Leader of Massive Mexican Church Convicted in LA of Sexually Assaulting Minors, Facing 16 Years in Prison
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Naasón Joaquín García, the leader of the massive Mexico-based global church La Luz del Mundo pled guilty Friday and was convicted for multiple felony counts of sexual assault involving three separate minors who were members of his congregation.
The former pastor had faced jury selection Monday in his trial on charges that included child rape and human trafficking to produce child pornography.
Garcia was the leader of a church, also known by its English name The Light of the World, which was founded by his grandfather. It has 5 million worldwide followers. He was considered the "apostle" of Jesus Christ who could lead worshippers to salvation.
Prosecutors said he abused his spiritual influence to have sex with several female followers.
"García used his power to take advantage of children," California 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."
Garcia faces up to 16 years and eight months in prison when sentenced Wednesday. He remains jailed on $90 million bail.
The four-year investigation by the California Department of Justice culminated in the arrest of García, Susana Medina Oaxaca, and Alondra Ocampo in 2019 for conduct that occurred over several years in Los Angeles County dating back to at least 2015.
The former pastor was arrested in 2019 and charged along with Oaxaca and Ocampo, two followers who were accused of helping facilitate the abuse.
In addition to facing his accusers at trial, Garcia was also facing the prospect of having to challenge one of his accomplices.
Ocampo, who had pleaded guilty and admitted to helping find his victims and participate in the abuse, was poised to testify against him.
Attorney Fred Thiagarajah, who represents the former church youth group leader, said Ocampo would have been the star witness who could corroborate the testimony of victims and provide 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."
Ocampo told girls that if they rebuffed the wishes and desires of "the apostle," they were going against God, according to the charges.
Garcia had previously pleaded not guilty to 19 counts that included forcible rape of a minor and unlawful sexual intercourse. A judge had thrown out four counts of extortion and sentencing enhancements for great bodily injury for lack of evidence.
Defense lawyers had said prosecutors were operating under a far-fetched legal theory that Garcia used spiritual coercion for sexual pleasure.
"Prosecutors have repeated ad nauseam their novel theory that the majority of crimes charged in this case occurred not because of physical restraint, physical force, or fear of physical force but because the complaining witnesses had no other choice but to comply because they were under the complete mental and spiritual thrall of Mr. Garcia and the La Luz Del Mundo Church," defense attorney Alan Jackson wrote in a court filing. "It is a fantasy seemingly invented out of whole cloth."
Prosecutors said the victims were essentially brainwashed by Garcia and felt they would be ostracized by the church community if they didn't submit to his desires. In denying a defense motion to dismiss the case, a judge said Garcia used religion as "invisible handcuffs" to exploit his victims.
Prosecutors said the former pastor used his position of trust and authority as the leader of La Luz del Mundo to sexually abuse children.
Garcia's grandfather founded the Guadalajara-based fundamentalist Christian church in 1926. He took over as an "apostle" after his father, Samuel Joaquín Flores, died in 2014.
Ocampo had faced a lot of pressure from the church community and her own family when she turned on Garcia, Thiagarajah said.
Ocampo's mother said she doesn't believe her and accused her of working for Satan.
"This church is a very dark institution," Thiagarajah said. "The scope of the abuse this guy has committed on women and children is staggering and it's been going on for generations."
Some critics have labeled La Luz Del Mundo Church as a cult. Religion News reports the church "frowned on relationships with outsiders" and "rejects the concept of the Trinity."
The Associated Press reports García's father was also the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but authorities in Mexico never filed criminal charges.
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