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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

The Cult of Pastor Song

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.