Former members say Covenant Fellowship Church has reneged on its vows to investigate allegations of sexual and spiritual abuse.
URBANA — For Janet Park, the events of last year feel like a waste of time and energy.
Park is part of a group that last year brought to light allegations of sexual and spiritual abuse at Covenant Fellowship Church (CFC), a predominantly Asian American church near the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Many CFC members are students there who hail from the Chicago area.
CFC came under fire last summer for its alleged mishandling of sexual misconduct by church founder and former head pastor Min Joshua Chung. In addition, hundreds of accounts surfaced online criticizing the church for mishandling alleged incidents of sexual abuse committed by church members, highlighting how Chung and other church leaders downplayed that abuse.
WBEZ first reported the allegations against Chung and the crisis unfolding at CFC as the victims of sexual and spiritual abuse shared their stories online. In the aftermath, CFC promised to make changes and to be transparent. Now, more than a year after WBEZ broke the story, former members and others familiar with the church say CFC is quietly reversing course. Experts say the scandal and subsequent backsliding at CFC illustrates how many churches and their governing bodies are ill-equipped to address allegations of abuse.
“As a whistleblower, it’s traumatic as well, because there are so many places of pain and injustice along the way,” Park said.
Promises made and broken
Last summer, amid the outcry that resulted from the revelations by an Instagram account called @letters_from_rahab, CFC said it would cut financial ties to the pastor and hire a “third-party group” to do a “full investigation.” It contracted with an organization called Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) to assess the church and its response to allegations of abuse.
In addition, CFC vowed to be “clear and transparent” with members by providing regular updates on the probe on its website.
According to sources, in the past few months, CFC has terminated the assessment with GRACE and wiped any trace of the “leadership updates” from last year (as seen on a web page accessed by WBEZ on Sept. 21).
WBEZ emailed CFC lead pastor KJ Kim and the church’s Oversight Board with questions about why the church terminated its contract with GRACE, as well as CFC’s plan for any long-term changes in the wake of last year’s events. Kim would not agree to an interview but wrote back: “We at CFC continue to seek the Lord in the work of the church and we are grateful to God for the way He is leading our congregation and this is our focus right now. We are accountable to our congregation and the denomination that has charge over its leaders and we believe that this is best for our church and its future. We extend an invitation to worship with us if you are ever in the Champaign area.”
Another promised change was to bring the church under a regional body within the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), to seek more oversight and accountability for its leaders and members. Under the previous structure, CFC was an independent church, with just Chung and the associate pastors, as individuals, belonging to the Korean Central Presbytery (KCP), one of the regional bodies within the PCA.
WBEZ confirmed with Justin Coverstone, the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Northern Illinois, that CFC was in the process of joining that regional body as of early September. He said in a statement to WBEZ that the presbytery “is currently working with CFC and is discussing whether to receive the congregation into our jurisdiction. Our hope is to provide care and oversight in whatever way is appropriate.” He declined to be interviewed “in order to respect the privacy of those involved and due to the ongoing nature of allegations.”
Coverstone confirmed in a separate email to WBEZ that Kim, who had been accused by former church members of failing to respond properly to Chung’s sexual misconduct, had been accepted into the Presbytery of Northern Illinois in January.
In the wake of last year’s scandal, CFC also chose not to renew its status as a registered student organization, or RSO, at U of I last academic year. Without its RSO status, the church was not able to reserve campus spaces and recruit attendees on “Quad Day,” an annual event held at the start of the fall semester where new students are introduced to organizations on campus.
According to U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler, Covenant Fellowship is once again a registered student organization with the university this school year — giving the 32-year-old congregation access to the school’s facilities and a new crop of potential members.
‘They’re killing themselves’
For investigators at GRACE, CFC’s decision to terminate the assessment is a highly unusual move.
Pete Singer, GRACE’s executive director, called the cancellation “very rare,” adding he is aware of just one other organization that has done the same. Eventually, that group reconsidered and completed the assessment.
Singer said any organizations that back out do so because they don’t understand the nature of an independent assessment or investigation. “So they think that they can have some level of control of the process … some access to information … before they get to the final product,” Singer said.
Sources, including Singer, told WBEZ that CFC was concerned the information-gathering process was “biased” and that it dug too much into Chung’s case, which the church deemed outside the scope of the assessment.
“They gave a couple of examples [of bias], which were tenuous at best,” Singer said. “In our previous meetings, they had acknowledged that [Chung’s case was] within the scope, so I’m not certain why that changed.”
Sources at GRACE told WBEZ that the group had conducted interviews with more than 40 former and present CFC members, many of whom spent hours talking about their experiences.
Attorney Laura Dunn, a contracted institutional response specialist with GRACE, said many of the people with whom she spoke struggled to get through their interviews, some of which took three to four hours.
“[They] are literally re-traumatizing [themselves] by speaking to us, so the least the other side could do would be to hear those pieces of information,” Dunn said, adding that current church leaders, including KJ Kim, were the only remaining people GRACE had left to interview.
Diane Langberg, a prominent psychologist and leading voice on abuse within church communities, said CFC’s termination of the GRACE assessment is yet another move to silence the individuals the church has hurt.
“[Churches and presbyteries] are not trained to look into [abuse],” Langberg said. “They don’t know how to assess it, and so I would think the first response would be one of humility.”
But instead, she said, churches “think they are right, and somebody in that position isn’t going to listen to any instructions, no matter how wise or good it is.”
Langberg helped an ad interim committee of the PCA write a new report on domestic and sexual abuse in churches. The report, published in June, is intended to provide resources to handle abuse cases and to offer “best practices and guidelines” for elders, churches, presbyteries and other entities.
She said, “It’s very important for churches to understand they’re killing themselves, and they don’t look anything like the God they say they serve. They may get along with that for a long time … but somewhere along the way, the rot will show, and it will end up destroying them.”
For Janet Park and other members of the group that filed the initial allegations against Chung and the CFC pastors, the GRACE termination felt like a particularly painful blow.
“It was just like, ‘Why, why did we do this all in vain?’ ” Park said. “There’s a side of me that’s like, ‘no, I’m not gonna give another ounce of my energy and time to this,’ and then there’s this other side of me that’s just so upset at the injustice of it all, that people still don’t have the truth.”
Miryung Fontijn, another member of the allegation group, said she was shocked by the GRACE termination. “I really did not see this coming,” she said. “I actually had gotten to the point where I was naively thinking that [the GRACE assessment] was the one thing that was finally going to [lead] CFC to take a true, humble look at themselves.”
Fontijn, Park and others told WBEZ they are angry the victims of sexual and spiritual abuse who came forward to be interviewed by GRACE will not be heard.
A broken system
At the same time as former and current members of CFC were being interviewed by GRACE, the case against the figure at the center of the controversy — Min Chung — made its way through the PCA’s judicial system. But that system broke down: Oversight entities had limited power and the denomination’s governing rules proved to be inadequate for addressing the issue of abuse in the church.
As outlined in WBEZ’s initial report, in April 2021, the KCP — a regional presbytery of the PCA to which Kim, Chung and other former CFC pastors belong — had found Chung guilty of his admitted “sexual harassment” for inappropriately touching a female congregant in 2001 (instead of a more serious form of misconduct). The KCP — which consists of several pastors who were close with Chung — had determined that he had been “restored to God, as well as the woman.” The regional presbytery also determined no additional disciplinary steps were needed for Chung other than what the church had already instituted. As WBEZ previously reported, those “restorative steps” had included meeting with the CFC pastoral staff regularly for “mutual encouragement and care” and preventing Chung from preaching at CFC for a limited time.
A few months later, a group of pastors dissatisfied with the presbytery’s April 2021 determination filed a complaint in an effort to indefinitely suspend Chung from ministry. At that meeting, however, the KCP instead considered a motion to rescind the April 2021 judgment and to hold a retrial, according to a July 15, 2021, statement from the presbytery. The motion failed to pass, allowing Chung to remain an ordained minister in good standing with the PCA.
Last August, shortly after the WBEZ report was published, the same group of pastors from the KCP appealed the case, which went to the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), a quasi-judicial body of sorts, according to several sources.
The commission ruled the KCP had made procedural errors during its initial look at the allegations against Chung, according to Brian Park, one of the pastors in that presbytery who filed the complaint to the SJC. The commission declared the KCP should have disciplined the pastor according to the PCA’s Book of Church Order — not follow the “restorative steps” the associate pastors had instituted, according to Brian Park.
Despite the procedural errors, the SJC also declared the case would effectively be terminated — and not sent back to the KCP to be retried. The SJC decision stated “there can be no reasonable hope of just proceedings” with no cooperating victim, although Chung himself had admitted to sexual misconduct. Some members of the allegation group also said they lacked confidence the KCP would handle any future cases differently, given the ties many of the pastors had to Chung.
Meanwhile, Chung maintains a presence and continues to attend KCP meetings, according to sources.
Bryan Chapell, the PCA’s stated clerk, confirmed to WBEZ in a statement that “the discipline matter has been concluded by the SJC. What remains is for the regional body that originally adjudicated the case to respond … about procedural steps needing correction for the future.”
He also referred WBEZ to Tim LeCroy, a pastor who chaired the PCA’s committee that wrote the domestic and sexual abuse report.
Banging on the door
LeCroy said the procedures and laws of the PCA’s Book of Church Order — by which churches, presbyteries and pastors abide — dictates that “the lower court, [the presbytery’s] decision is to be respected,” and that the SJC “often does decide things along procedural grounds,” and not the merits of the original case.
He also said that, for sexual harassment of a member of the congregation, the KCP should have dealt Chung a suspension of “a period of years,” and perhaps even “defrocked” him.
He added that the Book of Church Order “wasn’t designed to protect victims of abuse,” and that the PCA should consider amendments to the book to help make the judicial process less cumbersome for lay members.
LeCroy said victims of abuse, who cannot get redress via the means provided by the church or denomination, can take to various means to seek justice. He cited an example in the Bible, in the book of Luke, where Jesus tells the story of a woman and an unjust judge.
“She bangs on his door all hours of the night until he finally comes and gives her justice,” LeCroy explained. Victims of abuse who express their grievances on social media, who protest, who take their stories to the media — “they’re like that woman in that parable,” LeCroy said.
He added: “They’re banging on the door, looking for justice, and I don’t think leaders of the church should look down upon that because that is exactly what they should be doing if they haven’t found it where they should find it.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.