The peculiar tale of a small Toronto-based Korean church alleged by its critics to be a cult turned a page Monday when almost 500 sex-related criminal charges laid against nine former members were all withdrawn.
"It was an utterly bizarre case, one of the strangest I've seen in 30 years of work," defence lawyer Peter Zaduk said after the proceedings wrapped up.
Among other things, the nine accused were charged with gang sexual assault, forcible confinement, administering stupefying drugs, threatening death and the production of child pornography.
Six of the accused – four men and two women – listened attentively to a Korean translator in the Finch Avenue courtroom as prosecutor Paul Zambonini told Ontario Court of Justice Judge Antonio Di Zio there was no longer any reasonable prospect of securing convictions.
The other three accused had fled Canada to their homeland, South Korea, with whom Canada has no extradition treaty. Warrants for their arrest will now be rescinded, Mr. Zambonini said later.
None of the nine had ever been in trouble with the law before, either here or in South Korea.
"Today six innocent people walked out of that courtroom," defence lawyer Craig Bottomley said afterward.
"They've been through nothing but pure hell this past year and a half."
During a five-week preliminary hearing that ended last month and whose contents can now be reported, Judge Di Zio listened to a battery of prosecution evidence.
It hinged on the allegations of five female complainants, who, like the accused, belonged to the Canada Jesus First Church, formerly of Orangeville but now on Bayview Avenue in Toronto.
The congregation was and is headed by Pastor Jan-Kap Song, 56, a controversial figure who is still before the courts on a separate charge of sexual assault unrelated to the 485 charges that were withdrawn against the nine.
Most of the church's members were visa-exchange students in their 30s, many of them studying Chinese herbal medicine.
When the story first broke last year, drawing intense interest among South Korean news organizations because of suggestions it was a cult, it had an estimated 50 members in the GTA, mostly female. Now there are thought to be less than a dozen.
Their preliminary hearing, where Mr. Song testified for two days as a prosecution witness, heard allegations of gang rapes in open fields involving dozens of participants, including wives who acted as cheerleaders.
And as the investigation progressed, the number of charges swiftly grew.
But from the outset, it was the defence position that everything had been fabricated.
"Higher-ups in the church, for reasons that are not entirely clear, orchestrated these charges," Mr. Zaduk said.
Judge Di Zio made clear he agreed with the decision to let the case collapse.
"Based on the evidence I heard, certainly it's the proper thing to do," he said.
In his testimony, Mr. Song agreed that he had successfully been sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars by the family of one church member.
The preliminary hearing also heard tapes of Mr. Song telling his congregation, before the nine defendants were formally accused, that they were going to be charged.
The six defendants who were in court all agreed to sign $500 peace bonds, but there was no admission of any wrongdoing, several of their lawyers said. Rather, the peace bonds were to ensure there was no contact between them and the five complainants, who remain vulnerable to pressure "by a third party or parties," Mr. Zaduk told the court.
Mr. Song, meanwhile, has been committed to trial on a charge of sexual assault after his own preliminary hearing.
He was arrested in March of last year in Orangeville after a woman renting an apartment he owned told police he had fondled her.
In South Korea, where his 13-year-old church has a branch, he has simultaneously been charged with mischief, threatening, forcible confinement and defamation of character.
Those charges also arose out of his role as the leader of the Canada Jesus First Church and were laid after the three defendants who went back to their homeland complained to authorities.
South Korean law allows criminal charges to be laid against any of its nationals, regardless of where they live.