Compulsive Gambling

New Year sees many of us resolve to tackle our destructive habits. Kwon Byung-hee [Augustine] recalls Fr. Paul White who established a recovery programme for gambling addicts and helped thousands of Koreans turn their lives around. This article was first published in the January/February 2022 issue of the Far East magazine.

Fr. Paul White played a major role in helping Korean society admit that compulsive gambling was an actual disease. Up to then it was merely considered a sin that needed to be confessed. It was Fr. Paul who helped open the way to recovery for some of those whose humanity had been destroyed by this addiction. Recovery brought peace to families destroyed by gambling, Fr. Paul was an apostle of healing and recovery, saving the souls of those that were afflicted by this disease.

He was ordained by the Columbans in 1958 and when he read the notice that he would be missioned in Korea, he was delighted, seeing it as an opportunity to start a new life. He found himself ministering to people in a mountain valley in the province of Kangwon at a time when they were still coming to terms with the legacy of pain and destruction of the Korean War.

Unable to communicate fully with the poverty-stricken people that were living in dire circumstances he suffered stress with the result that his health deteriorated. He started playing cards and other games in the nearby American Army Camp as a way of switching off from the demands of parish ministry. Gradually he fell into the habit of gambling. When a casino opened in Walker Hill Hotel, he found that his jeep automatically turned towards Seoul and that hotel. He explained that when he later ministered on Jeju island he was drawn to a local casino just like steel is attracted to a magnet.

The programme worked well until September 1987 when Fr. Paul had a relapse. As the priest that had established the programme suffered a relapse there was a great danger that the rest of us would lose trust in it. We were also open to being criticised and having people point their fingers at us. We felt like running away to hide but Fr. Paul assured us that anyone can suffer a relapse and that when such a relapse occurs the person needs to admit it openly and then recover. That became our model.

Having realised he was grappling with an addiction to gambling he returned to Omaha in the USA and while undergoing treatment he discovered Gamblers Anonymous [GA]. He attended GA meetings for nine months, and during this time he realised that the programme was needed in Korea. He returned to Korea on 13th June 1984 and set up a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. He also established the first Gamblers Anon meeting for the families of gamblers.
Having established the programme, Fr. Paul was keen that Koreans would take responsibility for its development as quickly as possible. He continued to encourage us and observe us running the meetings. He worked continuously to make sure that the programme was on solid grounds and had developed deep and lasting roots. However, as his heart condition deteriorated, he was forced to return to America in September 1996.
Thanks to Fr. Paul White this program to help those afflicted by compulsive gambling was brought to birth in Korea. The GA programme has now grown and developed into 61 groups today. He made it possible for tens of thousands of people to recover from their addiction and live a life.

After leaving Korea, Fr. Paul continued to work tirelessly for those addicted to gambling in both Los Angeles and Omaha in the US until 23rd October 2018 when he passed to his eternal reward.

Fr. Paul had a special spirituality that embraced everything including the bad and the good. He combined the spirituality of a grandfather that accepts everything with a smile and that of a mother that warmly embraces everyone. At times he could be a father that ruled with authority. He was able to provide fresh waters for those dying of thirst and spread oil in the soil to ensure the seed developed deep roots and could grow healthy. He was like a mountain of a man the unchanging rock that kept everything in place. I pray that Fr. Paul’s witness will continue to spread its fragrance until the disease of gambling disappears totally.

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