Television news crews from South Korea’s two largest networks — MBC and SBS —filed breathless reports in the spring about the myriad of charges and countercharges of sexual misconduct involving parishioners and leaders at the house of worship, which cannot be identified because of a court-ordered publication ban. Now, the church’s founder, former Orangeville grocer Jae-Kap (Joe) Song, 55, faces charges in Canada of inappropriately touching a female parishioner.
On March 19, three former members of his congregation appeared in an Ontario Court of Justice courtroom at Finch Ave. W., while three others from the church had left for South Korea before they could be charged. Another two former members of the church would be charged later in the day. Together, they would face some 100 alleged offences, including threatening death, administering drugs for sex, gang sexual assault and making child pornography. The judge invoked a publication ban on identifying the church and the alleged victims.
Jacqueline An, a Toronto lawyer representing one of the accused, refuses to call Song a “pastor” or “reverend,” saying instead that he was the leader of a cult with branches in the GTA and South Korea.
“It’s a cult, not a church,” An said.
Song has declined repeated requests for interviews. Part of the reason the turmoil at the church is huge news back in South Korean is that most of the accused and alleged victims are from that country, living in the GTA on student visas. Not long after Valentine’s Day, teams of South Korean reporters flew to Toronto and began filing stories to major South Korean news outlets.
The SBS network kept a team here for almost two weeks to produce a 60 Minutes-style investigation, which stated that Song received his religious credentials via the Internet from a mail-order house in California. Song’s legal woes increased this month, when three former members of his congregation — who are facing criminal charges in Canada — successfully pressed authorities in South Korea to lay charges against Song.
The South Korean charges against him are for mischief, threatening, forcible confinement and defamation of character. None of the allegations has been proven in court and legal proceedings in Canada and South Korea are still in the early, pre-trial stages. The media and legal maelstrom surrounding Song and his little church is a far cry from just a few months ago, when he and members of his congregation cheerfully roasted marshmallows and played soccer together, dressed up in matching pastel uniforms.
Other times, they sang Korean pop tunes like “What is Life?,” “My First Love” and “A Lady” in unison, after changing the lyrics to make them more spiritually acceptable. Things changed forever for Song and his former flock on Valentine’s Day. On that day, says a 28-year-old former member of his church, Song made a strange diagnosis for a skin problem she had been suffering.
According to the woman, Song told her: “Your husband’s spirit is very evil. That’s why your skin tone is changing. I need to see your body naked.” She said she refused to strip for him, despite repeated requests. Eventually, she said she removed her blouse and lay on her stomach, as he had requested. She said he then asked her if she ever engaged in anal sex, and she said she answered negatively. “That’s why you’re having such a bad relationship with your husband,” she said he replied. “Why don’t you have sex with me right now?”
She said she refused yet again. Other women who attended his congregation also said Song made sexual entreaties toward them through a female intermediary. One of his favourite lines, they said, was: “If you have sex with me, your spiritual level will grow.” Later on Valentine’s Day, according to the 28-year-old, Song accused another female parishioner of being sexually promiscuous. She said Song ordered the other woman, who was in Canada on a student visa, to run naked two times around an Orangeville convenience store as punishment.
In March, the mothers of one of Song’s followers who was shaken by the news reports, flew to Toronto to see her daughter and reassure herself that things weren’t as bad as they might have seemed. Her daughter refused to leave Song’s residence to see her, and the mother returned home to South Korea without sharing as much as a meal with her, parishioners said. It’s the first time that there has been harsh media scrutiny for Song’s church, which has been in operation in the GTA for a decade.
The church wasn’t widely known in the local Korean community until three years ago, when Song and parishioners showed up at a community road race, dressed in matching pastel uniforms, with the girls in soft pink and the boys in white and baby blue. Former church members describe Song as an excellent orator and something of a prophet, who some believed had the power to read minds and predict the future. Some church members were greatly impressed when he was able to pick the first and third-place finishers in a local half-marathon.
An, who represents defendant Sang Cheol Lee, 37, of Toronto, accused Song of terrorizing dissidents in his church by persuading female parishioners to make false allegations against them. Others say the pastor often appeared to have sex and not religion on his mind. An noted that about 40 of the 50 parishioners at his church were female, mostly South Koreans on student visas between the ages of 16 and 32. Many of the congregation were in Canada studying theology and traditional Chinese healing.
The lurid sex allegations had the effect of driving almost all of the men out of the tiny church. “They’re devastated by the allegations,” An said of the accused men. “They’re horrific. . . . Our Canadian judicial system is being manipulated by this fellow (Song).” An said she recently visited Seoul to help prepare her case, where she said she was inundated with requests for interviews.
She said she discovered that an offshoot of the church with about 30 members had been established in South Korea. For her part, one 28-year-old parishioner said she initially kept quiet about Song’s bizarre Valentine’s Day behaviour. “I was so shaken I didn’t tell anybody,” she said in an interview, through a Korean-language interpreter. “I was ashamed to.” She said that it wasn’t the first time Song had made a strange sexual advance toward her.
According to the woman, Song approached her in December 2009 after her husband went to South Korea for a funeral, and said, “Your mother-in-law’s evil spirit is upon you. . . . Let’s pray.” Then he said that her genitals must be itchy because of evil spirits, and said he would pray for them, saying, “I’m going to fix it for you.”
On Feb. 21, according to former parishioners, Song gathered together eight or nine male parishioners at an apartment unit in Orangeville. The gathering included the six men who would later be charged with sexual assault. According to the former parishioners, Song told the assembled men: “Gang sex has happened in our church, brothers and sisters. Among you are guys who did gang sex to sisters.”
According to some men at the meeting, the accused men were stunned and denied the accusation, volunteering to take DNA tests to prove they hadn’t done anything wrong. Song sloughed off their offer of DNA testing, then went forward to police with his gang rape accusation, some of the accused men said. Nowadays, the pastor and accused members of his flock are all out on bail, awaiting court dates.
Meanwhile, Song’s church has dwindled to just a dozen members, less than a quarter of its size before Valentine’s Day while An said the South Korean branch of the church has withered. An said it’s easily the most bizarre case in her 12-year legal career. Her defence strategy will include bringing in experts on cults when the court case finally begins, she said. “I feel like I’m in a movie. . . a horrifying, nasty movie,” she said.