Town for the disabled awaits pope’s blessing

Town for the disabled awaits pope’s blessing
Pope Francis signs his name in the guest book at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea in Seoul on Thursday.

KOREA - The pope will offer messages of hope to those residing at South Korea's largest Catholic welfare centre when he stops by on Saturday.

But the pontiff's visit to Kkotdongnae, or "Flower Village," is expected to add fuel to existing controversy surrounding the centre.

Pope Francis will stop by at the Flower Village's main facilities in Eumseong, North Chungcheong Province. About 5,000 Flower Village residents live in Eumseong and at affiliated centers in Gyeonggi Province and Seoul.

Many of the inhabitants suffer from permanent disabilities or are abandoned minors in need of care, according to Catholic officials.

Flower Village residents are awaiting the pontiff's visit with much excitement. Four will personally meet the pontiff.

Nine-year-old Philip Cha, one of the lucky four, says the papal visit will be as joyful as meeting Jesus himself. The third-grader suffers from myasthenia, a muscular disability. He was brought to the Catholic centre after his single mother apparently abandoned him at a Seoul hospital.

Managers of the Flower Village say the boy has difficulty eating independently because his disease affects his arms and legs. But he has a "strong will," officials say, and dreams of becoming a television anchor.

Flower Village was founded in 1976 by Fr. John Oh Woong-jin. Oh says a beggar who was feeding other homeless people on the street inspired him to create a world in which "no one was left behind." Oh has since been an outspoken religious figure in South Korea, having served in both secular and church positions.

But controversy surrounding Oh and the management of the facilities have sparked criticism of Pope Francis' visit to the welfare centre. Critics have accused Oh of embezzling donations and using the funds to speculate in real estate. The policies of the centre also ultimately cause more discrimination against Korea's disabled, they say.

In 2003, South Korean prosecutors indicted the priest for embezzling more than 3.46 billion won ($3.4 million) of church money. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling found Oh innocent on all charges. Civic activists filed another lawsuit against the 68-year-old priest in January after a local television broadcaster raised similar allegations last July. Prosecutors did not indict Oh.

Earlier this month, a group calling itself the "former disabled residents of Flower Village" submitted a petition to Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung demanding Pope Francis cancel his visit to the facility.

Members of the group have said Flower Village segregates the disabled from the rest of society, obstructing any possibility of learning how to live without help.

"You think simply feeding us will do it? Or simply housing us? We want to go outside too. The Flower Village is a place that teaches dependence ― a place worse than a prison," one protestor's placard read during a rally on Aug. 7.

Pope Francis' visit seems to signal that the leader of the Catholic Church is ignoring this controversy, critics say.

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