Charges trigger mistrust of monastery

Author: Zeke MacCormack
Date Published: 10/24/1999

BLANCO – Although they’ve always stood out in their black robes and frizzy beards, the monks from Christ of the Hills Monastery appeared to enjoy a peaceful coexistence with their Hill Country neighbors here – until recently.

In the months since two monks in January were charged with sexually abusing a monastery student, an undercurrent of public distrust has found a voice against the hilltop enclave famous for its Virgin Mary icon said to cry tears of scented oil.

”If the Lord was going to send a miracle, he wouldn’t send it to old Sam Greene,” Johnson City resident Robin Hildebrand said, referring to the monastery’s spiritual leader, Sam A. Greene Jr., who calls himself Father Benedict.

And documents filed in connection with a $60 million civil suit brought by the boy’s mother against Greene and five others indicates the monastery’s critics go well beyond just talking.

Monastery signs routinely are stolen, shrines there have been vandalized and motorists trying to find the monastery are intentionally misled about its location, according to a sworn affidavit filed in support of a motion to move the upcoming civil trial to another county.

”In one particularly sacrilegious act, an Icon of Christ was removed from its shrine, thrown on the ground and intentionally run over with a vehicle,” Walter Christley, known as Father Pangratios, said in the affidavit.

For their part, prosecutors in the trial of Jonathan I. Hitt, who with Greene is accused of indecency with the 12-year-old student in1997, have not shied from casting aspersions about alleged improprieties at the religious community five miles southwest of Blanco.

”Many of the goings-on out there are inconsistent with a monastic lifestyle,” Assistant District Attorney Tom Cloudt said in an opening statement for Hitt’s trial last week at the Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City. The trial resumes at 9 a.m. today.

The prosecutors point to a decision by the Russian Orthodox Church to break relations with the monastery after alleged improprieties were brought to its attention.

Church attorney Lin Hughes said the Synod of Bishops, which made the decision, was rebuffed by Father Benedict in their efforts to investigate the issues.

”If you’re going to be a member of the congregation, you follow what the Synod of Bishops says to do” she said.

But District Judge Guilford Jones III has limited testimony about monastery practices to evidence directly tied to the complaint by the boy, now 14, who alleges he was abused by Hitt, known as Father Jeremiah, several times in 1997.

The boy’s direct testimony against Hitt seemed to gain weight from accounts from two ex-monastery employees who testified they saw Hitt and the boy in bed together in 1995.

Another witness, a monastery housekeeper, testified that only one of the two twin beds in Hitt’s room was disheveled on mornings after the boy had spent nights in the room in 1997.

But none of the evidence has shaken the belief of monastery supporters such as Tom Fellow (***SEE CORRECTION BELOW***) that Hitt and Greene are innocent.

”I don’t believe him,” Fellow, 68, said of the youth who lived at the monastery from age 8 to 12. A former San Antonio resident, Fellow now runs a ministry for the homeless in San Francisco.

He expressed doubts about the truthfulness of the ex-employees and said there are entirely appropriate reasons why Hitt may have been in bed with the boy.

Hitt may have been comforting the boy after nightmares, he said. And Fellow said Greene, a longtime friend, would not mistreat a child.

Contrary to what Cloudt told jurors last week, Fellow said tears from the icon have never been sold at the monastery.

”Anybody can have as many as they want,” he said. ”That’s the total truth.”

Greene was a San Antonio land broker in the 1970s known for his colorful subdivision advertisements. He reportedly founded the monastery around that time and moved it to Blanco County in 1980.

Jones has barred any comments to the media about the boy’scomplaints by all parties, including Greene, who is awaiting trial.

But Fellow, who is staying at the monastery during Hitt’s trial, said Greene is disheartened by the allegations, the recent death of his mother and disparaging remarks about the monastery.

”All of this has come down on him at once, and it’s very traumatic on him,” Fellow said of Greene.

No trial date has been set for the lawsuit, which alleges the religious community is ”a haven for pedophiles and drug dealers. ”Monastery lawyers have denied the suit’s allegations.

The criminal charges and the media’s response to them have angered monastery supporters such as Archimandrite John Hegumen, a longtime friend of Greene and the leader of a Russian Orthodox monastery in Fort Myers, Fla. (***Pokrov note: John Heguman” is ”Heguman John (Lewis)***)

”I’m watching my faith be mocked and everything I stand for be ridiculed,” said Hegumen, who also said his black robe and cap have drawn looks of ”scorn” from Blanco County residents.

The defense has accused the boy’s mother of getting him to concoct the allegations as revenge for Hitt’s refusal to become romantically involved with her. She denied that on the stand last week.

But a former friend, Alma O’Hayer, testified Friday the mother told her she was deeply in love with Hitt.

O’Hayer, under questioning by prosecutors, acknowledged she doesn’t want the monastery to be closed or the crying icon to be relocated, but she said she would travel to see it wherever it was.

”I think it is a very holy thing,” O’Hayer, 45, said.

The defense also has elicited testimony that the boy caused such problems at the monastery that he was once flown home at the monks’ insistence but returned later.

CORRECTION 10/26/99:
The name of a supporter of an Orthodox Christian monk on trial in Blanco County on charges of child molestation was misspelled in Monday’s editions. He is Tom Flower.