Under the glare of purple stage lights inside his North Toronto super-church, embattled preacher Paul Melnichuk summoned his followers to pray for his legal team after an admittedly “bumpy week” — before encouraging them to donate as usual to the church.
Hundreds of Prayer Palace parishioners erupted into cheers and rose to their feet Sunday when the 81-year-old pastor — renowned for his energetic sermons, controversial for his extravagant lifestyle — took the stage for the first service since being charged with multiple counts of sexual assault.
“I have always promised to the congregation that I believe in total transparency. Anything that goes on in your pastor’s life, you must know about,” Melnichuk said, his animated voice booming through the sprawling church near Finch Ave. W. and Highway 400.
“I want you to know today that not one of those charges are true,” he said, prompting congregants to shout out in support, some yelling “Hallelujah.”
“They’re all false,” he continued, his voice yelling over swelling applause and a blasting organ.
On Thursday, the evangelical preacher known as “Pastor Paul” appeared at a Finch Ave. courthouse on five counts of sexual assault. Melnichuk was released the same day on $20,000 bail posted by his wife, 79-year-old Kathleen.
The complainants are a mother in her 40s and her daughter, under 20, who are parishioners at the church. Police believe there may be other victims.
The incidents allegedly took place on church property when Melnichuk was alone with the women. Three of the five charges relate to allegations from the daughter, the other two complaints from the mother.
Wandering around the expansive stage as he spoke, Melnichuk told the congregation there was no greater honour than leading the “multicultural, rich church” he established with his wife more than 30 years ago.
Thanking the congregation, his family, his employees and the church’s board for its support, Melnichuk told his critics to “take your best shot.”
“God’s going to become glorified in all this. The church will become strong, we’re tired of the junk that’s been spread around here,” he told parishioners, some of whom were brought in on orange school buses bedecked with colourful “Prayer Palace” signs.
“Regardless of what they do and say, this church has been placed by the almighty, as a mighty lighthouse in the city of Toronto. And the devil’s going to wake up in the morning and know that the Prayer Palace is still alive.”
Melnichuk suggested attendees “ask God to help our team of lawyers” before large buckets were passed around for donations.
“Ladies and gentlemen, they might not like me, but here’s what I’m going to say: It’s time to receive the tithes of offering,” Melnichuk said, before adding that he’d donated three envelopes himself that morning.
It was not the first time Melnichuk has had to address personal scandal inside church walls.
A 2007 Star investigation revealed the lavish lifestyle of Melnichuk, his twin sons, and junior pastors at the church, which included luxury cars and gated mansions. Meanwhile, the church was asking its predominantly poor congregation to donate generously and donating a tiny fraction of the funds to charity.
As a small group of demonstrators gathered outside to protest the church in response, Melnichuk encouraged worshippers to look around at the news reporters who may be among them, then stated that the church had retained a lawyer. Not long after, a woman ran to the stage and slapped a $50 bill to Melnichuk’s forehead, prompting others to start throwing money at the pastor’s feet.
“First the funds go to the church,” the pastor said at the time. “After that, if the folks want to bless me . . .”
Congregants appeared just as supportive of their pastor in light of the fresh scandal as they left the church Sunday. Multiple worshippers declined to speak to the Star about the allegations, one telling a reporter to “get a life.”
During the service, a visiting bishop from the Church of God — an international network of congregations — urged congregants to gather “shoulder to shoulder” around their pastor, because he had become a target. He encouraged them to continue to pray as usual — and “pay their tithes the same way.”
The bishop also told the congregation to “get rid of their diaries,” which contain information that “can attack or destroy somebody else’s life.”
“Too many people, too many Christians keep those diaries. Like I read in the newspaper, they were referring to something that happened many years ago. I mean, they keep diaries, but God’s people don’t keep diaries,” the bishop said.
At the end of the lengthy service, Melnichuk took to the pulpit again, telling worshippers: “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
“I want you to love me, too.”
With files from Dale Brazao