In testimony, boy says monk made advances

Author: Dick Stanley
Date Published: 10/21/1999

JOHNSON CITY — A former candidate monk at the Christ of the Hills Monastery testified Wednesday in District Court here that Jonathan Irving Hitt, a priest-monk called Father Jeremiah, crawled into bed with him one night at the monastery.

”He kissed me on my neck and my cheeks,” said the boy, now 14, who was 12 when the incident allegedly occurred at the Orthodox Christian monastery near Blanco. ”I didn’t like it . . . I felt embarrassed.”

Hitt’s advances continued in that summer of 1997, the boy testified in a voice so soft that presiding 33rd District Judge Guilford Jones frequently had to urge him to speak louder.

The boy said the advances finally escalated to Hitt’s completely disrobing, fondling the boy and pressing the boy’s body against him. ”I was scared,” testified the boy, who is prohibited by state law from being identified because he is a minor.

The boy’s testimony came on the opening day of Hitt’s trial Wednesday on nine felony counts of indecency with a child, for which he faces up to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. The trial is expected to continue into next week.

Shortly before the boy’s testimony, his mother, whom Jones ordered the media not to identify, testified that she became acquainted with monastery officials through friends. She said the boy was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church at the monastery when he was 18 months old.

When her son later developed learning problems such as mild dyslexia, she testified, she thought the monastery could help.

In 1993, when her son was 8 years old, she enrolled him at the monastery for schooling. He stayed there for more than three years, finally being enrolled– without her knowledge, she testified — as a novice, or candidate monk.

It was something ”he really wanted to be,” she said, although she felt he was too young for a monk’s vows of celibacy and poverty.

”I trusted them to guide him in religious training,” the mother testified, her voice breaking as she began to cry.

Assistant prosecutor Tom Cloudt told the jury during opening statements that Hitt’s sexual advances continued until the boy finally told his mother about them in the fall of 1998. She notified the Blanco County sheriff’s office, and an investigation began.

”The little boy was betrayed by people he trusted,” Cloudt told the jury. ”These are not isolated incidents.”

Cloudt said Hitt is no longer a real priest or a monk because the monastery recently was expelled from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia for reasons other than the criminal charges.

”This was a business, an ongoing business,” Cloudt said of the monastery, famous for its ”weeping icon,” a portrait of the Virgin Mary painted on wood that draws believers from all over the world.

Hitt’s lawyer, Bernard Campion of San Antonio, argued that Hitt still is a monk, regardless of what the Russian Orthodox Church did. ”Being a monk is a calling,” he said. ”It has nothing to do with Russia.”

Campion, in his opening statement, told the jury that the charges were ”outrageous and slanderous accusations” built around the mother’s ”desperate urge to get even” because her own romantic advances on Hitt had been rebuffed.

The boy is ”a manipulator who never accepted responsibility,” Campion said, and the charges were ”about a corrupt desire for money” — a justification for a civil lawsuit the mother has filed against the monastery, Hitt and four other monastery officials and friends seeking $60 million in damages.

One target of the civil lawsuit, monastery founder Samuel Alexander Greene Jr., faces the same charges as Hitt. But Greene’s trial has been postponed indefinitely because of his failing health.

You may contact Dick Stanley at dstanley@statesman.com or 445-3629.