Nason Joaquín García, the leader of the La Luz del Mundo megachurch, has been sentenced by a Los Angeles court to 16 years and eight months in prison.
Garcia, 53, pleaded guilty last week to three counts of sexually abusing girls in his congregation. His plea means that his sentence is much less than the life sentence he could have faced if he had been found guilty in a trial.
To his followers, Nason Joaquín García is known as the “Apostle”.
His church shared a statement on Twitter [in Spanish] in which it continued to “support for the apostle of Jesus Christ” and praised his “honesty, his conduct and his work”. The statement alleges that Garcia’s evidence was fabricated and accepted the plea as “the best way to protect the church and her family.”
A fundamentalist Christian organization, La Luz del Mundo (meaning Light of the World in Spanish) was founded in Mexico in 1926 by García’s grandfather, Eusebio Joaquín González.
The church’s influence has spread in recent years and is strong in parts of California, with large Hispanic populations, which García frequented.
He was arrested in 2019 at the Los Angeles airport after arriving on a private jet with two of his female followers.
Garcia was facing 19 charges, but three days before his trial began on Friday, he pleaded guilty to two counts of forced oral sex with minors and one count of lewd acts on a 15-year-old child.
The unexpected plea deal means her trial is dropped and the church leader will not face charges, including rape and trafficking of girls in her congregation, which she has denied.
Some of those who accused Garcia of abuse said the plea deal set a “dangerous” precedent.
Sochiel Martin, a former church member who has filed a federal civil suit against La Luz del Mundo, alleging that it fosters an institutional culture of abuse, told reporters at a news conference that she was disappointed that ” There was no day in court”.
There was no trial. The people didn’t get to hear what this man represents in society and that’s what we need to understand,” she said on Tuesday.
“He deserves the maximum penalty possible,” said Ms Martin, who accuses García of abusing her over the course of 17 years.
But Attorney General Rob Bonta said Friday’s conviction sent “a clear message that sexual exploitation is never acceptable in California”.
“As the leader of La Luz del Mundo, Naasón Joaquín García used his power to take advantage of children. He relied on those around him to groom congregants for the purposes of sexual assault. Today’s conviction can never undo the harm, but it will help protect future generations,” a statement by Mr Bonta said.