SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The state Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld the convictions of a New Mexico religious group leader for sexual misconduct with teenage followers.
Wayne Bent, 72, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for criminal sexual contact with a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Bent’s son, Jeff, said the ruling will be appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court.
“I feel he was railroaded at trial. He is my dad and I have known him all my life to be a man of spotless integrity,” the younger Bent said in an email statement. “He may be guilty of being controversial but he is not a sex offender.”
The elder Bent was convicted for lying in bed with naked 14- and 16-year-old sisters in separate incidents in 2006. He and the sisters testified that nothing happened sexually and that the incidents were spiritual exercises.
Bent also testified he had placed his hands on the girls’ sternums rather than their breasts.
Bent is the leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church. He claims God spoke to him in 2000 and told him he was the Messiah. His followers live in a compound that they call Strong City, in a rural area in northeastern New Mexico near Clayton.
The Court of Appeals tossed out Bent’s convictions in 2011 because a grand jury’s term had expired before he was indicted in 2008.
However, the state Supreme Court reinstated the convictions last year and sent the case back to the Appeals Court to resolve other challenges.
The Appeals Court rejected legal arguments by Bent, including that he didn’t receive a fair trial because his lawyer failed to raise the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in his defense. The law prohibits government agencies from restricting a person’s free exercise of religion.