COCOA — The pastor of a Rockledge church has been charged with raping a member of his congregation after “anointing” her with oil and telling her God wanted them to have sex, police said Tuesday.
Jesse M. French, 43, pastor of Solid Life Ministries, Church of Disciples on U.S. Highway 1, was arrested Thursday on 10 counts of sexual battery and 15 counts of lewd and lascivious conduct.
The 21-year-old congregant, who said French was her “spiritual adviser,” said the abuse began about four months ago, when the pastor said he needed to anoint her with oil because she was tired, said Cocoa police spokeswoman Barbara Matthews.
The anointing eventually led to fondling and then sex on 10 occasions, said Matthews, who described the suspect as “very manipulative.”
The criminal charges aren’t the only problem the pastor is facing.
The church, which has operated in a strip mall for nearly three years, is on the verge of being evicted for failing to pay rent and for charging homeless people to sleep there.
A Brevard County organization with the same name as the church received $43,534 from the federal government last year to help house victims of Hurricane Katrina.
It could not be confirmed late Tuesday whether the organization is French’s Rockledge church, but there is only one listing in Brevard County under that name.
“I’m shocked, but I can believe it considering the individual,” Thomas Palumbo, president of the Rockledge Mall Association, said after learning of the rape charges late Tuesday.
“I have no intention of renewing their lease,” he said.
Police said the victim told investigators she repeatedly tried to stop the encounters, but French would read the Bible to her and quote Scripture to prove that God wanted them to have sex.
French, who has been arrested numerous times but convicted only of two traffic infractions, was being held without bond at the Brevard County Jail in Sharpes.
Several people who filed in and out of the storefront church Tuesday would not comment.
Police said they fear that other members of the congregation may have been abused. Since the arrest Thursday, investigators have received two anonymous calls from women saying they think there are more victims.
Meanwhile, Palumbo said the church owes seven months’ rent totaling $8,000.
He also said French had opened the church door to homeless people in the area for a price.
“He was charging them $3 to $5 a night and wouldn’t let them in if they didn’t pay,” Palumbo said.
“We got a code violation from the city of Rockledge because he didn’t have a license to run a hotel or restaurant,” he added.
Palumbo said as many as 15 homeless people, including young women and children, slept at the church nightly.
“It was like a racket,” added Pamela Komara, the mall association’s project manager.