Deborah Contreras clutched her sons tightly as she cried as the women in a courtroom in Los Angeles detailed years of sexual abuse perpetrated by the man they had once mistaken for a “apostle” of Jesus Christ.
She nodded as one of the women stated that Naason Joaquin Garcia, the current leader of La Luz del Mundo, had many more victims in addition to those mentioned in the prosecution’s case against him. For fear of provoking the wrath of Garcia and other members of the church hierarchy, many have been reluctant to speak out about alleged abuse by them.
Contreras would know; she claimed to be one of them.
She recently said, “The moment you question it is the moment you’re cast aside.” That is the reason victims remain silent for such a long time.
Contreras and other former church members have worked to keep the case alive in news releases, television interviews, and on social media in the weeks since Garcia pleaded guilty to three criminal counts in exchange for a sentence reduction of nearly 17 years in prison. They have urged other potential victims to come forward publicly.
While the prosecution applauded the verdict, Contreras and other critics claimed Garcia got off lightly and questioned why the five Jane Does involved in the case weren’t consulted prior to the government’s last-minute plea deal.
Lulu Wehagen, who runs a private Facebook group for former churchgoers like herself to discuss the Garcia case and share information about inappropriate behavior by clergy, said, “What we are going to do is to start asking people to send in their victim impact statements.”
She recently issued a request for assistance in finding individuals who might have experienced sexual abuse or mistreatment at La Luz del Mundo. It was quickly shared by other La Luz del Mundo-related Facebook pages and a well-known Reddit community for former participants who allege abuse.
Wehagen is also promoting a petition on the internet, which has received hundreds of signatures to date and asks that Garcia be taken off of all religious registers in Mexico now that he is required to register as a sex offender.
Wehagen stated that victims may decide to keep quiet for a variety of reasons, including shame, a desire to avoid family rejection, or a childhood-ingrained conviction that the only way to find eternal salvation is by accepting Garcia, like his father and grandfather before him, as their “apostle.”
Wehagen claimed that many victims, even as church leaders attempted to cover up the abuse, buried those traumatic childhood memories deep inside, convincing themselves that no one would believe them.
Garcia’s plea agreement therefore felt like a “slap in the face,” according to Sochil Martin, another survivor who left the church. Martin was concerned about the message it might have given to other potential victims, who might be less inclined to speak up after witnessing the Jane Does being subjected to intimidation and retaliation by members of the church.
According to Martin, the five Garcia case victims are considering suing the church for failing to shield them from the alleged abuse they suffered.
What will these girls be thinking? Martin, who sued the church in federal court, claimed that when she was a young child, her aunt offered her as a sexual servant to Samuel Joaqun Flores, the church’s former leader, and then to his successor and son, Garcia. “There is no justice, especially if you’re Latino,” Martin said.
Martin has appeared on television several times since Garcia’s sentencing to denounce the way the government handled the case. In an interview with Telemundo, she referred to the prosecution’s decision to offer the church leader a plea deal as a “cowardly” act.
She has also used social media to urge other potential victims to get in touch with law enforcement, most recently tweeting out the FBI’s anonymous hotline’s number and a graph displaying statistics on human trafficking.
In a separate investigation from the Garcia case, which was handled by state authorities, Martin claimed she has also personally spoken with FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents about unspecified crimes the church is alleged to have committed in the United States. An investigation is being conducted, according to a source with knowledge of the case, but no additional information was provided.
La Luz del Mundo responded to a series of inquiries by directing The Times to the same statement it made following Garcia’s conviction, in which it claimed that its leader “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 statement, which omits addressing the fresh allegations, reads, “He wishes to spare the church and his family from weeks of unfounded public accusations, including threats to their physical well-being.”
Garcia’s sentencing hearing in June drew so many spectators and media representatives that some guests, including Contreras and her sons, had to take seats in an additional courtroom where they could hear an audio feed of the proceedings.
According to Contreras, she was hesitant to go to the sentencing. But in the end, she made the decision to go because she wanted to see Garcia admit to some of the accusations he had long denied and to show her support for the present victims.
When Garcia’s father Flores summoned her to his house in 2014—the year after he passed away and gave his son the title of “apostle”—Contreras claimed that she couldn’t have been older than 6 at the time. Flores claims that as she started massaging the church leader’s feet, he leaned down and assaulted her sexually.
She claimed that because she had been raised to accept “lavish stories” about how the “apostle” was infallible and that disobeying Flores and later Garcia was equivalent to going against the word of God, she didn’t question what had happened at the time.
During a break in Garcia’s day-long sentencing hearing, she praised Flores by saying, “I believed him, I followed him, and I defended him.” “You believe everything when you’re a kid; they tell you stories about Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny.”
Longtime La Luz del Mundo watchers doubt that Garcia’s admission of guilt will lead to the same kind of widespread reckoning over abuse and cover-ups that have engulfed the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades.
In the late 1990s, Garcia’s father Flores was accused of sexually assaulting Moises Padilla and a number of other former followers. Padilla claims that Mexican authorities disregarded his complaints, and that as a result, men who he believes to be police officers doubled as Flores’ bodyguards abducted him and repeatedly stabbed him.
According to him, the attack appeared to be a reprisal for his public accusations.
Padilla, who was present for Garcia’s sentencing, claimed that after the church leader admitted on June 3 to two counts of forcible oral copulation on a minor and one count of performing a lewd act on a child, he felt somewhat vindicated. He expressed hope that it might pave the way for similar prosecutions of other church officials. The shorter sentence, he claimed, did not, however, fit the crimes Garcia was charged with.
After the sentencing at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, Padilla briefly spoke with reporters. “When I listen to that particular sentence it was like spitting in the girls’ faces,” she said. Following his stabbing, he left Mexico and was given political asylum in the United States, where he has resided ever since, according to him.
The Garcia case has been clouded by the concern of why the abuse was permitted to continue for such a long time. According to bureau records obtained by The Times, the FBI’s Chicago field office launched an investigation into vague allegations made against the church in 1997.
Agents from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which oversaw the investigation at the request of Chicago police, reportedly asked for information from U.S. embassies in South American cities where La Luz del Mundo had a presence, including Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Venezuela, and Santiago, Chile, as well as organizations like the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
But in August of the following year, the case was declared closed after investigators determined that there was no “such evidence” of the alleged crimes.
People who reported alleged abuse in the past were dismissed by church leaders as resentful ex-devotees looking for attention. Joel Silva, a former church spokesman who claimed to have become close to Flores while supervising the construction of the church’s enormous cathedral in Guadalajara, claims that they were either intimidated into silence and submission.
He claimed that trying to discredit critics like Padilla was a part of his job.
Silva claimed that in 1998, after learning that his future wife had experienced abuse, he left La Luz del Mundo.
Silva claimed he has taken up the cause of the five Jane Does in the Garcia case as an act of atonement. He believed that the sentence had little to do with justice and more to do with their class and race. The result would have been very different, he claimed, “if they had been five white, college-bound girls.”
Silva claimed that even though the victims’ identities were never made public, members of the church knew who they were, which put them and their families at risk of abuse.
According to Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School, it is unlikely that the state Attorney General’s office, which prosecuted Garcia, will seek additional charges against him despite the growing public pressure.
If more alleged victims come forward and fight to have their voices heard, that might change, according to her. According to Levenson, who has researched other recent clergy scandals, local or even federal authorities may get involved if they can demonstrate that widespread reports of abuse allegations were disregarded or covered up at the highest levels of La Luz del Mundo.
She referred to Garcia and said, “There’s a difference between just seeking more charges against him and ferreting out how deep this goes in the institution.
The church, which has denounced the case as an effort to damage his reputation and vowed to support their “apostle” throughout his incarceration, has continued to show almost universal support for Garcia.
According to recordings played by the prosecution during Garcia’s sentencing, clergy members have recently informed their congregations in Los Angeles that Garcia’s defense team was prohibited from presenting evidence that would have aided his case had it gone to trial.
One victim, identified only as Jane Doe 2 in court, informed the presiding judge during Garcia’s sentencing on June 8 that other “pedophiles and rapists” who were still in positions of authority within the church had not been brought to justice.
She expressed her regret that the case hadn’t gone to trial.
She stated that she was “willing to sacrifice my dignity once more to allow prosecutors to show the child porn” of how he raped her. She claimed that this is what led to the “constant” panic attacks and anxiety she now experiences. In order to give other victims the confidence to speak up, she said, “we wanted to defend ourselves and have the evidence out in the open.”