A supporter of Yoido Full Gospel Church senior pastor David Yonggi Cho reaches for the throat of former church elder Ha Sang-ok in a confrontation during a press conference by a group of 30 elders calling for Cho and his family to leave the church amid allegations of corruption, held at the Korea Ecumenical Building in Seoul’s Jongno district, Nov. 14. (by Kim Bong-gyu, staff photographer)
Senior pastor David Yonggi Cho accused of siphoning off millions in church funds; his camp denies the allegations
By Cho Yeon-hyun, religion correspondent
30 elders from Yoido Full Gospel Church, the world’s largest megachurch, held a press conference at the Korea Ecumenical Building in Seoul’s Jongno district on Nov. 14 to allege that senior pastor David Yonggi Cho and his family funneled off hundreds of billions of won from church donations.
The sheer scale of the amounts alleged by the elders to have been misappropriated is beyond the imagination. The elders made public a report from an investigation into three alleged improprieties by Cho made by a special investigation committee and ethics committee formed within the church last year. This time around, the allegations came from members of a group called the Prayer Meeting for Correcting the Church, including elders Kim Dae-jin and Kim Seok-kyun.
First, they claim that Cho returned only 64.3 billion won (US$60.2 million) of the 163.3 billion won (US$152.9 million) he borrowed from the church while building the CCMM Building between 1992 and 1998, when he was chairman of the church‘s Mission Society. The remaining 99 billion won (US$92.7 million), they say, was never returned.
By the elders’ account, construction payments of 28.5 billion won (US$26.7 million) and 16.6 billion won (US$15.5 million) were made at the time to Next Media Corporation and Facility Management Korea, companies managed by Cho’s eldest son Hee-jun.
It is also being claimed that Cho’s third son Seung-jae’s International Club Management Group bought three floors of the building from the church for 29.5 billion won (US$27.6 million) and sold them back three years later for 37.2 billion won (US$34.8 million) - pocketing the difference of 7.7 billion won (US$7.2 million).
In addition to allegedly appropriating 34.2 billion won (US$32 million) in Kukmin Ilbo newspaper lifetime reader memberships from 50,000 people for stock investments, Cho Hee-jun was also accused by the elders of making off with a total of 240 billion won (US$224.7 million) in assets related to the church.
They also claimed that David Cho’s wife Kim Sung-hae, president of Hansei University, has yet to account for 10.5 billion won (US$9.8 million) paid by the church as support for Bethesda Christian University, an institution she runs in the US. The elders also view US real estate purchased by the university for around US$15 million as having been bought with church money.
In total, the elders are accusing the Chos of embezzling as much as US$500 million or more in church money.
Associates of David Yonggi Cho insisted he had “no connection with any direct exchanges of money.”
Kim Sung-hae’s camp said the details of the Bethesda Christian University situation would be brought to light by prosecutors, who are currently investigating, but added that the elders’ claims were “merely allegations, not facts, and not worth responding to each one.”
The most explosive part of the allegations is the sheer amount of money supposedly received by David Yonggi Cho. The elders claim he received a severance payment of 20 billion won (US$18.7 million) when he stepped down as head pastor in 2008 - and that even that was decided without their knowledge or any voting by major church decision-making bodies. They also said no information was available on the whereabouts of 12 billion won (US$11.2 million) a year paid between 2004 and 2008 - 60 billion won in total - for “special missionary expenses.”
The elders gave a yearly total of 100 billion to 120 billion won (US$93.6-112.3 million) in donations received by the church. This would mean the annual amount taken in by the headquarters dropped by almost half from about 200 billion won a year when Cho spun off the Jisungjun center in downtown Seoul around the time he handed over senior pastor duties to Lee Young-hoon in 2008. Nevertheless, it remains the largest amount received in donations by any religious body in South Korea.
The elders also claim that Cho continued controlling the church even after his “retirement” by making decisions as “governor” - to the point where his successor Lee had difficulty exercising his authority on appointments and finances.
One of the former elders at the press conference, Ha Sang-ok, previously admitted to taking part in giving 1.5 billion won (US$1.4 million) while collecting the book “Madame Butterfly in Paris” from a female vocalist in France named Jeong who anonymously wrote the account about an affair with Cho.
“A sect leader might violate the commandments and do as he wishes, but a pastor cannot do that,” Ha said. “Over the past 14 years, I have met with Rev. Cho many times to try to persuade him to repent and return to being a great pastor, but the corruption has continued. That‘s why I had no choice but to disclose it to the outside world.”
The elders also made public a statement allegedly made by Cho saying he would give Jeong 1.5 billion won in exchange for her making no future mention of their extramarital relationship, along with copies of receipts for the two transactions totaling 3 billion won.
The church’s public relations office said the claims were “a personal matter that the church has no comment on.”
Lee Won-gun, an elder who functions as Cho’s “chief of staff,” said Cho is “unconcerned with money, to the point where I’ve never once seen him talk about giving money or not giving money to somebody.”
“There will be a response from this side after looking at the elders’ claims,” Lee added.
Cho is currently on trial for alleged causing 15.7 billion won (US$14.7 million) in damages to the church by instructing it to buy 250,000 shares of his eldest son’s stocks at a rate four times market value.
During the press conference, a physical altercation occurred when a number of Cho’s supporters attempted to rush the platform at the press conference and accused the elders of “insulting” the pastor.