[Editor's note: This content includes accounts of sexual abuse and may be triggering for some readers.]
Faith is a powerful thing, and the flock at Church on the Rise in Westlake has it in spades. Some beliefs, after all, cannot be shaken: faith in God, faith in their religion, or faith in their pastor, no matter what prosecutors and an alleged victim say.
That's why, service after service, week after week, families continue to pack the modern Westlake church to take in the word of pastor Paul Endrei — simply Pastor Paul, as they call him — the church's founder who's out of jail after posting bond, the pastor who's awaiting trial on six felony charges of allegedly sexually abusing his adopted daughter. Also a recipient of that faith is assistant pastor Jordan Endrei, Paul's biological son, who at 26 is also awaiting trial for one felony count of sexual contact a minor.
"If you know the guy, you know it's not true," says one twentysomething member of the Church on the Rise before a recent Sunday evening meeting for young adults and teens. "More importantly, if you know her..."
He trails off in unspoken allegation. The victim here is the black sheep, not the alleged perpetrator.
"It's unfortunate," the man continues. "The enemy, he likes to attack us, especially when good things are happening. But we're not worried about it one bit."
That's a near-universal sentiment held by members of the socially conservative church. Pastor Paul is unequivocally innocent, beyond reproach. And good things are happening, now more than ever. The church — and business — is booming.
"Attendance is up, donations are up this year — that goes to show you how much love we have for our pastor and our church," says church elder Fred Bobel.
Pastor Paul couldn't possibly have abused that girl, they say. The accuser, well, she's had some "issues" in her past and has to be lying about what happened behind closed doors. When Paul and Jordan were arrested, the church identified the victim in a press release as Endrei's "troubled adolescent" adopted daughter.
The girl, who joined the Endrei family at age 3, has a known history of erratic behavior. To church members who've heard about it, it's the basis for their belief and faith that she can't be trusted. She has always been nothing but trouble to them ever since she became a teenager.
But specific details buried in police records document what many psychologists and social workers would say are the telltale signs of a child who's been sexually abused.
Pastor Paul is an energetic 54-year-old with blonde hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. His church attire is a suit or jeans and an embroidered button-down shirt. His enthusiasm for the Lord is matched only by his enthusiasm for soliciting donations, but those go hand-in-hand at the church.
He was born in 1960 and was raised in Shaker Heights. He's the son of a former minister of the First Magyar Church and the First Hungarian Reformed Church of Christ of Cleveland, formerly on Buckeye Road, who would perform services in both Hungarian and English. But according to people who knew him growing up, he hated going to church and was described as "rebellious."
A 2007 profile of Endrei and his church by Inside Business magazine said Endrei enrolled at Kent State in 1978 "with more of an interest in beer and fraternity parties than religion." The story describes his turn toward religion:
Early in the semester, a classmate gave him a Bible. Endrei threw the book in the back of his closet and told himself that's where it would stay for the rest of the year.
"At that time I was drinking and taking drugs and living a pretty wanton lifestyle," says Endrei. "I had a true conversion experience."
Not long after, he met a man only a few years older than Endrei at the time, who introduced him to new Christian books and helped him read the Bible in a new way. Endrei was never the same.
"I had a supernatural experience in college," Endrei says. "Within a year I knew I was called to be in ministry and provide a new kind of church that would reach children and youth."
He'd eventually wind up at Southeastern Bible College in Lakeland, Fla., and would meet his wife Patti and then work at a ministry down there. In the mid-1980s the couple moved back to Ohio, where Endrei became a youth pastor at Church on the North Coast in Lorain. In the early 1990s, Endrei started his own ministry, first operating out of his home and then moving to other buildings in the western suburbs as his congregation grew.
Along the way, their family has grown. Jordan, now 26 and an assistant pastor, came first. Joining them were a biological daughter and son, and two adopted daughters.