(Reuters) - California’s attorney general appealed on Thursday for more victims to come forward who may have been sexually abused by the head of a Mexico-based church charged with multiple counts of human trafficking, child pornography and rape of a minor.
“If you are a survivor of abuse in this particular case or you have information about the misconduct of anyone involved in this case, we want to hear from you,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra told a news conference in Sacramento.
La Luz Del Mundo (Light of the World) church leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, and two co-defendants were arrested on Monday in Los Angeles, while a fourth co-defendant remains at large.
Garcia, whose church claims at least 1 million followers worldwide, was ordered held on $50 million bail at his court hearing on Wednesday. Becerra said the bail amount, the highest ever imposed in Los Angeles County, reflected fears that Garcia would raise money from his church followers and flee to Mexico.
Garcia and co-defendants Alondra Ocampo and Susana Medina Oaxaca did not enter pleas, pending a formal arraignment on Monday. A warrant has been issued for a fourth defendant, Rangel Melendez, officials said.
The church, which considers Garcia to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, called the accusations unfounded.
“The Apostle of Jesus Christ, Brother Naason Joaquin Garcia, has always behaved in accordance with the law and with full respect for the institutions and the dignity of the people,” it said in a statement on its website on Wednesday.
Becerra said the arrests stemmed from a tip that came to a state website seeking victims of clergy sex abuse.
“He’s sick. I don’t care what he calls it,” Becerra said. “You can’t hide behind some religious veil. You can’t act like this is something that people do all the time. It’s sick.”
Prosecutors say three minors and one adult woman were abused, with one child and the woman raped. Others were forced to perform sex acts and dances for Garcia wearing “as little clothing as possible,” the complaint added.
Girls were told that if they defied Garcia’s desires “they were going against god,” according to the complaint.
The church, which has followers in over 50 countries, has roots that go back to the 1920s in Mexico. It adheres to nontrinitarianism, rejecting a mainstream Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It says it adheres to the earliest beliefs of the Christian church teachings.
Reporting by Jane Ross; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Leslie Adler