KKOTTONGNAE, SOUTH KOREA — Pope Francis on Saturday made a stop that’s been a sore spot on his agenda here, visiting a controversial health center that’s seen by fans as an icon of care for the poor and by critics as a scam.
During the visit to the House of Hope center here, about 120 miles outside Seoul — it looks more like a college campus than a health facility — Francis met patients and leaders of the community, addressed members of local religious movements and stopped at a “cemetery” for aborted children.
Clearly moved by the realities of the sick and disabled people he met, especially children, and perhaps buoyed by a chorus that sang in Spanish, Francis repeatedly transformed the respectful bows and handshakes he was offered into enthusiastic Latin hugs.
One the most touching moments of his trip to South Korea came as the pontiff individually embraced scores of sick children, after they performed an enthusiastic dance routine.
On his trips, Francis has insisted on including stops like this that bring him into direct contact with suffering people. They’re intended to express the priorities of his papacy, and generally play to universally positive reviews.
Not so, however, with Kkottongae.
Founded by a charismatic Korean priest named Father John Oh in 1976, Kkottongae derives its inspiration from a beggar named Choi Gwi Dong who, despite his disabilities, managed to take care of 18 sick poor people.
Over the years, it’s evolved into a vast complex that serves various categories of the sick and disabled. It receives substantial public funding and has also been backed by influential Koreans, celebrities, and some of the country’s top corporations.
Oh has opened satellite “Flower Villages” in different countries, including three in the US. While he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis reportedly wanted to open a Kkottongnae center there.
Billed as a “father to the poor,” Oh’s shining reputation is matched by equally dark shadows. Since 1999, he has been repeatedly investigated on charges of corruption and embezzlement linked to more than $90 million his organizations receive from the South Korean government.
Heads of smaller institutions doing similar work in Korea have organized news conferences in front of the Vatican’s embassy to South Korea charging that as a result of Kkottongnae’s influence over the government, their requests for funding are constantly rejected.
Critics have labeled Kkottongnae is “Korea’s version of the mafia.”
The suspicions don’t circulate only among competitors. Bishop Peter Kang U-il, president of the Korean Bishop’s Conference and one of the top officials behind Francis’s first trip to Asia, also voiced reservations Wednesday in an interview.
Kang U-il said that when more than 5,000 people are treated in one place, it’s impossible to guarantee that the human rights of each individual are properly respected. He also expressed doubts that “the honorable causes that inspired the project are still the leading forces.”
A Vatican spokesman said Friday that Francis had been informed of the claimsagainst Oh and his institution.
“After it was approved by the South Korean authorities, it was considered a worthy visit,” said Father Federico Lombardi.
Father Heop Yeoung-yeop, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seoul, said that Oh “was never convicted of any crime nor found guilty of wrongdoing.”
Francis did not address the controversy during his visit to the center, focusing on direct contact with sick and disabled persons.
After the visit to the center, Francis spoke to members of religious orders in South Korea as well as leaders of lay movements.
Francis called the religious orders to be true to their vows of poverty and to avoid the hypocrisy of those who instead “live like the rich,” wounding the souls of the faithful and harming the church.
As the pontiff walked the 100 yards that separated him from the entrance to the stage, the crowd, mostly composed of nuns, loudly clapped and made reverent gestures, bringing smiles from Francis.
During the hours the priests and nunswaited for Francis to join them, organizers repeatedly asked the faithful to try to contain themselves: “Remember, he’s had a busy couple of days,” organizers said, “so please restrain from pushing him and throwing yourselves at him when he approaches.”