South Korean Church Leader Sentenced to Prison in #MeToo Case

Lee Jae-rock arriving in court in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday. A judge said he “habitually raped and sexually violated” followers who were led to believe that he must be obeyed.
Lee Jae-rock arriving in court in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday. A judge said he “habitually raped and sexually violated” followers who were led to believe that he must be obeyed.Credit…Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — A prominent church pastor whose behavior came under scrutiny when the #MeToo movement took hold in South Korea was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in prison for “habitually” raping female followers who said they were deceived into believing that he was God.

Lee Jae-rock, 75, the founder of Manmin Central Church in Seoul, has been dogged by allegations of extortion, fraud and sexual abuse for decades, and mainstream Christian groups have accused him of leading a cult. But it was not until the #MeToo movement caught on in South Korea early this year that Mr. Lee was arrested.

Encouraged by the movement, eight former female followers sued Mr. Lee. Some of them told reporters that he had lured them to his apartment, ordered them to get naked “as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden” and raped them. Mr. Lee was formally arrested in May.

In its ruling on Thursday, a three-judge panel at the Seoul Central District Court convicted Mr. Lee of raping the eight women dozens of times between 2000 and 2014.

“While attending his church from an early age, the victims were led to believe that the way to heaven lay in treating the accused like God and obeying him,” the presiding judge, Chung Moon-sung, said in the ruling. “He habitually raped and sexually violated them, abusing their inability to protest or resist his acts because of his absolute authority.”

The court said the pastor had victimized others besides the eight women who had come forward. Former members of the church have also said so.

Mr. Lee, who has denied all charges against him, stood in silence, his eyes closed, while the judge read the verdict. His followers, who packed the courtroom and spilled outside, let out a collective sigh when the sentence was announced, but Mr. Lee himself showed little emotion. During previous court appearances, he has claimed to be hard of hearing.

Mr. Lee’s church and his lawyers painted the eight women as disgruntled former members who “spread lies riding the bandwagon of the #MeToo movement” after being excommunicated for breaching church rules.

Since January, a series of women have come forward in South Korea with accusations of sexual abuse by male colleagues or supervisors. A number of prominent men, including politicians, theater directors, prosecutors, writers and professors, have since apologized for sexual misconduct and resigned from their positions, some of them ending up in court on criminal charges.

But Mr. Lee’s case has drawn particular interest because of his past notoriety.

Mainstream churches have called him a heretic, and his followers have sometimes lashed out violently to defend him. In 1999, they rampaged through MBC, a leading TV station, vandalizing broadcasting equipment and interrupting the airing of a program that investigated charges of sexual exploitation and other allegations against Mr. Lee.

Mr. Lee, who was born in South Korea’s rural southwest, was ordained in the 1980s by Jesus Korea Holiness Church, which soon expelled him for espousing mysticism. He began his own church, which now claims 130,000 followers and has held large evangelical gatherings in countries as various as Russia, Pakistan, Israel, Kenya and Honduras.

The Manmin church has websites in several languages featuring tales of miracle cures performed by Mr. Lee. Church members have been known to carry handkerchiefs blessed by Mr. Lee and to sprinkle themselves with water from a well in his hometown, believing that it possessed healing power.

Last year, followers of Mr. Lee placed an advertisement in an American newspaper claiming that Hurricane Irma had “died out” after Mr. Lee prayed for it to stop. In sermons available online, Mr. Lee has claimed that he was visited by people from heaven who arrived on UFOs.

Christianity has boomed in South Korea over the last century, and churches’ neon-lit crosses dot the nightscape of Seoul, the capital. In a 2015 government survey, 28 percent of respondents said they went to Christian churches, with 16 percent saying they practiced Buddhism, a much older tradition here.

As mainstream churches have blossomed, South Korea has also proven fertile ground for cultlike groups, some of which have amassed enormous wealth and influence and sometimes scandalized the country.

In 1987, 32 members of one such group were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. After the country was rocked in 2014 by a ferry sinking that killed 300 people, most of them high school students, it emerged that the ferry company had been controlled by a wealthy religious figure often characterized as a cult leader. And the downfall of President Park Geun-hye, who was jailed last year after being impeached and removed from office, stemmed in part from her connections to a similar figure.

Source: South Korean Church Leader Sentenced to Prison in #MeToo Case – The New York Times (

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