South Korea’s Catholic hierarchy on Tuesday said it was “devastated” by allegations that a priest had tried to rape a woman, after she came forward to join the country’s burgeoning #MeToo movement.
The Catholic Church has been rocked around the globe by years of damaging clerical sex abuse cases as well as cover-ups by senior church officials who often ignored victims and protected predators.
Until now the church in South Korea had largely avoided such scandals.
But earlier this month a female congregant took the rare step of appearing on television to accuse a priest of sexually abusing her in 2011, sparking widespread fury.
Announcing she was inspired by the global #MeToo movement to go public, Kim Min-kyung said the unnamed priest sexually abused and tried to rape her during a volunteer mission in South Sudan.
On Tuesday the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea (CBCK) issued an apology — the second from church leaders in the last three days — while a top archbishop said the priest had been removed from his parish pending an investigation.
“All bishops leading the South’s Catholic church, myself included, have been left shocked, baffled and devastated by this incident,” Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, the president of the CBCK, told reporters, bowing deeply and apologising to the victim, her family and those left angry by the case.
“The sex scandal of a priest who should honour the sacred value of celibacy… is utterly disappointing and shameful,” he said, vowing “stern punishment based on the laws of the church and society” against clergy involved in “any sexual deviation and hypocrisy”.
Kim said she was a volunteer helping to build a school and medical clinics in South Sudan when the priest repeatedly tried to rape her, at one point breaking into her room at night.
“He pinned me down so that I couldn’t move and said ‘I can’t control my body anymore’,” she told KBS TV.
She said she reported the incidents to other priests at the mission but received little help.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the priest had admitted committing most of the abuses recounted by Kim, citing church officials.
It is rare for people to speak out about sex abuse in South Korea, a country that remains deeply patriarchal and conservative despite its economic and technological advances.
But the #MeToo movement, which encourages victims to speak out about abuse, has slowly led to a flurry of South Korean women coming forward.
Last month an elite South Korean prosecutor went on TV to talk about sexual harassment she said she suffered at the hands of a colleague in 2010.
That sparked further testimonies of abuse by powerful men, allegations that have ensnared famed actors, theatre directors as well as a top poet regularly tipped for the Nobel prize for literature.
On Monday South Korean President Moon Jae-in also threw his support behind the #MeToo campaign, praising “the courage of the victims” and urging “stern punishment” for offenders.
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