Mexican megachurch leader pleads guilty to child sex abuse
June 4, 2022
Nasson Joaquin Garcia, the head of the evangelical church La Luz del Mundo, pleaded guilty to three charges stemming from the abuse of three underage victims.
The leader of a Mexico-based evangelical megachurch has admitted to sexually abusing three girls, just days before he was to be tried on multiple charges including child rape, state prosecutors in the US state of California said on Friday.
Nasson Joaquin Garcia, the head and self-styled apostle of the La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World) church, headquartered in the western city of Guadalajara, entered a guilty plea at the Los Angeles Superior Court three days before he was scheduled to go on trial.
Garcia pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15.
"Garcia used his power to take advantage of children," Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. "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."
The 53-year-old will be sentenced next Wednesday and could face up to 16 years and eight months in prison, prosecutors said. He remains in jail on a $90 million (€84 million) bail.
Interview with a sexual abuse survivor
Long cycle of abuse
The guilty plea comes at the end of a long investigation into Garcia, the leader of the fundamentalist Christian church founded by his grandfather in 1926, which now boasts 5 million followers globally.
The church advocates a very conservative lifestyle, with male members often wearing suits and women in non-revealing dresses and hair veils.
Garcia took over as the "apostle" after his father, Samuel Joaquin Flores, died in 2014. Flores was also the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but no criminal charges were filed.
One of Garcia’s co-defendants, Alondra Ocampo, pleaded guilty to three felony counts of contact with a minor for purposes of committing a sexual offense and one count of forcible sexual penetration in 2020.
She said she had been sexually abused by Flores.
In addition to Garcia and Ocampo, co-defendant Susana Medina Oaxaca also pleaded guilty to a charge of assault likely to cause great bodily harm on Friday.
Attorney Pat Carey said 27-year-old Oaxaca had faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted at trial and the guilty plea was in her best interests. "It was also a relief to put a 3-year process behind her rather than endure a lengthy jury trial, 98% of which involved evidence that had nothing to do with her," he wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Ocampo, on the other hand, was set to testify against Garcia after admitting to helping him find victims. Her attorney Fred Thiagarajah said Ocampo would have corroborated the testimony of victims and provided context for the prosecutor's case.
"She actively recruited and groomed girls for him," Thiagarajah said. "She would target girls and bring them into his inner fold. She was tasked with sexualizing these girls and facilitating their abuse."
According to the charges, Ocampo told girls that if they refused his wishes and desires, they were going against God.
A fourth individual, Azalea Rangel Melendez, has also been charged in the investigation, but remains at large, prosecutors said.
In 2020, the church defended its leader in a statement, saying the charges against him stemmed from "unsubstantiated anonymous allegations" and "blatant hearsay."