LOS ANGELES (AP) – The leader of the Mexican megachurch La Luz del Mundo was sentenced on Wednesday to more than 16 years in a California prison for sexually abusing young female followers.
Naasón Joaquín García, 53, abruptly pleaded guilty last week in Los Angeles Superior Court to three felonies on the eve of a long-awaited trial.
“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,” said Judge Ronald Coen, who called García a sexual predator.
The sentence came after nearly three hours of emotional statements by five young women García was charged with abusing.
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 this hands shackled at his waist as he followed along with the proceedings listening through ear phones to a Spanish interpreter.
García pleaded guilty last Friday to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15.
In exchange, prosecutors dropped 16 counts that included allegations of raping children and women, as well as human trafficking to produce child pornography.
The victims objected to the plea deal, saying they only learned about it at the last minute and were not consulted. They implored Coen to impose a stiffer sentence but he said his hands were tied by the agreement.
“The world has heard you,” he told the weeping Jane Does and their supporters. “I promise you that.”
The church, which is also known as the Light of the World, said in a statement that García pleaded guilty because he didn’t think he could get a fair trial after prosecutors withheld or doctored evidence.
The agreement would allow him to be freed sooner.
García’s grandfather founded the Guadalajara-based fundamentalist church in 1926. García took over as “apostle” after his father Samuel Joaquín Flores died in 2014.
Flores was also the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but authorities in Mexico never filed criminal charges.
Patricia Fusco, supervising deputy attorney general, tearfully praised the victims for their bravery in standing up to García and his followers who have rallied around him. She said their courage had saved others’ lives.