National Catholic Reporter ®

August 31, 2001                                                                                                         Vol. 1, No. 1

The  archbishop's wife speaks for herself

Maria Sung ... is one of the principal actors in the most riveting soap opera of this Roman summer. A 43-year-old Korean acupuncturist and a devoted follower of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, she was personally selected by Moon to wed 71-year-old Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo.. 

For two weeks, I was the lone journalist to show up every day at 6:00 am in St. Peter’s Square to witness Maria Sung’s morning vigil. Others came and went, but my Midwestern genes seem to afford me a capacity unique in the Vatican press corps to start work at the crack of dawn.

I thus had privileged access to Sung on a daily basis. Moreover, I put questions to her in five press conferences, interviewed her alone in her hotel room, and observed her on several other public occasions. 

Based on that experience, I can offer the following contribution to the public record: No one controlled Maria Sung.

Sung, of course, was one of the principal actors in the most riveting soap opera of this Roman summer. A 43-year-old Korean acupuncturist and a devoted follower of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, she was personally selected by Moon to wed 71-year-old Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo. The marriage, along with Milingo’s alliance with Moon’s Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, shocked the Catholic world.

Milingo, after a surprise heart-to-heart with the pope, said August 11 he wanted to back out of the marriage and cut ties with Moon. Sung, convinced Milingo was bullied by the Vatican, went on a hunger strike until she was allowed to meet him. The encounter finally happened August 29, and Milingo repeated what he told her in an earlier letter: that he loved her as a “dear sister” but that he was going to return to the Catholic church.

In the bitter public relations war surrounding the affair, Sung’s freedom of action became an acute point of debate. (So did Milingo’s, but that’s another subject). Vatican officials believe, and have said so repeatedly off the record, that Moon’s people pressured Sung into her hunger strike and prevented her from listening to reason. Words such as “brainwashing” and “mind control” were tossed about.

Vatican-friendly Italian papers expanded on the theme, accusing Moon of goading Sung into a kamikaze-style suicide to inflict damage on the Catholic church in Africa and elsewhere.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. involved himself in the debate Aug. 22, saying that Sung’s actions were likely the result of “psychological pressure and unrealistic reasoning.”

Milingo himself, in his first public appearance on Aug. 24 after 16 days of seclusion, accused Rev. Phillip Schanker, an officer of the Family Federation and Sung’s key advisor, of blocking attempts to contact her.

One can understand the suspicions. Moon is an ambiguous figure, and some former members of his Unification Church have publicly charged they were manipulated by what they describe as a “cult.”

(It should be noted that independent examinations of such complaints draw mixed conclusions. Tim Miller of the University of Kansas, one of the country’s foremost experts on new religious movements, said the pressure the Unification Church exerts on members is probably not much different from that generated by more “mainstream” churches.) 

Whatever one’s preconceptions, I became convinced that Sung was not carrying water for Moon in this case. She truly believed that in the three months they lived together, she and Milingo had established a lasting love. She believed the Emmanuel Milingo who later said he regards her as “a sister” had been drugged, coerced. She believed that if they could only meet, she would break through to the real man, and their rekindled love would “be like a river that cannot be stopped.”

These convictions may appear either admirable or ridiculous, depending on one’s point of view. But they were indisputably her own.

Do I believe the Family Federation benefited from Sung’s suffering? Yes. They stood toe-to-toe with the Vatican, despite the fact that the Catholic church numbers one billion adherents worldwide while Miller says most scholars would be surprised if Moon has more than 200,000. No amount of Moon money could buy this kind of elevated public image.

Do I believe some of the people around Sung enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame, relishing the hordes of journalists who waited hours in hotel lobbies for a glimpse of them, who hung on their every utterance?

Again, yes. To suggest otherwise would reflect a poor grasp of human nature.

Yet I saw Sung, in public and in private, reject suggestions from her advisors. I watched her retinue cringe as she said things that clearly veered off-script. They never, however, impeded anyone’s access to her, and they always honored her wishes.

In response to a suggestion from my wife, I asked Sung this question one morning: Would she drop her hunger strike if Moon specifically ordered her to do so? She waved her finger at me and barked a firm “no,” and I believed her.

Whoever profited from it, whatever larger social or political significance it carried, Sung wrote her own script.

If the Vatican, if anyone, doesn’t like it, their beef is not with Sun Myung Moon. It’s with Maria Sung. 

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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