Holding her sons tight, Deborah Contreras shuddered with sobs as the women in a Los Angeles courtroom recounted years of sexual abuse inflicted by the man they once believed was an “apostle” of Jesus Christ.
She nodded as one of the women said there were countless other victims beyond those involved in the prosecution’s case against Naason Joaquin Garcia, head of La Luz del Mundo to this day. Many have been afraid to speak out about alleged abuse by Garcia and others in the church hierarchy for fear of incurring their wrath.
Contreras would know; she’s one of them, she said.
“The moment you question it is the moment that you’re cast aside,” she said recently. “That’s why victims stay quiet for such a long time.”
In the weeks since Garcia pleaded guilty to three criminal counts in exchange for a reduced sentence of nearly 17 years in prison, Contreras and other former church members have tried to keep the case alive in news releases, television interviews and on social media, urging other possible victims to speak out publicly.
While prosecutors hailed the outcome, Contreras and other dissidents said they felt Garcia got off easy and wondered why the five Jane Does involved in the case weren’t consulted about the last-minute government plea bargain.
“What we are going to do is to begin to ask people to send in their victim impact statements,” said Lulu Wehagen, who runs a private Facebook group for former church members like herself to discuss the Garcia case and share information about inappropriate behavior by clergy.
She recently put out a call to help identify people who may have been sexually abused or mistreated at La Luz del Mundo. It was quickly picked up by other La Luz del Mundo-related pages on Facebook and by a popular Reddit group for former members who say they were abused.
Wehagen is also promoting an online petition, which to date has hundreds of signatures, calling for Garcia to be removed from all religious registries in Mexico now that he must register as a sex offender.
Wehagen said victims may choose to remain silent for any number of reasons: shame, fear of being ostracized by loved ones or because of the belief drilled into them since childhood that eternal salvation can only be found by accepting Garcia, his father and grandfather before him, as their “apostle.”
Instead, Wehagen said, many victims buried those painful childhood memories deep down, convincing themselves that no one would believe them even as church leaders sought to cover up the abuse.
Which is why Garcia’s plea deal felt like a “slap to the face,” said Sochil Martin, who says she is another survivor who has left the church. Martin worried about the message it sent to other possible victims, who could be less willing to to speak out after watching the Jane Does become targets of intimidation and harassment by church loyalists.
The five victims in the Garcia case are weighing a lawsuit against the church for failing to protect them from the abuse they say they endured, Martin said.
“What are these girls gonna think? There is no justice, especially if you’re Latino,” said Martin, who has sued the church in federal court alleging that her aunt offered her as a sexual servant when she was just a child to Samuel Joaquín Flores, the church’s former leader, and then to his successor and son, Garcia.
Since Garcia’s sentencing, Martin has gone on TV several times to criticize the government’s handling of the case. She called prosecutors’ willingness to give the church leader a plea deal a “cowardly” act in an interview with Telemundo.
She has also taken to social media to urge other possible victims to contact law enforcement, recently tweeting out the phone number for the FBI’s anonymous hotline and a graphic showing human trafficking statistics.
Martin said she herself has also spoken with agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security for an investigation into alleged unspecified crimes the church is said to have committed in the United States — separate from the case against Garcia, which was prosecuted by state authorities. A source familiar with the case confirmed that an investigation was underway, but did not offer further specifics.
In response to a series of questions, La Luz del Mundo pointed The Times to the same statement it released after Garcia’s sentencing, saying 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.”
“He wishes to spare the church and his family from weeks of unfounded public accusations, including threats to their physical well-being,” read the statement, which does not address the new allegations.
Garcia’s June sentencing drew so many onlookers and journalists, that some attendees, including Contreras and her sons, had to be seated in an overflow courtroom, where they listened to an audio feed of the hearing.
Contreras said she was reluctant to attend the sentencing. But she ultimately decided to go because she wanted to see Garcia confess to some of the charges that he’d spent years denying, and to show support for the victims in attendance.
Contreras said she couldn’t have been older than 6 when she was summoned to the residence of Flores, Garcia’s father, who died in 2014 and passed the mantle of “apostle” to his son. As she began to massage Flores’ feet, the church leader leaned down and sexually assaulted her, she alleges.
At the time, she said, she didn’t question what happened, having been brought up to believe “lavish stories” about how the “apostle” was infallible and that to disobey Flores, and later Garcia, was akin to going against the word of God.
“I believed him, I followed him, I defended him,” she said of Flores, during a break in Garcia’s day-long sentencing hearing. “When you’re a kid, you believe everything; they give you stories like Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny.”
Longtime La Luz del Mundo observers are skeptical that Garcia’s guilty admission will force the kind of larger reckoning over abuse and coverups that have roiled the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades.
In the late ’90s, Moises Padilla and several other former devotees publicly accused Flores, Garcia’s father, of molesting them. But Padilla said they were ignored by Mexican authorities, and he said he was later kidnapped and stabbed dozens of times by men he believes were police officers who moonlighted as Flores’ bodyguards.
He said the attack was in apparent retaliation for his public accusations.
Padilla, who attended Garcia’s sentencing, said he felt somewhat vindicated when the church leader pleaded guilty on June 3 to two counts of forcible oral copulation on a minor and one count of committing a lewd act on a child. He said he was hopeful it could open the door for similar prosecutions of other church leaders. But the shortened sentence, he said, didn’t fit the crimes Garcia was accused of.
“When I listen to that particular sentence it was like spitting in the girls’ faces,” said Padilla, who briefly spoke to reporters after the sentencing at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. He fled Mexico in 1998 after his stabbing and was granted political asylum in the U.S., where he has lived ever since, he says.
The question of why the abuse was allowed to go on for so long has hung over the Garcia case. In 1997, the FBI’s Chicago field office opened an investigation into unspecified allegations against the church, according to bureau records obtained by The Times.
Agents from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which oversaw the probe at the behest of Chicago police, reportedly requested information from U.S. embassies in Brasilia; Buenos Aires; Caracas, Venezuela; and Santiago, Chile — South American cities where La Luz del Mundo had a presence — as well as agencies such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
But, the case was closed in August of the following year after investigators deemed no “such evidence exists” of the supposed crimes.
In the past, people who spoke out about alleged abuse were branded by church officials as embittered former devotees craving attention. Or they were intimidated into silence and submission, according to Joel Silva, a former church spokesman who said he grew close to Flores while overseeing the construction of the church’s soaring cathedral in Guadalajara.
Part of his job, he said, was to try to discredit critics like Padilla.
Silva said he left La Luz del Mundo in 1998 after learning that his soon-to-be wife had been a victim of abuse.
As a way to make amends, Silva said he has become an advocate for the five Jane Does in the Garcia case. To him, the sentence had everything to do with their race and class and little to do with justice. “If they would’ve been five white girls, college-bound girls, the outcome would’ve been very different,” he said.
While the victims’ identities were never publicly disclosed, those in the church community knew who they were, Silva said, exposing them and their families to harassment.
Despite the mounting public pressure, Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said it was unlikely that the state Attorney General’s office, which prosecuted Garcia, would seek additional charges against him.
That could change if more alleged victims continue to come forward and fight for their voices to be heard, she said. Local or even federal authorities could become involved if they could prove widespread reports that abuse allegations were ignored or covered up at the highest echelons of La Luz del Mundo, said Levenson, who has studied other recent clergy scandals.
“There’s a difference between just seeking more charges against him and ferreting out how deep this goes in the institution,” she said, referring to Garcia.
Garcia has maintained almost universal support within the church, which has denounced the case as an attempt to tarnish his reputation and promised to continue supporting their “apostle” during his incarceration.
During recent sermons in Los Angeles, ministers have told their congregations that Garcia’s defense team was barred from introducing evidence that would have helped his case had it gone to trial, according to recordings played by the prosecution during his sentencing.
At Garcia’s June 8 sentencing one victim, identified only as Jane Doe 2 in court, told the presiding judge there were other “pedophiles and rapists” who remained in power inside the church and who haven’t been held accountable.
She said she wished prosecutors had taken the case to trial.
“I was willing to sacrifice my dignity once more to allow prosecutors to show the child porn” of how he raped her — which she said caused the “constant” panic attacks and anxiety she suffers today. “We wanted to defend ourselves and to have the evidence out in the public so that other victims [would feel empowered to] speak up,” she said.
Staff writers Leila Miller and Richard Winton contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.