On October 4, the Daejeon District Court placed the 77-year-old religious leader under arrest.
by Massimo Introvigne
On October 4, the Daejeon District Court in South Korea ruled on the request by the Daejeon District Prosecutor to place President Jung Myung Seok, founder and leader of the Providence Church, also known as the Christian Gospel Mission, under arrest. As a result of the hearing, Daejeon District Court in South Korea ruled that President Jung shall be detained.
As readers of Bitter Winter, which devoted a series to Providence in 2021, may remember, Jung had been previously sentenced to ten years in jail on various charges of sexual abuse, and was liberated on February 18, 2018, when his term had expired.
In March 2022, an anti-cult organization that specializes in attacking Providence held a press conference where two foreign women claimed they had been sexually abused by Jung between 2018 and 2021. While the pending case concerns these two women, the anti-cultists claim they have three other women ready to press charges.
As clarified in our previous series and in scholarly articles and encyclopedia entries I have written about Providence, scholars are not in a position to determine whether accusations of sexual abuse against President Jung are true. They should of course take into account the courts’ decisions, while noting as a fact the persuasion by the large majority of Providence members that Jung is innocent and the accusations have been fabricated.
Certainly I do not condone sexual abuse. I sympathize with the victims, and believe that perpetrators of this crime, if proved guilty, cannot hide under the shield of religious liberty. On the other hand, the arguments by the defense attorneys and their claims that obtaining a fair trial for a defendant accused of being a “cult leader” in South Korea is difficult should also be examined.
Waiting for further developments of the case, I want to comment for now on two points. The first is the role of the media. It may happen in other countries as well, but I notice in most Korean media a disturbing trend towards ignoring the presumption of innocence and taking for granted that Jung is guilty. It is a general principle of democracy and the rule of law that nobody is guilty until a final verdict has been rendered, and even a final verdict can be respectfully criticized.
Most Korean media also took for granted that Chairman Lee Man Hee of Shincheonji was guilty of having violated health regulations and spread the COVID-19 virus, until three degrees of judgement, up to the Supreme Court, found Lee innocent of this charge—in a country where prosecutors win more than 90% of their cases. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that most media in South Korea are easily manipulated by anti-cultists, and do not treat “cult” leaders fairly when they become defendants in criminal cases.
My second comment is about Providence. Anti-cultists predicted that the arrest and detention of Jung would have destroyed the movement in the period between 2007 and 2018. It did not happen. Providence carried on with its president in jail, and even attracted new followers in several countries. Opponents now make the same prediction of a rapid demise of Providence based on the new legal case, but they may be equally wrong.
A leader venerated by his (or her) followers as a prophet and a godly man (or woman) is often arrested, charged, sentenced, and jailed for common crimes. Indeed, sexual abuse is in our days the most common accusation against leaders of groups labeled as “cults”.
Followers of Providence did not expect that the way their leader, President Jung, would fulfill his mission was through repeated accusations of sexual abuse, public trials, and jail terms. They expected him to be recognized by a growing number of followers as a good, compassionate, and reliable religious leader, as they fully believed he was.
The fact that a leader’s career seems to take a different course than it was expected does not, in most cases, change the basic beliefs of the followers. If the group is large, if the devotees’ faith is strong enough, if a group of effective intermediate leaders is able to guide them, if the supreme leader continues to “be with them” from prison, they may carry on and even grow. For the opponents, prophecies “fail,” and leaders are “unmasked.” For the believers, prophecies do not fail, they are just reinterpreted, and leaders go through a course of suffering that is mysteriously needed to fulfill their mission.
The expectation that religious organizations whose leaders are jailed on sexual abuse charges would necessarily lose most of their members or disappear is not supported by the precedents—nor by sociological theory.