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COLUMN ONE

A Growing Faith--and Outrage

Members of a burgeoning Mexican church praise its dynamic leader. But critics allege a range of sins, including sexual abuse, which are strongly denied. The controversy has expanded to the Southland.

March 10, 1998|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aguilar recently reported the alleged rape to the Religious Affairs Department of Mexico's Interior Ministry, which has passed it along to a state prosecutor, said her lawyer, Jose Raymundo Meza. Three other former church members complaining of sexual abuse or rape have done the same, he said.

The prosecutor's office in Guadalajara confirmed it had received the four accusations of sexual abuse. But because the alleged crimes occurred so long ago, it's unlikely any trial will take place, officials say.

La Luz del Mundo denies the charges, and Joaquin has declined to discuss the accusations with the media.

"Not one of the alleged abuses disseminated by the media has been proven true by the authorities," said a church spokesman, Joel Silva. He added that it was strange that none of the victims had complained about the alleged abuses until recently.

Word of La Luz Reaches Ontario

Word of the controversy eventually reached Ontario, where La Luz del Mundo wants to open a church on Mountain Avenue. Arguelles, a professor at Claremont College who is active in immigrant issues, says she began to investigate the church after hearing disturbing reports from Mexican colleagues and students.

What she discovered in the Mexican press frightened her. Her objections, she insists, do not stem from religious intolerance.

"We're not talking here about theology . . . or [whether you] believe in Jesus Christ," she said. "What we're talking about is purported criminal activity."

In addition to the sex abuse charges, Arguelles said she fears the church's "totalitarian control of powerless people." She said she is especially concerned about vulnerable recent immigrants.

Ontario officials have been meeting with residents and researching La Luz del Mundo while considering the permit necessary to operate a church in a commercial zone. Local police have checked with other cities that have La Luz del Mundo churches, city spokesman George Urch said.

"We couldn't find any problems at all," he said.

He said the city will make its decision based on zoning questions such as traffic and noise, not the nature of La Luz del Mundo. Residents, he noted, have the right to practice any faith. "This could be a Lutheran church, a Baptist church--from the city standpoint it could be anything," he said.

Some of the Ontario residents' fears may be unfounded. Renee de la Torre, a Mexican academic, noted that the sexual abuse allegations focus on Joaquin and the Guadalajara church--not congregations in other areas.

"One thing is the church . . . another thing is the Hermosa Provincia, the center of power," said De la Torre, who has written a book about La Luz del Mundo.

She noted that even church dissidents in Los Angeles, who have accused Joaquin of creating a cult of personality, do not allege sexual abuse.

As for church control of members, De la Torre said that La Luz del Mundo closely supervises the community in Hermosa Provincia, requiring individuals to seek permission from church members known as "guardians" to travel or study outside the area. The guardians monitor attendance at daily religious services and contributions by members, who are required to donate at least 10% of their salaries.

But La Luz del Mundo churches outside Guadalajara are not as strict, De la Torre said.

A Counterattack Against Church's Foes

Stung by the attacks, La Luz del Mundo is fighting back. In a rare appearance recently at the church's modernistic temple in Guadalajara--a building as tall as the planned Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles--Joaquin lashed out at his enemies.

"What do they want? To turn this temple we built into a dance hall, a home of prostitution!" he thundered. When he asked if the church would be destabilized by the accusations, the congregation cried, "No!"

Church members have published a book and made up posters attacking Joaquin's accusers. La Luz del Mundo representatives say critics are intolerant of their faith, which is based on a strict interpretation of the Bible and frequent attendance at religious services marked by singing, weeping and, sometimes, speaking in tongues.

"We think there's an effort to stop the growth of religious groups like ours," said Silva, the church spokesman.

It's hardly surprising that La Luz del Mundo would suspect it's being persecuted. Mexico's Catholic Church, which counts about 85% of the population as members, has reacted with hostility to the rapid growth in recent years of evangelical churches, which it calls "sects." Membership in the small churches grew more than 50%, to 3.5 million, from 1980 to 1990, according to the latest available official figures.

"Sects, like flies, need to be gotten rid of," was the analysis of Girolamo Prigione, the Vatican's former envoy to Mexico.

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