in hundreds of millions (billions worldwide) of dollars in settlements to families, the closing of parishes and some priests being criminally prosecuted. The scandal in Boston in the early 2000s rocked the Catholic Church globally. The latest such Catholic Church sex abuse scandal was uncovered in Illinois in 2023 and involved more than 2,000 victims.

All of this “spotlight” on Catholic abuse, however, has given an illusion that sexual abuse only happens in the Catholic Church. It does not. Sexual abuse, assault, rape, and other violence against women, girls and boys happens in all faiths, and in the evangelical megachurch world it happens a lot and is unreported far too often.

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Credit: handout

Enter Gateway Church in Dallas, Tex. Robert Morris of the nationally famous Gateway megachurch resigned last month as senior pastor over an admission that he began sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl 35 years ago. The girl, now a woman in her 50s, said that she told church leaders and others in ministry more than 20 years ago, seeking their help in exposing Morris for his past abuse. They did nothing. Just across Dallas from Gateway, another longtime pastor, Tony Evans, stepped down recently for what he calls a sin — unconfirmed rumors about the “sin” continue to swirl.

Over the past month or so, Gateway Church has been trying to get out from under the Morris scandal only for it to be revealed this past weekend, as reported in the Christian Post, that the church leadership at Gateway settled an alleged sexual assault of a minor lawsuit that involved up to five pastors.

According to one well-placed renowned megachurch consultant I spoke with, “abuse is often covered up, ignored, even condoned in the name of protecting the church’s financial interest and membership.” She said, “the church, like many powerful institutions, is male-dominated, a boys club of sorts. These pastors are like celebrity athletes, actors and business moguls. They fly in jets, own million-dollar homes and live a lavish lifestyle.”

One of the most abusive tactics used on victims and their families who want to speak out is to “not come against the anointed man of God.” This tactic blames victims who speak out as seeking to “tear down” the church, or the pastor God has anointed, and pits the victim not just against church leadership but against God himself. Morris allegedly tried this on his victim.

My point: Megachurch world has a dark culture of pastor worship. These men have unfettered power and wealth, and many of them command global audiences through television, radio or the gospel artists they discover and develop into superstar talent. Churches like Gateway have thousands of members and bring in tens of millions in tithes each year. Gateway says it says it has a 100% tithe rate.

I have reported on what goes on in the lives of evangelical megachurch pastors and their wives for more than a decade. One of the most memorable interviews I did as a journalist was for my award-winning 2013 Essence magazine cover featureFirst Ladies Club,” a series of interviews with the first ladies of megachurches, including Riva Tims, formerly the wife of pastor Zachary Tims, who died in a hotel of a drug overdose; Pastor Taffi Dollar of Atlanta; Serita Jakes of “The Potter’s House” in Texas.

Here’s the bottom line: Gone are the days where powerful men such as Morris and church leaders can cover up sex abuse, sexual assault and the grooming of young girls or boys. The speed of the internet and viral videos, confessions and allegations make it increasingly impossible to ignore the blowback of such accusations. The abuses in the Catholic Church have given credibility to other victims who are now coming forward. I suspect we will see more made-for-TV movies and exposes on the victims who are willing to share their stories publicly.

But the point is this: Modern churches, whether Catholic, evangelical or other, must clean house of sexual predators and abusers in their midst. Perhaps removing their nonprofit status of any church found to have protected an abuser would straighten them up.

Churches’ and pastors’ duty is first to the God they say they serve, who has a clear scriptural mandate against abuse of any kind and then to the faithful parishioners who give their hard-earned money and time to be a part of their congregations. It is not just a moral failing when church leaders sexually assault, groom or touch minors. It is a crime. And it must be exposed and addressed immediately by church leaders. Because the reality is, sooner or later in this brave 21st century, sooner or later, we will know that church leaders covered it up instead of shutting it down.

Sophia A. Nelson is a CNN contributor and the author of “Black Woman Redefined : Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama” and “E Pluribus One : Reclaiming our Founders’ Vision for a United America.”