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President of Jogye Order steps down over scandal

Aug 22,2018
The scandal-ridden president of Korea’s largest Buddhist sect finally stepped down on Tuesday after a whirlwind of reversals culminated in a vote of no confidence against him by the Jogye Order’s executive council last week.

“I came forward in order to change Korean Buddhism for the better, but now I will return to the mountains with this goal unattained,” said the Venerable Seoljeong in a press conference at the Jogye Order’s headquarters in central Seoul.

He is set to return to Sudeok Temple in Yesan, South Chungcheong, where he served as the temple’s abbot before he was elected president of the organization’s administrative headquarters last October. The order’s executive council will choose a new president within the next two months.

Since then, Seoljeong has been at the center of an internal crisis for months. He faces a litany of allegations, including embezzlement, academic forgery and fathering an illegitimate child, breaking the sect’s celibacy rule.

Following heavy criticism from reformist monks and public calls for his ouster, Seoljeong announced his intent to resign on Aug. 2, but reversed this decision in an about-face on Aug. 13, saying that he would remain in office to oversee a reform committee tasked with overhauling the organization. He also denied all the accusations against him, saying they were “completely baseless and forged with evil intent.”

The Jogye Order, which oversees about 1,900 active temples and over 13,000 clergy nationwide, is followed by around 7 million Koreans, according to the 2015 census. As president, Seoljeong held complete authority over the order’s finances and administrative decisions. Seoljeong’s flip-flopping over his resignation throughout August further intensified the internal conflict within the order that has also ensnared other elite monks and former leaders, who are also accused of corruption and abuse of power. Clamor for change by reformist monks came to the public’s attention after the 87-year-old monk Seoljo was hospitalized following a 41-day fast outside the Jogye Temple demanding Seoljeong’s resignation, and some called for an outside investigation into corruption allegations.

Last Thursday, the 75 monks of the order’s executive council cast their ballots to resolve the matter, with 56 ultimately voting in favor of Seoljeong’s removal. The vote was unprecedented for the organization, which was organized into its current structure in 1962. An impeachment decision was pending approval from a meeting of senior monks set for today, but Seoljeong pre-empted his forced removal by resigning from his post a day earlier.

His exit, however, will not mark the end of internal strife in the Jogye Order. Reformists are demanding a complete overhaul to increase transparency and add checks and balances.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]