Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Guadalajara church leader sentenced to 16 years for child sex abuse

The leader of a Guadalajara-based evangelical church was sentenced in a California court Wednesday to 16 years and eight months in prison for sexually abusing three girls between 2015 and 2018 in Los Angeles county.

Naasón Joaquín García, leader or “Apostle” of the La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World) church, pleaded guilty last Friday to two acts of forcible oral sex with minors and performing a lewd act on a child. García, 53, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in 2019. In addition to his prison sentence, he will be registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

The church leader submitted a plea just days before he was scheduled to face trial on 23 charges of sex crimes against children, including multiple counts of rape and conspiracy to engage in human trafficking and child pornography. In exchange for admitting guilt, prosecutors dropped most of the charges he faced, including the most serious ones.

Two of three women accused of colluding with García to abuse minors have also reached plea deals with prosecutors.

Five accusers who appeared in court Wednesday said that García’s sentence was too lenient and complained about not being consulted on the plea deal he reached with the office of the California attorney general.

La Luz del Mundo said in a statement that “since his arrest in 2019, the Apostle has been subjected to a prosecution in which evidence was suppressed, withheld, doctored and altered.”

“After the defense finally obtained this evidence, the court ruled that the defense would not be permitted to use the materials at trial, preventing the defense from effectively cross-examining the complaining witnesses and challenging their allegations,” the church said. “Without a right to use the evidence, there is no right of defense. Without a right to use the evidence, there can be no fair trial.”

Consequently, “the Apostle of Jesus Christ has had no choice but to accept with much pain that the agreement presented is the best way forward to protect the church and his family,” La Luz del Mundo said. “… We publicly manifest our support for the Apostle of Jesus Christ; our confidence in him remains intact in the full knowledge of his integrity, his conduct and his work.”

La Luz del Mundo's church in Guadalajara, where the religious organization is based.
La Luz del Mundo’s church in Guadalajara, where the religious organization is based.

García’s five accusers, who are now young women, presented victim-impact statements at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, which was held at the Los Angeles County Superior Court. All five, each of whom was given the pseudonym Jane Doe, said they felt robbed of their chance to more fully confront García, according to a Reuters report.

“We looked up to you, you were our god, and you betrayed us. You are no more than a predator and an abuser,” said a visually emotional Jane Doe No. 3.

Dressed in orange prison attire, García sat with his back to his tearful accusers and didn’t make any statement to the court.

“Naasón and this church have ruined my life,” said Jane Doe No. 4, who introduced herself as García’s niece.

Another accuser asserted that García was avoiding accountability by claiming innocence through the church statement. “Your honor, this abuser thinks your courtroom is a joke. Even after he accepted the plea deal, he’s sending messages to the church that he’s innocent,” she said.

Judge Ronald Cohen, who imposed the almost 17-year sentence recommended by prosecutors, assured the victims – who also described García as “evil,” a “monster,” “disgusting human waste” and the “antichrist” – that “the world has heard you.”

Co-defendant Susana Medina Oaxaca pleaded guilty to a charge of assault likely to cause great bodily harm and was sentenced to probation for a period of one year and ordered to complete six months of psychiatric counseling. Alondra Ocampo, another co-defendant, pleaded guilty in 2020 to three counts of touching a minor in a sexual way and one count of forcible penetration. Ocampo, who had previously faced human trafficking and other criminal charges, has not yet been sentenced.

Azalea Rangel Melendez, another woman accused of colluding with García to abuse girls, has evaded arrest.

Two of three women accused of colluding with Joaquín García have also entered plea deals. One of the accused remains at large.
Two of three women accused of colluding with Joaquín García have also entered plea deals. One of the accused remains at large.

Founded in Guadalajara by García’s grandfather in 1926, La Luz del Mundo is Mexico’s largest evangelical church. It has a presence in 50 countries and some 5 million members. García has been credited with growing the church’s membership since succeeding his father as leader in 2014. He used social media to attract new members, and also to lure his victims, according to California prosecutors.

The church – which doesn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter, segregates sexes during services, prohibits alcohol and doesn’t allow women to hold leadership positions – has been the subject of controversy for decades and described by critics as a cult that preys on the poor.

Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said after García’s 2019 arrest that the church was “too large to be considered a cult” but has been run as a “cult of personality.”

“García took on godlike roles, saying he couldn’t be judged, that he was like a king,” he said.

With reports from Reuters, El Universal and Milenio

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