The leader of La Luz del Mundo church has been sentenced to 16 years and eight months in a California prison for sexually abusing three girls.
Naasón Joaquín García was sentenced Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court after pleading guilty to three felonies on the eve of a long-awaited trial.
García, who is considered the apostle of Jesus Christ by his 5 million worldwide followers, had vigorously fought the charges until he abruptly pleaded guilty last week.
Prosecutors say he used his spiritual influence to have sex with several female followers. García had faced trial Monday on 19 counts that included child rape allegations.
Judge Ronald Coen called García a sexual predator.
“It never ceases to amaze me what people do in the name of religion and how many lives are ruined in the guise of a supreme being,” Coen said.
The women Garcia admitted to abusing and at least one other accuser were united in their criticism of the plea deal that was offered by prosecutors from the attorney general’s office.
They said they had looked forward to García facing a trial in the hopes he’d be locked up for life. Now that option was gone and they pleaded with Coen to impose at least a 20-year sentence, telling him that García had made a mockery of the court and told his followers he only pleaded guilty because he wasn’t being treated fairly.
Coen denied requests by the victims to impose a stiffer sentence, saying his hands were tied by the plea agreement.
Patricia Fusco, supervising deputy attorney general, tearfully praised the victims for their bravery in standing up to García and his faithful followers who have rallied around him and shamed the young women.
“They trusted him. They thought he was basically God on Earth,” Fusco said of the victims. “We know, of course, he’s not God. Not even close. … Anyone who still believes he’s God is complicit and they’re supporting a child molester.”
García, dressed in orange jail scrubs and wearing a surgical mask pulled under his glasses, didn’t turn to face the women. He sat upright and looked straight ahead with his hands shackled at his waist.
García had been scheduled to go on trial Monday on 19 counts that also included allegations of human trafficking to produce child pornography. 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 García used spiritual coercion for sexual pleasure.
But prosecutors said the victims were essentially brainwashed by García and felt they would be ostracized by the insular church community if they didn’t submit to him.
The church has tried to cultivate a law-abiding, hard-working image in Mexico — where it counts about 1.8 million followers. Its male members favor suits and short hair, and female members wear veils that cover their hair and modest dresses. There are about 1 million U.S. members.