LIMERICK CITY Columban Missionary Father Noel O’Neill is leading a protest in South Korea against the proposed visit of Pope Francis to Kkottongnae Flower Village - the largest welfare institution in the country during his Papal visit this August.
The Kkottongnae Flower Village is spread across two sites which house close to 4,000 physically disabled, intellectually disabled and others marginalised from society and is run by the catholic religious organisation founded by Father John Oh in 1978.
Father Noel O’Neill, from Catherine Street, feels that the visit of Pope Francis to Korea is a positive gesture for all Catholics in Asia but is adamant in his objections to the Papal visit to the Flower Village and he states: “This kind of massive institutionalisation of disabled people has long been discredited in much of the world. Without overstating it, no symbolic gestures of embracing or kisses by Pope Francis will dispel the underlying truth, that such a model of services is unacceptable and contrary to the very enlightened UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It even questions how Pope Francis will be able to reconcile such a visit with his teaching in his document on evangelisation.”
Evangelii Gaudium or the Joy of the Gospel is the 2013 work of Pope Francis and referred to as “the manifesto of Francis” and in chapter 187 he declares: “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor.”
Pope Francis is to visit South Korea between August 14 and 18, where he will preside at the beatification ceremony of 124 sainthood candidates. He will attend the Asian Youth Day celebrations at Daejeon and he is also scheduled to visit the Cheongju diocese where he plans to visit Kkottongnae. Kkottongnae began when Fr Oh offered shelter to a small number of homeless people in 1978. Throughout the 1980s it was endorsed by the Korean Hierarchy, former Presidents and prominent politicians. It has received the support of the Korean Chaebols - family run transnational conglomerations such as Hyundai, Samsung and Kia - and receives monthly contributions from approximately 100,000 supporters.
The Catherine Street born priest said: “It has grown into a large institution, segregated from the mainstream of society, housing not only a huge number of homeless people but a congregation of those weaker members of our society, disabled people, victims of substance abuse and people who are mentally ill. Between two large institutions away out in the wilds, one in Eumseong and another in Gapyeong there are about 4,000 residents.”
The CBS Sexton Street educated priest told the Leader that he has documentation that shows when Pope Francis was the leader of the church in Buenos Aires that he invited Fr Oh to set up a similar foundation in Argentina. As Francis was called to Rome this did not materialise and Fr O’Neill said: “The fact that the Pope is visiting Kkottongnae is an action which tacitly shows his admiration and his approval for such a model of services for the disabled and other marginalised peoples.”
Since the announcement in March of the Pope Francis visit to Korea there has been several gatherings protesting his visit to Kkottongnae. The Little Jesus Society, a catholic religious society of priests, brothers and sisters staged a protest meeting at the entrance to one of the institutions site at Gapyeong Kkottongnae.
The foundation is headquartered in Eumseong with several chapters across Korea along with others in the Philippines and the US. The Little Jesus Society have said that Fr Oh has faced a number of trails over allegations of embezzlement amounting to some 3.4 million Won (almost €2.55m) and the Korean Supreme Court acquitted him of this charge in 2007, while a number of residents in Eumseong suggest that he has accumulated a fortune through buying over 13 million square metres (over 3,200 acres) of land. Residents in Eumseong County have asked prosecutors to investigate how a community for the disabled can purchase such a vast tract of land and are demanding to know if the foundation have used government subsidies properly.
They called on the Pope to cancel his visit there as the Little Jesus Society claims that Kkottongnae Flower Village is run as a “mafia style organisation” which has been riddled with a number of corrupt scandals that have never been satisfactorily resolved. They intend to deliver a detailed report of corrupt transactions directly to the Vatican while staging a protest there.
Another protest that Fr O’Neill was part of was held by the Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination in front of the Papal Nuncios residence where they handed over a letter requesting the cancellation of the Popes visit to Kkottongnae.
Fr O’Neill said: “One former resident who suffers from cerebral palsy and has to use a wheelchair is now enjoying independent living assisted by a carer. As a resident in the Flower Village she had no freedom and had to ask permission for everything. She is enjoying doing her own shopping and getting her hair dyed at the local hairdresser. Another former Kkottongnae resident spoke of his humiliation as different groups of people came looking at you as if they were ‘viewing monkeys in the zoo’.”
Fr O’Neill feels that Pope Francis’s visit would be a moral legitimation of all the oppression and mistreatment that people with disabilities have struggled for so long to overcome.
When Fr O’Neill established Korea’s first community based services for people with special needs - The Rainbow Community - his dream was to change the prevailing attitude of “out of sight, out of mind” among government, society and families and to move people with varying disabilities into the community and away from large segregated institutions.
The Limerick priest who adores going to Kilkee when he’s “home” added: “When I started that group home, I had a dream, a vision; if people with special needs were given the opportunity to learn and be trained they too could live in the local community and contribute to society. I have seen that dream come true. Today I have another dream, that those disabled still kept in large segregated institutions should be brought into the local community and be allowed to experience and enjoy the choices non-disabled people have.”