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Kkottongne Founder Indicted For Embezzlement, Diocese Refutes Charges


August 07 2003

The Catholic priest who founded and directed South Korea´s largest social welfare institute has been charged by local prosecutors with embezzlement and fraud.

On Aug. 1, the prosecution office in Cheongju, 110 kilometers southeast of Seoul, said it had decided after a one-year probe to indict Father John Oh Woong-jin on eight charges including embezzlement and fraud.

Father Oh, 57, is charged with misappropriating more than 3.4 billion won (about US$2.8 million) in donations and government subsidies to Kkottongne (flower village), a social welfare facility for disabled and elderly people.

Cheongju diocese, to which Father Oh belonged in 1983 when he established Kkottongne at Eumseong in the diocesan territory, has refuted the charges and expressed confidence that the priest will be cleared in court. He left the diocese in January 2000 to join the Kkottongne Brothers of Jesus that he founded 13 years earlier.

Prosecutors say the priest forged documents to make it look as though more brothers and nuns were working at Kkottongne than their actual number. They say this allowed Father Oh to pocket some 1.35 billion won in public funds from government subsidies since January 1998.

He is also charged with giving 880 million won to his relatives from 1996 to 2000 for their living expenses and to help them buy farmland.

Kim Kyu-hon, director of the Cheongju Prosecutor´s Office, told local media that even though the offenses are very serious, his office decided to indict Father Oh without physically detaining him. He said they considered the priest´s service in founding and managing welfare facilities over the past 20 years.

Kkottongne in Eumseong is home to about 3,000 handicapped people, homeless elderly people and long-term volunteers. In 1992, Father Oh established a second complex in Gapyeong, about 60 kilometers northeast of Seoul, which currently has about 2,000 residents and staff.

These and facilities in the Philippines and the United States have received billions of won annually in donations from as many as 800,000 Catholics and in government subsidies.

In 1996, Father Oh won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in recognition of his charitable endeavors.

Less than four years later, in January 2000, he resigned as Kkottongne director and entered one of the two Religious congregations he founded to serve the poor and sick, the other being the Kkottongne Sisters of Jesus. The move was reportedly due to failure to expand his charity projects.

He resumed his position as director in February 2002, but resigned again in February this year amid media coverage of the investigation by prosecutors.

Responding to the decision to charge Father Oh, Cheongju diocese issued a statement Aug. 4 saying the indictment "lacked detailed evidence to prove the alleged charges."

The seven-page statement refuting the prosecutors´ claims item by item was signed by Father Thomas Lee Hyeong-ro, president of the Committee for the Kkottongne Problem and diocesan chancellor.

It said the 880 million won given to relatives was not for their use but for the purchase of land for a Kkottongne-run college.

The statement also denied the charge that Father Oh forged documents in order to receive more money from the government.

It said the diocese expects Father Oh to be cleared of all charges as a result of the trial.

Father Oh´s lawyers accused prosecutors of lacking evidence and of straying from the facts. Yim Kwang-kyu, one of the lawyers, described the charges to UCA News as "pure fiction."

However, Father Augustine Ham Sei-ung, former president and current adviser of the Catholic Priests´ Association for Justice, calls the case "a sign of the times."

The 59-year-old parish priest of Sangdodong Church in Seoul archdiocese told UCA News Aug. 5 that allegations against Father Oh began long ago, but the Church tried to "cover up his deeds by using its power."

According to Father Ham, "It is really shameful that a Catholic priest is involved in this case, but what is more shameful and vile is to try to conceal it somehow."

The investigation of Father Oh began after prosecutors received a written petition alleging Kkottongne was involved in illegal campaigning practices during local elections in June last year.

The petition also alleged that Father Oh deposited hundreds of millions of won in bank accounts belonging to his relatives.

During prosecutors´ one-year probe into the allegations, Father Oh was summoned five times for questioning.