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La Luz del Mundo dissidents pressure authorities, seek more charges against 'apostle'

Libor Jany, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

LOS ANGELES — 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."

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