A local box-office hit based on a true story of years-long sexual assaults against disabled students by teachers sparked public outcry over lenient court rulings and the government's improper countermeasures, prompting police to reexamine the case and lawmakers to introduce bills for human rights of the vulnerable.
The film called "Dogani," or "The Crucible" in English, was a screen adaptation of a bestselling novel written by the country's big-name female writer Kong Jee-young in 2009. She depicts the real case where more than eight disabled students aged 7 to 22 at Gwangju Inhwa School, a special-education institution for the hearing-impaired and located about 330 kilometers southwest of Seoul, were raped by several faculty members there for five years, starting in 2000.
Upon the report about the tragedy by an insider to a counseling center for sexual abuse against the disabled in 2006, dozens of civic groups in the country launched a special committee to bring the offenders to justice in cooperation with the country's Human Rights Commission.
Among the six suspects being indicted, including the school's principal surnamed Kim, only two of them received jail terms of less than a year. Kim and another of the suspects were put on probation from the appellate court in 2007 as they reached agreement with the victims' families. The remaining two went unpunished because the statute of limitations had expired. One has been reinstated at the school.
"Major posts of the school were dominated by principal Kim's relatives, making it impossible for the shocking crimes to be disclosed," Park Chan-dong, head of the Special Committee of Gwangju Inhwa School Sexual Violence, said on Thursday. "The consent was the result of the suspects' persistent placating of the victims."
A total of 22 students still attend the school. At the time of the incident, the school enrolled 70 students, according to Park.
"While the case remains unresolved for six years, the school has failed to make any apology for its terrible wrongdoings, not to mention keeping their promise to compensate the victims," Park said. "Rather, the school foundation, which also runs residential and job-training facilities, has been receiving more than 3 billion won ($2.57 million) in state subsidies per month."
With the film's success, winning last week at the box office by drawing more than 1.2 million viewers within a week of its release, nearly 60,000 citizens have made an online petition to call on the government to review the case and come up with proper measures, including ordering the shutdown of the scandal-ridden school and removing the statute of limitations for sex offenders.
Earlier this week, the country's chief justice, Yang Sung-tae, said during a press meeting right after his inauguration that "any kind of explanations for the ruling should be made, as the society is simmering with resentment."
After joining filmgoers late Wednesday, Yang was also quoted by a Supreme Court official that the message the film tries to convey was shocking and touching, adding, "We should not tolerate such infringements of the rights of children with disabilities anymore."
Rep. Hong Joon-pyo, South Korea's ruling party chief, also called on his party officials to devise measures on Thursday to prevent sex offenders from getting away with their crimes, while Rep. Chin Soo-hee, who once led the welfare ministry, said she will introduce the bill to protect the vulnerable.
"Sex offenders sometimes bend the rules under which they cannot be prosecuted without a complaint by victims. To get lighter punishments, they force the victims to sign an agreement to drop their charges. Such a bad practice should be eradicated." Hong said.
Taking multiple suspicions surrounding the case seriously, police began reinvestigating the case this week after launching a special team involving 15 officers from the National Police Agency (NPA) and the Gwangju Metropolitan Police Agency.
The special team was tasked with looking into further sex crimes by the faculty, the school's structural problems, including corruption, and the local government's dealing with the case, the NPA said.
"We will also launch an investigation into the report that a female student living in a welfare center run by the foundation was sexually assaulted by her 15-year-old male colleague," an NPA official added.
The abused students, together with several others who either witnessed the violence or protested against the school's response, dropped out of the school in 2006 and have stayed at community shelters since.
"They are still suffering from the trauma, though psychological treatments have been under way," said Kim Hye-ok, head of the Holder Community, which takes care of 11 student victims.
"I was worried about whether the victimized students might be hurt by the movie that depicts their own story, but it raised public awareness of the incident that would otherwise go unnoticed," she said, asking the government and the public for consistent support and concern for the young victims.(Yonhap)