- Megachurch leader Naason Joaquin Garcia has been sentenced to 16 years and eight months in prison.
- He took a plea deal that dropped 23 sex abuse charges to just three counts of child sex abuse.
- His victims wept and begged the court for a reversal while his followers continue to adore him.
The leader of a Mexico-based megachurch with a large congregation in California has been sentenced to 16 years and eight months in prison after pleading guilty to sexually abusing underage girls.
His victims, however, say he’s still managed to evade the consequences of his crimes.
Naason Joaquin Garcia, known as “The Apostle” by members of the La Luz del Mundo church, initially faced 23 charges of sex crimes against children, including rape and conspiracy to engage in human trafficking, according to court documents seen by Insider.
However, three days before Garcia was set to go on trial in Los Angeles, he took an unexpected guilty plea deal with the California Attorney General’s office.
This led to his list of charges being reduced to just three counts: two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of performing a lewd act upon a child who was 15 years old.
Speaking at Wednesday’s sentencing in the Los Angeles Superior Court, the five young women whom Garcia abused objected to the last-minute deal, saying they weren’t consulted and were dismayed that he wouldn’t face the other charges in open court.
Victims begged the court to reverse the plea deal
All five victims wept as they described how Garcia used his spiritual authority to abuse them and force them into sexual slavery for years. One of them identified herself as Garcia’s niece.
They said they were initially elated after being accepted into Garcia’s inner circles but were soon subjected to a “nightmare” of rape and abuse, which they were told would bring them salvation.
The victims, all known as Jane Doe, said they were told they’d be damned for refusing Garcia’s advances, and that they were his property to do with as he wished.
One victim, known to the court as Jane Doe 1, said the church made her think it was a privilege to “receive his blessing.”
“I feel that this plea deal allows him to escape the true consequences of his actions,” she said.
Another begged the court to reconsider the decision on the reduced charges in “any way you can.”
“Please bring the justice that we actually deserve,” she said, choking back tears. “This plea deal is not enough. He deserves a lifetime for each and every one of us Jane Does. He destroyed our lives.”
The women said they were ostracized by their communities and even their own families when they brought forth the accusations against Garcia.
Footage of the sentencing showed Garcia seated with earphones plugged in and facing away from the victims as they gave their statements.
Judge Ronald Coen apologized to the victims before reading the sentence. “My hands are tied. Lawyers will do what lawyers do,” he said.
“But I just want to tell all the Jane Does that the world has heard you. I promise you that,” he said. “As to those family members that have abandoned the Jane Does: Shame! Shame on you!”
He then told Garcia directly: “You are a sexual predator.”
“I’ll never cease to be amazed at what some people do in the name of religion, and how lives are ruined in the guise of serving a supreme being,” he also said.
In a statement, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Garcia’s sentence on Wednesday was a “critical step forward for justice.”
“While it will never undo the harm and trauma he caused as 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.
Sochil Martin, a former member of the church who was the first whistleblower against Garcia, said the case’s outcome was a “slap in the face to the victims,” per Law and Crime.
“He needed to be fully prosecuted in open court so the victims could tell their story,” she said, according to the outlet.
La Luz del Mundo still loves its ‘Apostle’
Garcia was arrested at the Los Angeles International Airport in 2019 and has been detained in California for the last three years on bail of $50 million. Prosecutors said Garcia’s bail was set so high because they feared his supporters — of whom there are 5 million, according to the church — would raise money to set him free and allow him to flee the country.
Two other church associates were arrested with him and have reached separate plea deals, per Reuters.
Throughout that time, Garcia’s lawyers have said the accusations brought against him were a “hit job” to “make it look like he did something wrong.”
A statement by his church on Wednesday said it supported Garcia’s decision to plead guilty because they believed he was under duress and wouldn’t get a fair trial.
The church added that Garcia “had no choice but to accept with much pain that the agreement presented is the best way forward to protect the church and his family.”
—The Light of the World (@tlotwchurch) June 8, 2022
“Our confidence in him remains intact with full knowledge of his integrity, his conduct and his work,” the statement read.
According to the Los Angeles Times, hundreds of Garcia’s supporters gathered on Wednesday morning to pray for him and sing hymns in the Mexican neighborhood of Guadalajara, where the church is based.
La Luz del Mundo, also known as the Light of the World Church, is an organization founded in Mexico in 1926 by Garcia’s grandfather, Eusebio Joaquin Gonzalez. The church says it practices a “Christian-based faith.”
According to photos on the church’s website, it has chapters in Arizona, Texas, Alaska, Florida, California, Virginia, Utah, Kentucky, and in Europe and South America. Its congregation is strong in parts of California that have large Hispanic populations, per the BBC.