TOKYO — The leader of a South Korean megachurch, Jaerock Lee, was sentenced to 15 years in prison Thursday for raping eight female followers after telling them he was carrying out “an order from God.”
Lee is the head of the Manmin Central Church, which claims to have 133,000 followers and 10,000 branches and associate churches worldwide.
He was ejected from the Christian Council of Korea in 1999 for his “heretical” beliefs and branded a “cult leader” by the Korean Ministry Association after claiming he was without sin and exempt from dying.
“The victims, who attended the church since childhood, believed that obeying Lee as a godlike figure is the path to heaven,” the court said in its verdict. “Apparently the victims were psychologically positioned to be powerless to disobey Lee, and Lee took advantage of their status to commit the crime.”
The court said Lee denied “objective facts” during the investigation and showed no remorse in the courtroom. Lee, 75, was about 50 years older than his victims, it said.
“The victims believed him to be a divine being who wields divine power,” the court said. “They would have accepted Lee’s behavior as a divine act, rather than a sexual one, and gave up questioning him, thinking that it would constitute a sin.”
Accusations that Lee abused his power to have sex with female followers have circulated for two decades. In 1999, approximately 300 of his supporters stormed a Korean television station after it broadcast a documentary critical of Lee and his claims that he could cure illness. His sect had obtained a court order preventing Munhwa Broadcasting from screening a story about Lee’s sex life.
Lee was also invited to preach all over the world, with his church claiming he performed miraculous acts of healing.
“At each overseas crusade, countless have received God’s healing of such incurable and terminal diseases as AIDS, cancer, and the like on the spot when Rev. Dr. Lee prayed not by placing his hand on each of the sick but merely for all from the pulpit,” Manmin Central Church said on its website.
Christian cults have gained a significant foothold in South Korea, where 29 percent of the population identifies as Christian.
In August, the leader of a small Christian sect known as Jesus Morning Star was jailed for six years for raping female followers as part of a purification ritual.
The same month, South Korean cult leader Shin Ok-ju was arrested over allegations that she had persuaded her followers to flee to Fiji to escape a looming famine on the Korean Peninsula and then subjected them to ritual beatings. She was taken into custody upon her arrival in Seoul.
A video later emerged of her beating her followers and ordering them to strike one another.
Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.