Los Angeles, US

Detractors and ex-members of La Luz del Mundo say its leader deserved a more severe punishment than the nearly 17-year sentence he received on Wednesday for sexually abusing young female followers who said he made them his sex slaves.

In court, five young women the pastor was charged with sexually abusing called Naasón Joaquín García “evil,” a “monster” and the “Antichrist". They urged the judge to impose a longer sentence after García abruptly pleaded guilty to three felonies just before his long-awaited trial was to start.

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Naasón Joaquín García, the former leader of the fundamentalist Guadalajara, Mexico-based church La Luz del Mundo, sits during his sentencing in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Wednesday, 8th June. 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. PICTURE: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool.

García, 53, faced a sentence of 16 years and eight months after he pleaded guilty Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15. 

La Luz del Mundo, which claims five million worldwide followers, was founded in 1926 by García’s grandfather, Eusebio Joaquín González. The church rejects the concept of the Trinity and teaches that Jesus is God’s son and church leaders, like García, his father and grandfather, are his apostles. 

Sochil Martin, who in 2020 sued the church and a dozen of its leaders, alleging decades of abuse, urged for a tougher sentence in a news conference a day before the hearing.

“I was also a victim of Naasón,” she said. “I believe that we won’t be able to sleep or have peace unless we know that this man will be in jail all of his life.”

Outside the courthouse, former members and leaders of the church awaited news of the sentencing.

Hector Vera, a former deacon of La Luz del Mundo, called García a “false prophet” who deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail. Vera stood outside the courthouse holding signs that read “Life Sentence For Naason” and “This Is The Beginning Of The End".

“He deserves the full weight of the law,” said Vera, who traveled from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles for the sentencing hearing.

Vera, 60, said he served as a deacon for La Luz del Mundo churches across the country, from Washington, DC, and Kentucky to Texas and California. He said he left the church in 2003 after his ex-wife began telling him of people who worked as servants to Samuel Joaquín Flores, García’s father, who led the church until his death in 2014.

“I continue to believe in Jesus Christ and I believe in his justice. I don’t believe in men because that’s the error we committed with La Luz Del Mundo,” Vera added.

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Hector Vera posted himself outside the Los Angeles Superior Court with signs on 8th June, as he awaited sentencing results for Naasón Joaquín García’s case. PICTURE: RNS/Alejandra Molina

Detractors have voiced their opposition to García’s sentence on a subreddit, known as EXLLDM, an online community of former La Luz del Mundo members that has been active since about 2017.

“We know our people best. We know how vulnerable the LLDM community is towards abuse, and how their system will never put any safeguards in place to prevent and stop further abuses continuing. Not only that, but allowing a self-confessed child predator be allowed back into society is detrimental to ALL of the LA community,” according to one of the statements posted there.

A change.org petition urging that García receive “the maximum sentence possible” had garnered more than 3,200 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

Raquel Guerra, a former member of La Luz del Mundo, watched the sentencing through a livestream from her home in Texas. Hearing the testimonies was “devastating,” she said.

“My heart was just breaking the entire time,” Guerra said. “I was praying and hoping that he [the judge] could impose more years.”

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Raquel Guerra poses with her parents in 1992 on the day of her 14th-year presentation. Once she turned 14, she declared she wanted to continue in La Luz del Mundo Church. PICTURE: Courtesy of Raquel Guerra

Guerra grew up attending a La Luz del Mundo church in Bexar County, Texas. She said she didn’t directly see any sexual abuse while she was a part of the church, but she became more aware of stories of abuse after leaving the church and connecting with other ex-members.

She left La Luz del Mundo at around age 19 because she was pregnant and in a relationship with a man who was not part of the church. An insular community, the church frowned on relationships with outsiders, Guerra said. She recalls church leaders saying the child was a product of sin.

Since leaving La Luz del Mundo, Guerra has been outspoken against its leaders.

“I will still continue to speak the truth,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see that the churches were packed … during the time of the sentencing because I know they want supervision of their flock. It’s very sad the control they have.”

Sergio Meza, 72, of Los Angeles, said he and others who left the church hoped García would be sentenced to at least 100 years. He said he was a pastor for La Luz del Mundo from 1970 to 1986 and continued to attend the church until 2000.

Meza said stories of abuse among the church leaders were known, but he said that without social media back in the day, it was tough for those allegations to gain traction. 

He said a main reason he left La Luz del Mundo was seeing how the Joaquín family got richer at the expense of church members. “We were the ones looking for people and property,” he said. The lawsuit filed in 2020 by Martin alleged that La Luz del Mundo temples were built by forced unpaid labour of members.

“I was sacrificing my time for a cause that I thought was for God,” Meza said.

“The day I said, ‘I’m no longer with the church,’ I felt as if I left prison. I was free,” he added. 

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.