[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.
Fourteen years ago, the Westlake building that now houses the Church on the Rise joined the family too. It sits on 19 acres and is one of the most technologically advanced churches around, boasting a state-of-the-art sound system and HD cameras that broadcast services on five large screens above the main stage. Recordings are broadcast on streaming sites, part of Endrei's attempt at reaching a younger demographic. It's a non-denominational organization, Bible-based and aimed at appealing to born-again Christians. Gay marriage and abortion are signs of the end of times.
The two Sunday morning services — 9:15 and 11 a.m. — start with more than 20 minutes of live music with electric guitars, keyboards, drums, and singers belting out upbeat and lyrically simple God-loving tunes to the standing worshippers, many of whom hold their hands in the air with their palms facing forward, taking it in and singing along with the words projected on the screens above the stage.
Then an assistant pastor — oftentimes Endrei's wife Patti — takes the microphone and stands on the smaller stage in front of the musicians. There, it's announced that first-time visitors just need to fill out a form and they'll get a mug and a certificate for something from the cafe off the lobby. Second-time visitors, it is announced every week, will have mailed to them a $10 gift certificate to Chick-fil-A, the famously Christian company that has pumped a lot of money toward anti-gay marriage groups.
Visitors are also peppered with requests for money, because money is good, and the more you give, the more God graces you. Tithes and offerings are investments — "you reap what you sow" — and the Church conveniently stocks the lobby with donation kiosks resembling ATMs called "Giving Centers" where people can swipe their credit cards. Forms on the back of each chair allow people to fill out their bank account information for automatic withdrawals.
The Church has treated the Endrei family well. They live in a large five-bedroom, five-bathroom home in a development on a golf course in Avon, valued by the county at nearly a half-million dollars.
Paul and Patti have also written two books together: Sex Is Like a Sports Game ("Wanna rev up your sex life? Get ready to laugh as you learn about sex in a way you've never heard it before from Marriage Authors Paul and Pattie Endrei," the books says) and Glue: Sticking Power for Lifelong Marriages ("With examples taken from their own humorous and serious real-life experiences, the Endreis candidly give you the inside story of what it takes to make a marriage stick!")
The Endreis have built a tidy network on their speaking tours and have been able to lure some big names to Northeast Ohio in return, like evangelical pastor Keith Hudson, the father of pop mega star Katy Perry, who stopped by in January 2012.
"You know how to make the Jews jealous? Have some money, honey," said Hudson during his guest sermon, "You go to L.A. and they own all the Rolex and diamond places. Walk down a part of L.A. where we live and it is so rich, it smells. You ever smell rich? They are all Jews, hallelujah, amen."
That appearance earned global headlines from London to New York, and Endrei made the media rounds to do damage control.
"I just took 42 people to Israel and had a wonderful time," Endrei said at the time to the Cleveland Jewish News. "We pray for Jerusalem's peace. We're 100-percent backing the Jewish people and their struggles to maintain their land that we feel like God gave them from the time of Abraham. If I should be criticized, honestly, it would be to be too pro-Jewish. That's why it's so funny the way the cards got played in this particular situation."
Even preaching celebrity Joel Osteen is counted among friends of the Church on the Rise. The wealthy mega-church star filmed a promo for the Endreis last year when they gave away Osteen's latest book to visitors.
"Hello everyone, I'm Joel Osteen," the sharply dressed and white-teethed preacher says in the video, standing in front of a massive spinning globe in the background. "It's a joy to be with all of our friends there at Church on the Rise in Cleveland. We love your pastors, Paul and Patti, their heart to help people. I always encourage people to get in a good Bible-based church; well certainly, Church on the Rise is one of those churches that I would recommend."
On this past May 28, the Endreis and the Church on the Rise were thrust into the spotlight with a blistering set of headlines. A Lorain County grand jury indicted Paul and his son Jordan for allegedly sexually abusing Paul's adopted daughter. The incidents in the felony counts cover 2005 to 2013 with only one specific date — July 14, 2013 — listed. The daughter was born in 1996 and adopted when she was 3.
Paul Endrei declined to comment for this story, instead referring questions to church elder Fred Bobel. Jordan Endrei declined to comment as well, as did Lorain County prosecutors who said they don't comment on open cases.
It's not easy to piece together a picture of the family life at the Endreis and the adopted daughter's day-to-day life, but records obtained by Scene begin to suggest a girl who, once she became a teenager, exhibited behavior that indicated something wasn't quite right. Avon police were no strangers to the Endrei household, and records show frustrated parents and developing signs that the years from 2009 on were anything but blissful for the daughter.
In February 2010, the girl's middle-school teacher called Children Services to report "a possible rape" of her student. It's unclear why the teacher suspected a rape had occurred, but a brief police investigation showed the incident with a 16-year-old neighbor was not rape but simply consensual activity. However, the police report highlighted tension in the family:
The school called and notified [the girl's] parents (Paul & Patti Endrei) about the allegation. They both came to the Middle School and talked with us. Mr & Mrs Endrei were rather concerned over the allegation because they stated that [the girl] lies all the time and has tried to get every member of their family into trouble with her lying.
In May 2011, Paul and Patti went to the police station "with questions concerning their 14 year old daughter who is unruly." They said she grabbed her mom's breast and reached for a knife and threatened to kill her mom after she was confronted about "some of the items" that Patti "believes the girl has been keeping in her backpack." She was sent to her room, and then police showed up. This police report further describes the girl's behavior:
On the station [Paul] then described this kind of behavior from [the girl] has been getting progressively worse the last year or so. He states she refuses to listen, clean her room, and has been intentionally urinating on her bed and floor area. She has been seeing a doctor about once a month but has not been diagnosed with any disorder nor does she take any medication.
They stated she has been sexting boys on her cellphone and has been getting naked via skype to unknown boys all over the country. She has been leaving the house in the middle of the night to have sex with unknown boys until an alarm system was installed and armed when the family goes to bed. Her grades have been slipping this year to all D's and F's. They have birth control injected into her arm every 4 months to prevent a pregnancy...
Upon my arrival at the home address along with Ptl. Elias we observed a spotless well kept home until we entered and spoke in [the girl's] room. I observed a filthy stained rug with dirty soiled underwear strewn about the floor. The stench of urine was evident.
We then asked [the girl] what happened earlier this afternoon and she stated her mom wouldn't stop bugging her. When I asked about her threat to kill her mom she said "Yeah, but I didn't mean it." [The girl] was scared and crying at this time. She states she is just so mad at everything but would not specify.
Just four months later, the girl was arrested by Avon police after she physically attacked her mother, who had questioned the teen about stealing her iPhone. The police report states the girl had attacked and began "punching her mother in the back of her head with her closed fist." She briefly stayed at a shelter instead of at home.
But home is not where she wanted to be. In April 2013, she ran away, and was entered into the law enforcement database for missing juveniles. The police report documents the facts that Paul had taken her phone from her for "sexting," but he would not provide the phone for police or tell them where it was. It also shed some light on how the daughter fit into the broader family.
... While speaking with Paul he could not remember [the girl's] date of birth. When asked for a photograph of [the girl] he could only provide a family portrait that she was in, yet there were individual pictures of their four other children on the walls and elsewhere in the residence.
She returned home two days after she sneaked out, telling police she ran away with a guy "because of a verbal argument with her parents."
Three months after the girl ran away, the bomb would drop.
July 14, 2013, the only specific date listed in the indictment, is the date records show the girl reported her father.
According to Avon police dispatch logs from that day, "CHILDREN SERVICES WILL BE ATTEMPTING CONTACT AT THE RESIDENCE AT APPROX 7PM. REQ AN OFFICER STAND BY ... THIS IS FOR A JUVENILE FEMALE MAKING ACCUSATIONS AGAINST A FAMILY MEMBER....CHILDREN'S SERVICES DID AN INFORMAL INTERVIEW AND HAS REMOVED THE CHILD FROM THE HOME....THEY WILL SEND US A REFERRAL TOMORROW."
Paul Endrei wouldn't be indicted by a grand jury for another 10 months, but in the weeks following the girl's accusations, Avon police and Lorain County Children Services went to work interviewing the alleged victim, family members, friends of the family, childhood friends, female church associates, and Paul Endrei's younger sister Joy, the latter of whom, friends of the family say, is sympathetic toward her adopted niece and more questioning of her brother than his flock.
Sources say Avon detectives had been contacting friends of Paul's younger sister, apparently to establish a pattern of Paul being "inappropriate" with minor girls he had "access" to. One childhood friend of Paul's younger sister said she received a call from detectives out of the blue. She was always over at Joy and Paul's childhood home in Shaker Heights, but lost touch when the Endreis moved to a different neighborhood.
"They were asking if anything sexually improper happened from Paul when we were little," she said. "Did Paul ever do anything improper in front of me, did I ever witness anything, did he ever do anything to me? No. There was nothing that struck me. He was so much older than us, the big brother running around."
Also included in the list of evidence are a six-page report from a Lorain County Children Services' social worker, an email the girl sent to her, Facebook correspondence between the girl and others, a photograph of underwear, and a document called "Indicators of Child Sexual Abuse."
"Indicators of Child Sexual Abuse" is published by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in their Child Welfare Information Gateway. Many of the behaviors described in earlier police reports and observed by church members as reasons not believe the victim's allegations are recognized in the document's "Psychosocial Indicators of Child Sexual Abuse" section, and the years during which the girl's behavior changed coincide with the years she alleges she was abused. The report mentions possible problems including enuresis, promiscuity, running away, substance abuse, depression and social withdrawal, problems relating to peers, school difficulties, and sudden noticeable changes in behavior. It also notes that false allegations represent between only 1 and 5 percent of reports.
On May 29, the day after Endrei was arrested and then released on $50,000 bond, the church released its side of the story.
The Church on the Rise of Westlake is aware of the recent indictment by Lorain County of Pastor Paul Endrei. We pray for Pastor Paul, his wife and 5 children. We are aware that the allegations are coming from one of the children adopted by the Endrei's. We pray that this troubled adolescent receive the help and counseling she needs.
The Church believes in our legal system and that the truth will come out. To assist in that end, we are requesting that the media and press respect the privacy of Pastor Paul and his family. Church grounds are for spiritual growth and not for media or press interviews. We hope this request for privacy is respected and the press and media refrain from entering Church property.
Pastor Paul maintains his presumption of innocence and hope that all reserve judgment until all facts are properly aired in a court of law. We not only have faith in our lord but also in our system of justice. Only after both sides present their case can a judgment be made in this very serious matter. We thank all members of the church and community for their prayers and continued support.
That Sunday, just a few days removed from his indictment for alleged sexual abuse of his daughter, Paul Endrei returned to the Church on the Rise stage, preaching to a packed house of unwavering supporters who never believed for a second Pastor Paul did what he's accused of doing.
"Well it really stunk to be me this week. Its times like this that you really find out who your friends are, and I thank God that we have a lot of friends," opened Endrei, wearing a suit and holding the microphone at the front of the stage before a fully supportive, and oftentimes cheering congregation. "We have a lot of friends not only in this church, but outside this church, in this city, across America. You know bad news travels fast. I have people from Florida, Texas contacting me — like how did you find out so fast? Yeah, bad news travels faster than good news. But here's the reality, the Bible says a brother is born for adversity, and I feel like I'm going through adversity university right now. But I'm not the only student: How many of ya have gone through something you didn't expect, something that was off, without rhyme or reason — like God, where did that come from? Today, Patti and I wanna say thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for the hundred or so text messages, emails, Facebooks, saying, 'Hey, we love you, we support you, we're behind you, we're praying for you and your family.' Thank you, thank you, thank you."
The churchgoers gave him a round of applause. Endrei paused for a second, and continued.
"One thing I learned, that when I'm cut I definitely bleed. And I just wanted to let you know, I'm a man, I have pain, you know, what's transpired hurts me deeply. My wife as well. She said to me just yesterday — I asked her, 'How are you doing?' and she says, 'You know, Paul, now that this has happened, the news report's gone out, and the people of God have responded, I feel the power of their prayers.' And let me tell you, your prayers mean all the difference in the world, so thank you, thank you, thank you for praying for us."
It's been more than four months since the case hit the papers, and you wouldn't be able to tell the church's main leader is out of jail on bond while awaiting trial on sexual abuse charges if you didn't already know. Church leaders are cheery, the seats are filled, and money is continuing to flow in.
"We actually have had more people — I think initially it was because they wanted to know what's going on with the whole news phenomenon," says Jennifer Bell, a preschool coordinator at the church, "And then I think the pastor's really starting to preach from his heart, preaching about what he's going through, and in my mind his preaching has gotten better. It's become more real. Its one thing if you're always preaching about success, success, success and prosperity, but when you're hurting and you're preaching from there, I think the draw of the word is stronger, and you can really see he's reaching the people who are hurting. And after all, that's what church is for — to help those who are hurting."
Others in the church's inner circle are more adamant about Endrei's innocence, portraying the case as an example of overzealous prosecutors looking for charges no matter what.
"It got so obnoxious to the point where they were actually considering indicting Pastor Frank, his dad," one said. "Really? If you know that man, it's just preposterous. You know how the grand jury system works? Well, the grand jury recommended to not press charges, but the prosecutors overruled them and said they're going to do it anyways."
It is unclear if that belief is correct — grand jury deliberations are secret and prosecutors declined to comment — or if that's simply a rumor those close to Endrei have passed along to bolster his defense.
One close confidant of Endrei's says he's holding up well — publicly, at least.
"Of course when you have the Holy Spirit and you know God is on your side, you know you can't lose," Endrei's friend says. "And most of all, you know the allegations, accusations and all that stuff is false, how can you be down? How can you?
"Their character is phenomenal, he doesn't sway," he says. "If I suspected something different, I wouldn't be there anymore. I'm not going to have somebody lead me in life and direct my path according to the Holy Spirit all of a sudden let me down like that. I will say that everybody can fall short, but he has not. I do not believe that happened. That [girl], I've heard stories about her flirting with the boys."
A pre-trial for the Endreis was held the last week of September and another pre-trial is scheduled for November. No trial date has been set.
In the meantime, normalcy has returned to the church, where Endrei is judged not by a jury of his peers but by a flock flush with faith banking on that belief paying dividends down the line.