‘He made me his property,’ victim says

The disgraced ex-leader of a Mexican megachurch was sentenced on Wednesday in a California courtroom to nearly 17 years in prison for sexually abusing three girls.

Naasón Joaquín García, leader and self-styled apostle of the Guadalajara-based church La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World), pleaded guilty last Friday in Los Angeles to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and performing a lewd act on a child.

García, 53, entered his plea three days before he was to stand trial on 23 felony counts of sex crimes against children, including multiple charges of rape, conspiracy to engage in human trafficking and child pornography.

“As the leader of La Luz del Mundo, Naasón Joaquín García used his power to take advantage of children,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said Friday. “He relied on those around him to groom congregants for the purposes of sexual assault. Today’s conviction can never undo the harm, but it will help protect future generations.”

‘You Betrayed Us’

Several of his accusers, each identified in court only as Jane Doe and who are now young adults, described the plea agreement as too lenient, saying they were not consulted in the deal that García reached with the California attorney general’s office.

In victim-impact statements delivered during Wednesday’s hearing, all five said they felt robbed of their chance to more fully confront García, who sat with his back to his accusers as each tearfully addressed their anguish at him.

The first victim said she was forced to perform daily sex acts for years as she also had to clean his bathroom and wash his clothes.

Jane Doe No. 3 choked back sobs as she addressed him: “We looked up to you, you were our god, and you betrayed us. You are no more than a predator and an abuser.”

Jane Doe No. 4, who identified herself as García’s niece, said in her testimony that when he raped her, he would force her to give thanks, over and over again. She said she lost “everything” because of him. “Naason and this church have ruined my life.”

The accuser added that García stole her innocence and that she believed he was God.

“He made me his property, I was his property,” she told the courtroom.

Naasón Joaquín García, the leader of the Guadalajara-based La Luz del Mundo church, at his bail hearing held at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center on Aug. 5, 2020 in Los Angeles.Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Founded in the 1920s by García’s grandfather, La Luz del Mundo is the largest evangelical church in Mexico, with millions of followers across several countries.

Another one of García’s accusers told the court that he was avoiding accountability by claiming through the church to have acquiesced to a plea deal under harshness and wrongly accused.

The church, which has publicly stood by García, issued a statement on Twitter reiterating its support, saying that “our confidence in him remains intact with full knowledge of his integrity, his conduct and his work.”

One of his followers told Noticias Telemundo on Wednesday that “his honor is not in doubt” as many defend his leadership.

Patricia Fortuny, a Mexican anthropologist who has studied La Luz del Mundo, told the Los Angeles Times that the church won’t “lose its popularity from one day to another” and could survive the scandal by portraying García as “a victim that has been destroyed by the unjust world.”

‘The world has heard you’

“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,” the accuser said.

In the end, Superior Court Judge Ronald Cohen pronounced the sentence recommended by prosecutors — 16 years and eight months in prison, seeking to assure the victims, “The world has heard you. I promise you that.” Garcia also will be registered as a sex offender for life.

García, dressed in orange jail garb, made no statement during the proceedings and was led away in handcuffs when the hearing ended.

In return for his guilty plea, prosecutors dismissed the majority of the charges he faced, including the most serious offences, in a case that originally stemmed from allegations of five victims dating from mid-2015 to early 2018.

His sentencing caps an investigation that began in 2018 leading to his arrest the following year at Los Angeles International Airport.

Two other church associates charged with Garcia have reached separate plea deals. Susana Medina Oaxaca pleaded guilty last Friday to a charge of assault likely to cause great bodily harm. She was sentenced to one year of probation and six months of psychiatric counseling.

A second co-defendant, Alondra Ocampo, also arrested in 2019, pleaded guilty in 2020 to three felony counts of contact with a minor for purposes of committing a sexual offense and one count of forcible sexual penetration. Ocampo, not yet sentenced, had previously faced multiple counts of human trafficking and other charges.

A fourth person charged in the investigation, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains at large, prosecutors said.

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