Los Angeles, US
RNS

A former member of La Luz Del Mundo, a Mexico-based Pentecostal movement that claims five million members, is suing the church and more than a dozen of its leaders, alleging decades of abuse at the hands of the group’s leaders.

In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in US District Court in California, Sochil Martin alleges that her aunt and a foster mother “groomed her to serve as an erotic dancer and sexual servant” first to Samuel Joaquín Flores, the church apostle and leader, who died in 2014, and later to Flores’ successor, Naasón Joaquín García, the church’s current apostle.

“This case is about a lifetime of manipulation and abuse of a young woman perpetrated by sexual predators and the global institution built around and for the protection of those predators,” the lawsuit states.

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Sochil Martin, centre, speaks at a news conference on 13th February in downtown Los Angeles about the sexual abuse she says she endured while she was a member of La Luz Del Mundo church. PICTURE: Alejandra Molina/RNS

At a news conference in downtown Los Angeles, Martin, 33, detailed the sexual abuse she says she endured within the church. Her husband and former La Luz Del Mundo members were at the news conference, which was held on the same day the church was hosting its Holy Supper ceremony at the Fairplex in Pomona about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. In a statement Thursday evening, the church said it will continue to celebrate the third and final day of the Holy Supper on Friday despite the lawsuit.

“By the age of nine, I was taught by my own family and community that my eternal soul depended on me sexually pleasing La Luz Del Mundo apostles,” said Martin, who grew up attending a La Luz Del Mundo church in Los Angeles.

“For nearly 22 years, I was made to work for, travel for, lie for and give my body to an organization that saw me as nothing more than a source of profit,” she said.

Martin related how parents and the church community taught young girls that “God wants them to please their apostles.”

Greenberg Gross, LLP, and Jeff Anderson & Associates are representing Martin.

García was arrested in June and charged with sex crimes involving minors. He has denied the charges against him and is awaiting trial in California.

The new lawsuit alleges that over a period of 22 years, Martin was “raped dozens of times, and endured numerous severe beatings, causing physical, emotional, and mental injuries that afflict her still today".

“Throughout, she was taught by LDM’s leaders that her only value and chance at salvation lay in serving the sexual whims of the two Apostles, which at times included forcing others to have sex with children,” the suit claims.

The suit also alleges that Martin was forced to spend at least 30,000 hours working for the church, without pay, to promote its activities.

“La Luz del Mundo temples in your own town, those were built by forced unpaid La Luz Del Mundo members,” Martin said at the news conference. “The propaganda La Luz Del Mundo spreads online, that was created by forced unpaid La Luz Del Mundo members.”

Martin said the food the pastors eat and the celebrations the church hosts “come from the hard work of La Luz Del Mundo members that have no choice” but to do whatever the church asks of them.

Martin was not alone, the lawsuit alleges.

“Both before and after she escaped from the organization, she witnessed or learned of hundreds of other children and young women subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of the LDM leadership, often in horrific circumstances,” the suit claims. Other church members were also required to perform extensive volunteer service to the group.

Church leaders, including the so-called Consejo de Obispos (or Council of Bishops), allegedly supplied victims to the apostles in order to gain their favor, the lawsuit claims.

The suit lists 11 claims for relief, including sexual battery, conspiracy, trafficking  and unforced labor. It also claim that Martin has “sustained damages, including physical injury, severe emotional distress, and economic losses.”

After Martin left La Luz Del Mundo in October, 2016, the lawsuit alleges that the church tried to buy her silence and then began to harass and threaten her and her family. The suit also alleges that while church leaders approved of her marriage, they failed to file any official paperwork to make the marriage legal. That failure, according to the suit, put her husband’s immigration status at risk.

Attorney Joshua Robbins said the lawsuit is not just a human rights case dealing with sexual abuse of children, but also a case about organized crime.

“La Luz Del Mundo is a massive global organisation that for decades has systematically exploited its members in ways that are not only gross violations of human rights, but are also federal and state crimes and it’s been happening right here in our backyard,” Robbins said.

Robbins said the church took part in “insidious human trafficking operations” that coerced parents to give up “their own children to be raped and abused by the leaders of the organization.”

“These schemes have gone on for many years,” Robbins said. “They’ve involved at least dozens of participants and thousands of victims. They’ve been directed from the very top of the LDM organization.”

At one point during the news conference, Martin looked at the cameras and addressed other potential victims.

“It is time to say 'No more,’” she said, in tears.

“There are countless more of you like me and I need your help,” Martin added. “I hope by standing here today, some of you will see yourself in me.”

“What happened to you is not right. What happened to us is not right,” she said. “It is not a blessing. It is not from God. It is not right.”