LOS ANGELES (CNS) – The leader of a Mexico-based evangelical megachurch was sentenced to 16 years and eight months in prison for sex crimes involving three underage girls, despite emotional testimony by victims who asked a judge to reject his plea deal with prosecutors or sentence the defendant to a far longer prison term.

   Naasón Joaquín Garcia — the leader of La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World) pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15 years old. Each of the counts involved a separate minor, according to the Attorney General’s Office, which handled the prosecution.

   In addition to his prison time, Garcia is expected to be ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

   During an emotionally gripping sentencing hearing, several young women pleaded with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen to set aside the plea agreement between Garcia and the Attorney General’s Office, saying they wanted the religious figure to face trial and more extensive incarceration.

   One of the victims — identified in court only as Jane Doe 2 — told the judge that the women were ready to face Garcia in trial and were “deprived of that right” and did not consent to “negotiating with this rapist.” She asked the judge to reconsider and give the 53-year-old defendant the “maximum sentence.”

   Coen, however, apologized to the women and said, “My hands are tied” in terms of the sentence he could hand down. But he told them, “The world has heard you. I promise you that.”

   The judge called Garcia a sexual predator.

   During the sentencing hearing, a statement was read in court on behalf of another victim identified as Jane Doe 1, who said Garcia abused his power “to take advantage of me sexually.”

   “You deserve to stay in jail forever, but even then, it would not be enough penalty,” she wrote, addressing the defendant directly in her statement in which she referred to the church leader as a “predator.”

   She noted in her statement that a subsequent message on behalf of church leaders indicated that Garcia’s rights had been abused in court and that he reluctantly took the plea deal because he believed he wasn’t going to receive a fair trial.

   She wrote that the victims’ only hope was the fair judicial system in the United States, which she said has “failed us.”

   “He took my faith away. He took my purpose away,” said a woman who was identified in court as Jane Doe 3. “He used me, used my faith in God and my innocence.”

   She said she’ll never forget the day Garcia was arrested in June 2019 and her mother woke her up to go to church to pray for him.

   “It made me feel so little and I didn’t even have it in me to fight back,” she told the judge.

   She told Garcia that he deserved “to live the rest of your life in a cell,” and urged the judge to reconsider the plea deal and “sentence him to the maximum amount of time.”

   A fourth young woman said she wanted “to see him held fully accountable and to expose him for the monster he is,” and that the plea “robbed me of that opportunity.”

   “We want to make sure that this man is put away for life,” she said, telling the judge at one point that Garcia had stolen her virginity and her faith. “How is this justice?”

   Through a Spanish interpreter, the mother of one of the victims questioned why Garcia “did it to innocent little girls who loved him” and asked the judge to “take into account the years of pain he’s caused.”

   The mother of another victim said Garcia had used their faith and desire for salvation “to trick us.”

   The brother of one of the victims called Garcia a “monster,” and said he had taken advantage of his family’s trust.

   Garcia — who has been in custody since his June 3, 2019, arrest –had been set to go on trial this week, along with co-defendant Susana Oaxaca, 27, who pleaded guilty last Friday to assault likely to cause great bodily injury.

   A third defendant, Alondra Ocampo, 39, pleaded guilty in 2020 to four counts.

   Supervising Deputy Attorney General Patricia Fusco told the judge Garcia was “someone that our victims looked up to” and trusted, and said they were “brave” for coming forward.

   Addressing the victims, she said prosecutors understood this will impact them for the rest of their lives and that they’re hopeful Garcia’s guilty plea will help them move forward and empower them. She implored members of the church not to harass the victims — at least one of whom said she and her family have received death threats.

   In a statement released last week, California Attorney General Rob Bonta Bonta said Garcia’s conviction “sends a clear message that sexual exploitation is never acceptable in California.”

   “We will hold you accountable if you break the law,” Bonta added. “As the leader of La Luz del Mundo, Naasón Joaquín Garcia 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.”

   The three defendants were initially charged in June 2019, but a state appeals court panel ordered the case to be dismissed in April 2020 after finding that Garcia did not waive his right to a timely hearing to determine if there was sufficient evidence to require him to stand trial and that the hearing was not held within that time.

   The Attorney General’s Office subsequently re-filed the case, which alleged that the crimes occurred in Southern California between June 2015 and June 2019.

   Garcia was ordered in August 2020 to stand trial on 23 felony counts, including forcible rape of a minor, forcible oral copulation of a person under 18, unlawful sexual intercourse, lewd act on a child, extortion, conspiracy and possession of child pornography.

   State prosecutors alleged in the complaint that Ocampo told a group of minor girls that they were going against God if they went against any desires or wishes of Garcia, whom the church called “the Apostle of Jesus Christ.”

   The Guadalajara-based Pentecostal sect has branches in 50 nations and claims more than a million members worldwide.

   While the criminal case was pending, the church repeatedly insisted on Garcia’s innocence.

   In a statement posted on Twitter following a court hearing last month, the church said it has “complete confidence that the time will come when the innocence” of Garcia “will be proven in a court of law.”

   “Truth shines in the darkness and lies can never extinguish it,” the church said in the statement, in which it indicated that it was “surprised that the judge did not dismiss the case.”