The leader of a Mexico-based megachurch that claims nearly 5 million followers has been sentenced to over 16 years in a California jail for sexually abusing three girls.
The ruling in Los Angeles was handed to Naason Joaquin Garcia, leader and self-styled apostle of La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World) church in Guadalajara.
The 53-year-old had abruptly pleaded guilty last Friday — three days ahead of a long-awaited trial — to three felonies, including two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and performing a lewd act on a child.
In exchange, prosecutors dropped 16 counts of sex crimes against him that included allegations of raping children and women, as well as human trafficking to produce child pornography.
The case originally stemmed from allegations made by five victims dating from mid-2015 to 2018.
Garcia was arrested at the Los Angeles airport in 2019.
California attorney general Rob Bonta said that the jail sentence was a "critical step forward for justice."
"While it will never undo the harm and trauma he caused as the leader of La Luz del Mundo, this sentence makes it crystal clear that abusers — no matter who they are — will be held accountable," he said.
Victims decry ruling
Several of Garcia's accusers expressed anger following the sentence, saying it was too lenient and that they were not consulted in the deal that their abuser reached with the California attorney general's office.
The five victims, each of whom were identified as Jane Doe in court, had called for Garcia to face trial and the maximum possible sentence after an emotional hearing that lasted nearly three hours.
They called him "evil,'' a "monster,'' "disgusting human waste'' and the "antichrist.''
"I worshiped my abuser,'' said a woman identified as Jane Doe 4 who said she was his niece. "He used me over and over again like a sacrificial lamb taken to slaughter.''
Another victim, who said Garcia had stolen both her virginity and her faith, implored the judge to "make sure that this man is put away for life."
"How is this justice?" she asked.
However, Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen, who pronounced the sentence of 16 years and eight months, said his hands were tied because of the plea agreement.
"The world has heard you. I promise you that," the judge said.
Coen called Garcia a sexual predator, saying, "I never cease to be amazed at what people do in the name of religion and how many lives are ruined in the guise of a supreme being.''
Church supports leader
Meanwhile, Garcia's church has continued to back its leader.
The church issued a statement to "publicly express our support for the Apostle of Jesus Christ" and praised Garcia's "integrity, his conduct and his work."
The church in the statement said that the evidence against Garcia had been forged and that the leader had no choice but to reach a deal as he would not have received a "fair and just" trial.
dvv/nm (AFP, AP, Reuters)