A South American megachurch says it's standing by its leader, Naasón Joaquín García, who has been jailed for 16 years and eight months in the United States for sexually abusing girls from his congregation.
Garcia from La Luz del Mundo ( The 'Light of the World') church, pleaded guilty in a Los Angeles court last week to three counts of sexually abusing girls - he had been facing 19 charges.
The plea deal meant a trial was dropped and he wouldn't face other charges, including raping and trafficking girls from his congregation, which he has denied.
53 year old Garcia, who styled himself as an apostle, was arrested along with two others from the church in 2019, together facing 36 charges, including rape, child pornography and human trafficking.
Most of those charges were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea, avoiding a life sentence.
Garcia's assistants who were arrested with him - Susana Medina Oaxaca and Alondra Ocampo - also pleaded guilty to charges including assault and sexual abuse of minors.
Responding to Garcia's conviction, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said :
"As the leader of La Luz del Mundo, Naasón Joaquín García 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."
Following the sentencing, the church posted a statement saying it stands by Garcia :
"We publicly manifest our support for the Apostle of Jesus Christ Naason Joaquin Garcia; our confidence in him remains intact with full knowledge of his integrity, his conduct and his work."
The statement accused the prosecution of suppressing, withholding and doctoring evidence and supported Garcia's decision to enter a plea deal which prevented a trial:
"The Apostle of Jesus Christ has had no choice but to accept with much pain that the agreement ...is the best way forward to protect the church and his family."
The Church describes itself as the restoration of primitive Christianity and is believed to have up to five million followers worldwide.