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Luz del Mundo church leader's trial pushed back to May

Leila Miller, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

LOS ANGELES — The trial of Naason Joaquin Garcia, the head of La Luz del Mundo church who is charged with sexually abusing girls from his congregation, has been postponed to May.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen granted a request by Garcia’s attorneys to delay the trial, which had been scheduled to start later this month.

Garcia’s defense team argued they needed time to review more than 1,600 pages of material they said state prosecutors recently handed over to them. They also raised concerns that jurors would be unable to assess the credibility of witnesses if they testify wearing masks, which are currently required under the court’s pandemic rules.

Prosecutors told the judge that that they did not oppose postponing the trial to give the defense more time to prepare, but disputed that Garcia’s rights would be violated if witnesses wore masks.

Garcia, who was arrested in June 2019 and whose followers regard him as an apostle of Jesus Christ, became the head of La Luz del Mundo church in December 2014 after the death of his father, the church’s previous leader. Held in jail on $90 million bail, Garcia faces many charges including human trafficking, rape and forcible oral copulation of a minor, and possession of child pornography. The alleged crimes occurred between 2015 and 2019. He has pleaded not guilty.

The California attorney general’s office, which is handling the case, charged two church members alongside Garcia. Alondra Ocampo, 38, and Susana Medina Oaxaca, 26, were accused of pressuring girls to engage in sexual activity with Garcia and telling them they would be violating God’s wishes if they resisted.

Oaxaca has pleaded not guilty, while Ocampo last year pleaded guilty to four counts.

Fred Thiagarajah, Ocampo’s attorney, told the Los Angeles Times that he anticipates Ocampo will testify at trial. He claims Garcia instructed Ocampo to bring him girls from La Luz del Mundo‘s church in East L.A. Ocampo complied out of fear and because she had been indoctrinated to believe that nothing mattered more than fulfilling Garcia’s wishes, Thiagarajah said.

 

Thiagarajah alleged in an interview that Ocampo suffered years of sexual abuse in the church as a child. Garcia’s father, Samuel Joaquin Flores, raped Ocampo on a church trip to Guadalajara, Thiagarajah alleged.

La Luz del Mundo, founded in 1926 by Garcia’s grandfather, has aggressively defended Garcia since his arrest. On social media, the church has sought to present itself as welcoming to all, using the hashtag #AlwaysUnited and showcasing the openings of new churches and its community service efforts.

It has continued to reference Garcia in spiritual messages to members. A Father’s Day post on the church’s Facebook page this year featured a picture of Garcia smiling in a suit next to an excerpt from the Gospel of John: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.”

In a statement issued before Friday’s hearing, the church said that “we remain confident that once the case is concluded, the Apostle’s innocence will be demonstrated, and he will be acquitted.”

But the case has also galvanized former members of the church to speak out about alleged abuses. After the hearing, Sochil Martin, a former member of the church who filed a federal civil lawsuit against La Luz del Mundo in 2020 claiming an institutionalized culture of abuse, said that she was concerned by the delays.

“The more this is prolonged ... the more survivors are being silenced and feel that justice isn’t being served,” she said.

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