The Cult of Pastor Song: a religious sex scandal in Toronto’s Korean community

The Cult of Pastor Song: a religious sex scandal in Toronto’s Korean community

The sex scandal consuming Toronto’s Korean community began when six international students said they were repeatedly gang-raped by members of their small church. The accused allege that their eccentric pastor brainwashed the women to deflect attention from his own transgressions

Holy orders: Jae Kap Song, the founder and pastor of Jesus First, encouraged his flock to wear church uniforms and live together in six shared apartments

One July day in 2007, an 18-year-old woman checked into her Toronto-bound flight at South Korea’s Incheon Airport. She was travelling light—she had with her one suitcase containing clothes for a range of seasons, some books and a favourite brand of face cream. She had been living with her grandparents in South Korea and was joining her mother, who had split with her father and moved to Toronto to study acupuncture three years earlier.

A court-ordered publication ban prevents me from identifying the woman, but I’ll call her Yeri. Her plan was to learn English at one of Toronto’s hagwons, Korean-run cram schools that cater to the thousands of young men and women who come to Canada on student visas each year. With command of the language, she would get into a better college in South Korea and ultimately, her family hoped, receive coveted job offers at multinationals.

From the airport, Yeri headed to a Bloor and Islington apartment building where her mother lived in one of six units leased by members of Jesus First, a Korean Presbyterian church run by a pastor named Jae Kap Song. Her mother belonged to the church and expected her to join, too. They’d share one of the apartment’s bedrooms. A second bedroom was shared by two male members of Jesus First.

Yeri’s days were busy with studies: she attended several hagwons, then took courses in theology. She decided she wanted to become a nurse, and with her improved English she began to take college courses. The institutional affiliations allowed her to renew her student visa and extend her stay.

By 2009, Yeri and her mother were also sharing their bedroom with Yeri’s 16-year-old cousin. It was cramped, but the apartment had begun to feel like home and she was enjoying her life in Toronto. Then, one night, while her mother was on a trip to South Korea, everything changed. Yeri and her cousin had gone to bed, and soon after she was woken up by one of her male housemates. She claims he and another man grabbed her and her cousin and dragged them out to the living room, where several other members of Jesus First were waiting.

What happened next she says she remembers only in fragments. She claims someone injected her left arm with something and a feeling of weightlessness spread across her body. She was forced to bark like a dog. Then she was raped.

She woke up the next morning with a migraine and an aching body. At first she was paralyzed with fear. She considered the dishonour she would bring to her family name. She imagined what her mother would say, and decided to keep the incident a secret. Besides, her cousin, whom she’d seen being assaulted, seemed just fine. She began to wonder if the rape had even occurred. Was she 100 per cent certain—or was it a dream?

Over the next year, she would occasionally wake up in the morning feeling sore. Some days, she couldn’t remember the hours leading up to falling asleep. At times, she had terrifying visions of herself engaged in violent sexual acts. Still, she never spoke of any of it.

Keeping the faith: members of Song’s church gathered at Christie Pits Park in 2009, the year the gang rapes allegedly began

On Saturdays, Yeri, like many other church members, would drive to Orangeville, where their pastor maintained a small property: a convenience store with a second-floor apartment and an adjacent garage that functioned as the Jesus First office. There, they would sew church uniforms, banners and tents. Pastor Song and his flock would work late into the night and sleep on futons in the apartment. Then they’d all drive back to Toronto together the next day for church service.

On a Sunday morning in February 2010, one of the church members, a 29-year-old woman I’ll call Sandra, was discovered by one of the convenience store’s employees running laps around the aisles. She wore nothing but a pair of boots.

Sandra confessed to Song that one of the deacons of the church had forced her to jog around the store. On other occasions, she said, he drugged and raped her. The revelation prompted Song and the church’s director, a woman named Min Sun Cho, to survey other female members of the church to see if they’d ever been assaulted. Five more women in their 20s eventually came forward with similar stories of rape, including Yeri and her cousin. Song and Cho encouraged the six to go to the police.

The crimes allegedly took place between February 2009 and February 2010. As part of their investigation, detectives collected hair samples from the complainants, and hair from two of the women was found to contain traces of Rohypnol, the date rape drug.

Nine members of the church—seven men and two women, all in their 20s and 30s—were arrested and charged with 485 counts of gang sexual assault, forcible confinement, the production of child pornography (some of the incidents were supposedly filmed), administering drugs for sex, and assault. The accused include the deacon, who can’t be named because of a second publication ban; two sisters named Young-Mi Ham and Young-Min Ham, as well as Young-Min’s husband, Jung-Soo Kim; and five other men, Sang-Cheol Lee, Hyung-Jun Ha, Yoon-Hyun Cho, Jin-Hyun Kim and the pastor’s nephew Jung Jay Lee. Before they could be charged, the latter three men left for South Korea.

The six who remained in Canada hired lawyers and insisted they never assaulted the women. The entire story, they say, is a conspiracy masterminded by Song—he forced the women to memorize a script before sending them to the police. They claim he did this to cover up his own criminal activity.

It’s gut-wrenching to imagine the terror and humiliation the six women say they endured, but also sickening to imagine that they might have made it all up—and that their pastor coerced them into doing so. What power could Song have over these women that they’d accuse people they knew of terrible crimes? I first set out to investigate the story of an alleged gang rape, assuming there could be nothing uglier or more disturbing. But I encountered something I didn’t expect, something maybe just as dark: an isolated congregation with a cult-like devotion to their pastor.

Jae kap Song pays meticulous attention to his hair. It’s fine and combed forward to cover where it’s thinning, and coloured a shade of black that seems to absorb all light. I met Song and his family at their neat two-storey brick house on a quiet Etobicoke cul-de-sac a 20-minute drive from the apartment Yeri shares with her mother and the others. Song is 57 years old and heavy-set, with a puckish smile and a deep, baritone voice. His wife, In Suk, is a weary-looking 55; she works part-time as a courtroom interpreter. They have two grown children: a daughter, recently married, and a son who studies architecture and still lives at home. Song offered me a cup of coffee. Smiling, he said that I might want to think twice about drinking it. (After a moment, I realized with horror that he was cracking a joke about how the six women were allegedly doped with Rohypnol.)

From left: Christian charity: Song’s services are held in a borrowed church at Steeles and Islington; Answered prayers: a plaque in Song’s home commemorates his exoneration.

Song grew up in South Korea’s Gangwon province, a rural, mountainous region known for fishing villages and potato farms. His parents ran a small inn. He was the second youngest of nine children, a strong-willed boy who often took solitary walks in the forest to commune with nature.

He came to Toronto 31 years ago to visit his older brother, a convenience store manager, and was persuaded to stay after a pastor at North York’s Saehan Presbyterian Church introduced him to In Suk. Song, who is prone to dramatic gestures, told me it was love at first sight, and re-enacted the encounter by miming his heart plunging out from his chest and spilling on the floor. Jae Kap and In Suk were married in 1982 in a small ceremony conducted by the same pastor who had served as matchmaker.

Song first worked as an auto mechanic, but soon followed other Korean immigrants into the convenience store business; he bought his own store in Orangeville. He became more involved in the church and earned an ordination certificate after completing correspondence studies at Chongshin College, a theology seminary in Flushing, New York. Over time, a small Presbyterian Bible study group he led grew big enough that he decided to found his own church. It was officially incorporated in 2007. He recruited Min Sun Cho, then a theology student, to serve as church director.

Song named his ministry Jesus First. The congregation had no permanent home, but rented space during off-hours in another church at Steeles and Islington. Jesus First grew to 60 members, including a number of Song’s relatives, among them his nieces—the sisters Young-Mi and Young-Min—and their husbands. Song often preached that his were a chosen people, and that church came before everything—even family. His congregation believed that they would be allowed to cut the line to the gates of heaven on the day of the Rapture.

And the women disappeared into the basement, where they began preparing the post-service feast. They skinned mounds of Asian pears, tossed and turned vats of rice and stacked acorn jellies, seasoned sesame leaves and stir-fried garlic buds on plates. In Suk Song explained to me that every aspect of the meal is prepared in the name of the Lord. Every banchan—Korea’s tapas—is sacred.

The Korea Times Daily, the Toronto Korean community’s largest newspaper, was the first to break the story of the rapes after a tip from a church insider. The paper ran a front-page story on March 17, 2010, which was picked up by Korean bloggers and prompted SBS, South Korea’s state broadcaster, to send a team of investigative reporters to Toronto.

The scandal became the shared obsession of Korean Torontonians. The crime touched a nerve: many Koreans had hosted visiting students or knew of families back in South Korea who had sent their daughters to Toronto. Reporters asked how so many young women could be exploited for so many months within the church.

A dozen stories followed in the Daily. The paper interviewed Jacqueline An, a lawyer who briefly represented one of the accused rapists, and, although the case had yet to be tried, sided with her version of events—effectively dismissing the complaints of the allegedly raped women and depicting the scandal as evidence of a cult.

Song was furious at the Daily and wary of other media but seemed to enjoy that the world was finally paying attention to him. He claimed the nine accused were a deviant breakaway group of the church. When we spoke, he insisted that if I met the victims in person I’d be persuaded their story was true. He arranged for me to meet Yeri and four of the other women, along with the church director, Cho, at one of the Etobicoke apartments. Cho sat the group around a dining table. A peculiar tension filled the room. All five women bowed their heads so their long, dark hair covered their faces like mantillas. They appeared both sad and nervous.

The women took turns describing their ordeal for me. They each told me their memories were a blur. Their voices jumped an octave or two when they recounted the nights of the rapes, and each wept in turn. I wanted to believe their tears but couldn’t shake the suspicion that they’d been trained to be model victims. Their accounts, including Yeri’s, were pitch perfect, neat and polished.

Conspicuously absent at the table was Sandra, the woman who had run naked around the convenience store and initiated the charges. She no longer lives in the apartment or is in contact with the church. I reached her through a Korean-Canadian named Raphael Kim, a private investigator who was hired by Sandra’s mother, after the rape charges were laid, to help her recoup $450,000 she claims Song had stolen from her. Sandra nervously explained to me how she moved to Canada in 2005. She said that Song promised to help her entire family move to Canada, and her mother, who still lives in Korea, wired the money to be used for investments that would help facilitate immigration.

One student remembers an injection and a feeling of weightlessness. She says they forced her to bark like a dog, and then she was raped

She now claims she knew something was wrong from the moment she arrived in Toronto. Song supposedly told her that her spirit was not yet clean, so he could not go ahead with the immigration application or return any of the money because it would do her harm. Sandra said that when she tried to assert herself, he laughed at her, and reminded her that he was her pastor and she merely a visitor in Canada. He gave her the impression that he had the authority to deport her. She kept quiet.

The lawyer Jacqueline An says Sandra came to her and recanted her rape allegation in front of a video camera. In the video, which An supplied to the Crown, Sandra claims that Song verbally and physically abused her. It was Song, not the deacon, who forced her to run naked around the convenience store on that day back in 2010. And it was Song, she alleged, who convinced her and the five other women that they were raped by the nine accused, and that if they didn’t remember the crime it was because they’d been drugged. At some point, she started to believe that what Song said was true.

Sandra claims she tried to escape Song’s group three times. Once, she attempted to throw herself out of a moving car, but Song, who was behind the wheel, grabbed her arm. She told me she was later beaten by Song for this act of defiance. She attempted to slip out of her shared apartment twice, but an alarm installed on the door gave her away. She finally escaped in September 2010. She had only $20 on her, and with it, she purchased a TTC token and a phone card. In the months after her escape, she briefly lived in the home of a Korea Times editor. This April she flew back to her family in South Korea.

Song denies all charges of fraud and assault, but admits that he and Sandra’s mother settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

During my interviews with Song, one of the many things that surprised me was how untroubled he seemed that three of his own close relatives were among the nine accused. Young-Min Ham, his niece, agreed to meet me and explain how she and her husband, Jung-Soo Kim, had joined Song’s church and came to be arrested. The couple lives at Yonge and Sheppard in a one-bedroom apartment. She cares for their 12-year-old boy while Kim works for the Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association.

When Ham was in middle school, living just outside of Seoul, Song came to stay with her family while he was taking courses in Dahn Yoga. One day, Ham snooped around his room and found his diary. One entry read, “Today, I felt my body lift. Air entered through my right underarm before exiting my body by my abdomen.” She knew that her uncle was a spiritual man, but the diary convinced her that he had a profound connection to God.

On another visit from Song, when Ham was in her mid-20s, he invited her to move to Canada, where she could lead what he called a “life of prayer.” In 2004, she flew to Toronto and joined her uncle. Ham soon learned that this life of prayer had peculiar ground rules. Song encouraged his congregants to live in one of the six church apartments. Curfew was 10 p.m., so that the members could prepare themselves for a group prayer session at midnight. Song also allegedly acted as a doctor to his flock, supplying them with Korean medications from a smuggled-in stash. At times, Song would phone Ham and ask her to cover for him, to say that he was with her when his wife came calling. He never said why, but according to Ham it was an open secret that he was cheating on In Suk. ‘I will support him,’ Ham thought. ‘He is the true servant of the Lord.’ (Song denies he was having an affair.)

On February 20, 2010, a week after the incident in the convenience store, Ham’s phone rang close to midnight. It was Min Sun Cho, and she urged Ham and her husband to come to an emergency meeting at the church office in Orangeville. Ham and her husband arrived to find themselves joined by 17 other senior church members. Song entered the room and held up a manila folder. In it, he said, was testimony by female members of the church stating that they had been raped by church elders. The parents of one of the Korean students were threatening to go to the police.

Ham thought her ears had betrayed her. At first, it did not occur to her that she and her husband would be among the elders Song was accusing of gang rape. She remembers that Song looked disheveled: his hair was a mess, he wore no socks and the zipper of his pants was partially open. Ham assumed that Song was testing their faith. By the time she realized that he was serious and these women were accusing her and her husband of terrible crimes, it was early in the morning and they had been dismissed without getting a chance to speak.

Over the next few months, Ham, her husband, her sister and three other elders were arrested. Arrest warrants were also issued for the three who had fled to South Korea. Ham was held for three days before being released on bail.

The pastor allegedly told one woman he had to examine her body because she was being attacked by her “mother-in-law’s evil horny spirit”

A preliminary hearing against the elders began last July. The assistant Crown prosecutor, Paul Zambonini, presented the evidence from the women, who testified that during some of the gang rapes the elders’ wives cheered them on. The rapes allegedly occurred at the apartments of the accused, at the apartments the international students shared, at a motel and in a soccer field. Song also testified at the hearing, explaining how he encouraged his students to go to the police. At one point, the court heard a recording Song had made of the middle-of-the-night meeting when he warned his elders they would be charged. Much of the testimony—including Song’s and the rape victims’—was given in Korean and translated for the court.

Five weeks later, there was a surprise announcement: the Crown wouldn’t proceed with a trial. All 485 charges were dropped. After reviewing the testimony from Song and the women, the recanting of charges by the one international student and evidence from the defence that included an alibi for one of the accused, the Crown decided that there wasn’t a reasonable prospect of conviction.

The case against the nine elders was a tangled mess, to be sure. And it didn’t help that the rape victims and their pastor had to deliver their often harrowing testimony through the stilted words of a translator. The young women were difficult to keep straight—they had similar names and were of similar stature. Their memories of the alleged crimes were fragmented. And it was never explained why they had been singled out by the elders, or what motivated this group of elders to join together to repeatedly drug and rape them.

Upon hearing the Crown’s announcement, Ham and her husband were ecstatic. But before they left the building they had to sign $500 peace bonds—a promise they would not attempt to contact their accusers.

As the courtroom emptied, the five international students huddled around Pastor Song and wept.

The biggest obstacle to the conviction of the nine accused rapists was the role of their pastor. Last year, an hour after the church’s deacon was arrested for gang rape, his wife went to the police alleging that Song had assaulted her. The woman had joined the church in 2003. She and her husband had lived in one of the shared church apartments, and she ran a convenience store.

Another woman claims she tried to escape by throwing herself out of song’s moving car, and that She was beaten for her defiance

In her statements to the police, she claimed that Song approached her in the early hours of Valentine’s Day in 2010, the same day as the scene in the Orangeville convenience store, and told her that her “mother-in-law’s evil horny spirit” was attacking her and that this would result in her upper body swelling to resemble a hunchback. She said he then directed her into his bedroom and proceeded to undress her. When she resisted, he told her that he had to examine her skin to see if it was turning green. “Come on, come on, let me see your body,” he supposedly said. He also told her that her husband was cheating on her and she should get her revenge by having sex with him. After that, she said, he fondled her breasts and touched her vagina.

Song was charged with sexual assault, but he adamantly denied any wrongdoing. “I was a father figure to her,” he told me. “Is this how she repays her debt?” He hired a defence lawyer named Christophe Preobrazenski, who planned to argue that the woman had invented the assault and only went to police after her husband was arrested as one of the nine gang rapists. This was her way of getting back at Song.

The case against Song was heard this past January in Orange­ville’s courthouse. He arrived at the trial followed by his wife and the five allegedly raped women. Song, who has poor English despite having lived here for 31 years, required an interpreter. When he answered a question, his entire body would lurch forward. He sipped frequently from a vitamin shake. The session was not easy to follow, in English or Korean. He replied rhetorically to questions from the Crown and from Preobrazenski. “Why would I interfere with their lives?” he said, when asked if the woman and her husband required his permission before making social arrangements. When Preobrazenski asked him if he had told her she was possessed by an evil spirit, Song barked back, “I never have, and I don’t want to hear any more of it.”

The presiding judge, Katherine van Rensburg, appeared more and more perplexed as the hours of testimony passed. She couldn’t overlook the fact that the woman didn’t protest at the time of the assault, didn’t change her behaviour around Song in the days and weeks that followed and came forward only after her husband was charged. “The expression ‘Where there is smoke, there is fire’ has no place in law in a criminal court,” van Rensburg said. “Although in this case it could be said there is plenty of smoke.” She ruled that the Crown failed to prove the assault had occurred.

Song and his female followers left the courthouse in a jubilant mood and returned to Song’s house for a celebratory lunch of Korean sushi.

The more time I spent with Song and all the others involved in this web of grievances and allegations, the more I began to doubt everyone’s version of events. Each person seemed to be playing a character in a Korean soap opera—a melodrama that happened to be set in an extremely insular group that may or may not be a religious cult.

Song may have been acquitted, but his troubles are far from over: lawsuits and countersuits are flying in all directions. Since the gang rape charges were dropped and the Orangeville trial ended, the accused have been preparing a civil lawsuit against the police, Song and their accusers. Meanwhile, in South Korea, two sets of parents of alleged rape victims launched a civil suit against the three accused who fled, but the courts dismissed the suit in April. The three who fled are preparing their own suits against the six women. And the South Korean authorities have filed a criminal suit against the six for false accusations. Some of the alleged rape victims, for their part, have launched a civil suit in Canada against the accused and the woman who recanted. They’ve also launched a $45-million defamation suit against the Korea Times Daily.

Back at her apartment, Yeri told me that Song’s acquittal was the only good news she’d had in a long time. “How can I fabricate my own sexual assault?” she asked. “In Korean society, the victims are seen as shameful. What about my future? What kind of man would like me?”

After her own case was thrown out of court, she had cried for days. Two of the other women attempted suicide, taking an overdose of sleeping pills, and had to be hospitalized. They’re all now back in their church apartments, under Song’s watchful eye.