Conned: sexual Grooming in the Moonies cult
Updated: Nov 20
TRIGGER WARNING: This article includes references to sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, and child and adult grooming .
A friend years ago said, “Wendy, you are showing all the signs of having experienced childhood sexual abuse.” It would take many years of therapy for me to understand why, and why I was always deeply affected by stories of childhood sexual abuse. It was because the ‘relationship’ that I was drawn into in my early adult years in the Unification Church (aka ‘the Moonies) with Korean elder, Mr Son, was a sexual and spiritual abuse relationship like that between adult and child.
He was my elder spiritual brother, so I was safe, right?
Clinical psychologist, Dr Grant Sinnamon, recognises that adult sexual grooming as analogous to child sexual grooming – “any situation in which an adult is primed to permit themselves to be abused and/or exploited for sexual gratification of another.” A closed cult or group with a cult culture, where members are trained to be ‘like obedient children’, is the perfect place for such dynamics to take place. I know that personally.
When I joined the ‘Church’ at 18 (the classic new-university-student-away-from-home recruit), new members like me were called ‘spiritual children’. The leaders of each church centre were regarded as parental figures: the ‘Centre Father’ and ‘Centre Mother’. Rev and Mrs Moon, the founders and leaders of the worldwide church, were the ‘True Parents of Mankind’. We members were expected to follow our leaders and not to question. Absolute faith. Absolute obedience. So we were trained to be constantly in a child-like position, emotionally dependent and submissive.
Older members were regarded as ‘spiritual elders’ or ‘older brothers or sisters’, and Koreans particularly were seen as special. This was because True Father and True Mother (aka the Messiahs and returned Christ) were born there. It was our Fatherland. The highest religious sacrament in the Unification Church (now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification) is the Blessing i.e. the arranged mass weddings of members. The earlier your year of Blessing, the more esteem you have.
Mr Son was a Korean spiritual elder 33 years my senior, who had been married in the 430 Couples Blessing (mass marriage). When I first met him, I was excited to meet my first Korean, and a Blessed one at that. He immediately gained my respect and wonder, especially when he said he could have been in an earlier Blessing except he was recruited into national service. That was good enough for me to place him up on a pedestal. Yep, I was ripe for grooming.
I felt another feeling for Mr Son from the get-go: sympathy.
Sob story trappings
The idea for this blog began last week when I read an article on ABC News about a 40-year-old Perth school teacher’s grooming of a final year student ten years ago. I found myself triggered. A WA judge found the perpetrator guilty in court. The perpetrator said it had been mostly a “loving and genuine relationship” – something the judge took to task. Rather than any kind of "mutually emotional supportive relationship”, the judge said that what had happened was the man was grooming the victim so he could abuse her by "offloading" his marital problems to her.
In sharing his marital problems, the man was seeking sympathy to hook a vulnerable victim. "…this is a very clear example of grooming a vulnerable teenager in a situation of clear power and authority disparity…. This was a very manipulative, controlling and coercive situation," the judge said.
Manipulative abusers typically paint themselves as a victim and use a sob story as a weapon to deceive and hook their sympathetic prey. No doubt the victim in this story felt sorry for the man upon hearing his marital struggles. That sympathy and her being his sounding board reminded me of how Mr Son’s and my relationship started. The culture and beliefs within our cult group made things even more dangerous.
I felt sorry for Mr Son after he told me that he was here in Australia alone, serving God, having left his family in Korea. He hadn’t seen them in about 5 years at that stage. Over time he shared with me how his pregnant first wife had died through being gassed by the internal floor heating in Korea. More sympathy. From here he progressed to sharing his struggles with the Australian church leadership and his special vision and revelations regarding the Australian church and Australia.
Mr Son also showed sympathy and care for me. I was sick a lot in the church (something new to me), physically and emotionally. In one particularly difficult period, Mr Son stepped in to 'rescue' me. My church leader had accused me (guided by a so-called psychic member) of having committed a terrible sin (not true!), and they forced me to start a 40-day cold bath condition (like penance), where I had to have a cold bath for 40 minutes in the middle of a Melbourne winter, while reading aloud the Divine Principle (our teachings). This was to separate me from Satan, who they said was now possessing me.
Fortunately, not too far into this condition, Mr Son stepped in after I reached out to him in desperation. He told them to stop the condition after he believed me that I hadn’t committed the sin. Later he ‘saved’ me again by talking me out of leaving the Church when I was so depressed. He convinced me to stay, and that Satan was trying to take me away. During that time, he took me down to the bottom of the Church house, to our workshop, and he held my hand as I cried and he talked me through it. Hand holding between opposite sexes, or between leaders and members, was not allowed in this abstinence-based group. But in my depressed state, I just felt loved and cared for.
Ooooh, special secrets! Aren't I special too now?
Over time, Mr Son revealed more and more his own situation and thoughts. This made me feel valued and trusted to be given such special information. I can imagine that the young girl in the news story likewise not only felt sympathy for the teacher who shared his sob story, but she may have felt extra special for being his sounding board… trusted to be told such private information. Mr Son’s sharing with me his problems was manipulation at its finest.
Over time, I learned even more ‘special’ information, such as the sexual exploits of Rev Moon with church ‘sisters’ (women) in the early years for special spiritual purposes. It was a ‘secret providence.’ The first group of women were called the Six Marys.
Soon I started thinking that I would of course offer myself to Father Moon like this if I had to. After all, I had left my family, university, career prospects and even the right to have a boyfriend or choose my own husband to ‘follow God’ as a specially chosen ‘Moonie’.
By this time, Mr Son’s hand holding in secret had progressed to hugs. Finally, it progressed to a kiss – a real pash. I look back and see how things developed in stages. When I was feeling unwell again, he took me to some bushes a the beach in front of our Church centre. There, hidden away, he told me about the special sexual act Rev Moon supposedly said husbands could do to wives to make them well if sick, e.g. from morning sickness. I didn't question it. I believed anything he said. And no, I wasn't cured.
I struggled with depression and physical illness after these episodes. Yes I felt loved and valued by this special disciple of Rev Moon who I’d grown to trust more than the leadership. He was teaching me church secrets only few were privileged to know. I eventually felt I was chosen as part of God’s special plan! My processing of the situation was based not just on his lies to me, but my Unification beliefs – or a distortion of them. It didn’t help that the other man I trusted the most in the Australian Church, the one who’d brought me into the Church, was united with Mr Son too in their distrust of the leadership. He too shared his struggles and got too close.
Pleasure and secrets
I learned from editing a client’s memoir on childhood sexual abuse (Unscathed Beauty by Kelly Humphries), that a victim can feel confused by her bodily responses to sexual abuse by a ‘loving' family member. While a point in her heart and soul feels something is ‘off’ or ‘wrong’, her physical body is responding too, enjoying the sexual pleasure. This is something victims have to realise is not something to be ashamed of. It adds to the confusion though. Naturally I enjoyed the sexual attention and having some form of pleasure in the Church, where pre-marital sexual activity was regarded as the worst sin of all. But since I knew Father Moon’s ‘real’ truth, my conscience was compromised. I felt God saying that I was to be Mr Son's third wife (just like Father Moon supposedly had three) and we had a special role to restore Australia back to God. (Crikey! Deluded or what?)
Mr Son made sure very early on that I would swear to secrecy about what was happening with us. We made a special pact, in a type of sexual ritual (in those bushes!) to never tell a soul. I will say that the Church would have condemned the situation if they’d known. (At that stage, not many people knew of Rev Moon’s 6 Marys). But I had to protect my shining light. My abuser.
Did I keep that promise to Mr Son to not tell a soul? Well, no. It took a few years, but I eventually threw him under a bus by accidentally over-sharing with a church visiting counsellor, Rev Paul Werner (dec.).
When I told Mr Son what I’d said to Rev Werner, well …. I’ve never forgotten the howl of pain that came out of that man’s mouth. It was like that of a trapped animal. His dark Korean skin seemed to turn white…
Rev Werner never accused me or blamed me. Though I was going to have to deal with self-blame and guilt for many years to come…
Still in cult rehab
I am still unravelling all this. Honestly, I have often been confused about Mr Son’s motivation in all this. Understanding grooming has helped. It is easy and makes sense, as in this blog, to paint him as the perfect groomer who primed me to eventually accept his sexual advances. But sometimes I still wonder.... Did he intentionally con me? Could it be that this man himself was deluded by the so-called secret teachings of Rev Moon and believed that what he was doing to me was loving and that he had a special mission for God? Were we both tricked by Satan? Was he a victim too? Or are we just plain old sinners?
There is the part of me that remembers too his and my deep connection and love for each other. I could almost read his mind and he mine. I could understand his broken English perfectly, and would help other members understand him. It was actually hard to end our connection in some ways. It took years to see the relationship through the eyes of abuse, and even now I sometimes get unsteady about it. The cult unravelling takes time.
Yep, you can see I am still in cult rehab (hence the name of this blog) and that programming can suddenly jump out and grab you. At times, I remember the Divine Principle and have the thought that all this happened because we as members (in Cain position) did not unite with our leaders (in Abel position). Hence, Satan could 'invade' us and cause these abusive and sinful events to occur. (I can see current believers nodding their head going, Yes, yes. So come back and unite with Abel and all will be well.) It does your head in! For now, I'll stick to the predator/groomer scenario. When I talk to my psychologist and recovery support team, it does make more sense.
I’d like to finish with a little warning to church members or members of any organisation with a hierarchy…
If you find yourself getting closer and closer to someone in authority or a respected position where the feeling is coming up that the relationship is special, that they are the only one who understands you or you them – with secret meetings, little touches of the hand to make you feel loved and special, be careful! This can often start around joint complaining about something wrong in the organisation. If the elder starts sharing their struggles, direct them to their superior. And make sure you share with someone what is going on, preferably someone up the ladder or someone in HR or a counsellor.
PS There was something else in the news article that I could relate to: the topic of how perpetrators try to trick their victims into believing that what they are doing is not sexual intercourse. But that’s another story…
 (A review of: The Psychology of Adult Sexual Grooming: Sinnamon’s Seven-Stage Model of Adult Sexual Grooming, by Grant Sinnamon, Bond University, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia. Victim and Offender Perspectives, 2017, Pages 459-487).