Image: Wayne Bent
The Lord Our Righteousness Churc  /  AP
Wayne Bent, 67, the leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church in New Mexico, has described himself as the Messiah.
updated 12/15/2008 8:17:37 PM ET 2008-12-16T01:17:37

An apocalyptic religious sect's leader was convicted Monday of criminal sexual contact with an underage girl in an incident he called a spiritual healing exercise.

Wayne Bent, 67, was found guilty of one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He is the self-described Messiah and leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church in New Mexico.

"Just as with Jesus, they've convicted an innocent man," Bent said after the verdict.

Bent, who calls himself Michael Travesser, faced two counts each of criminal sexual contact of a minor and contributing to the delinquency of a minor in allegations involving two sisters, ages 14 and 16, in 2006. He was acquitted on the criminal sexual contact charge involving the younger girl.

His court-appointed lawyer, Sarah Montoya, said she hoped he would allow her to appeal.

Bent testified last week he placed his hand on the sternums, but not the breasts, of the teenagers as they lay naked with him in separate incidents. He said he was careful that the spiritual healing exercises with the sisters not take a sexual turn.

The younger girl, now 17, said in an interview after the verdict that she was happy to hear Bent was cleared on the more serious of the counts involving her.

"It was a religious healing experience for me. ... It had nothing to do with sex," she said. "It had to do with healing to my heart."

Bent: Part of God's plan
Bent said the verdict was part of God's plan. "These encounters with these two girls were intended to offend your world and make you mad and convict me," he said.

His son, Jeff Bent, said church followers were not discouraged. "It's just part of our prophetic time that we're in," he said.

Wayne Bent has said he probably would not eat if he went to prison and that he wouldn't expect to survive the experience. His son said he would regard the verdict "as a death sentence" for his father.

Prosecutor Emilio Chavez told jurors in closing arguments the case was not about religion and that Bent must be treated like anyone else.

"The state's not saying any of this was for sexual gratification ... we are not saying his beliefs are wrong ... we are treating Mr. Bent the same as anyone else," the prosecutor said.

Bent was allowed to return to Strong City, the sect's compound near Clayton, pending sentencing on Dec. 29. He could face up to a dozen years in prison.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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