The leader of a Mexican mega-church who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting three young girls was sentenced in Los Angeles on Wednesday to nearly 17 years in prison.
But the ruling, following a plea deal Naason Joaquin Garcia struck with prosecutors last week, was met with anger by victims, who at an emotional hearing called for their abuser to face trial and the maximum possible sentence.
One victim in court Wednesday condemned officials for "negotiating with this rapist" while another said in a statement read to the court that the justice system "failed us."
Garcia, head of the La Luz Del Mundo church which claims five million followers worldwide, coerced underage girls into performing sexual acts by telling them that going against his wishes would be acting against God, prosecutors said.
He was arrested at a Los Angeles airport in June 2019. An initial human trafficking and child rape case was thrown out on a technicality, and charges were re-filed.
Last Friday, on the eve of his trial, the 53-year-old -- who claims to be the last apostle of Jesus, and had initially denied all wrongdoing -- pleaded guilty to felony crimes of sexual assault of three minors.
These included forcible oral copulation and a lewd act upon a 15-year-old, but not counts of rape, extortion and child pornography.
California attorney general Rob Bonta hailed the sentence as a "critical step forward for justice."
"While it will never undo the harm and trauma he caused as the leader of La Luz del Mundo, this sentence makes it crystal clear that abusers -- no matter who they are -- will be held accountable," he said Wednesday.
Still, Garcia's church continued to back its leader, issuing a statement Wednesday to "publicly express our support for the Apostle of Jesus Christ" and praising his "integrity, his conduct and his work."
The Spanish-language statement said evidence against Garcia had been fabricated and that the leader had no choice but to strike a deal as he would not have received a "fair and just" trial.
In court, one victim who said Garcia had stolen both her virginity and her faith begged the judge to "make sure that this man is put away for life."
"How is this justice?" she asked.