Monk(ey) business ; Sex case unsettles abbey – and cuts intoprofits

Author: Zeke MacCormack
Date Published: 02/17/2002

BLANCO – The faithful still flock to the celebrated ”weeping icon” at Christ of the Hills Monastery, where bearded monks in black robes conduct several services each day in a tiny chapel. But revelations arising from a recent sex scandal at the abbey belie the aura of serene spirituality.

Two monks stand convicted of indecency with an 11-year-old novice monk, and a settlement of nearly $1 million was recently approved in a lawsuit brought by the victim. The monks say they’re grateful the embarrassing and costly episode is behind them while expressing doubts that the abuses ever occurred.

”What we have to do is struggle, with God’s grace, to live the monastic life as best we can, and we leave the rest up to God,” said Father Pangratios, abbey spokesman.

While molestation was the most public offense, church records and sworn depositions assembled for the civil case also contain allegations of homosexuality, blasphemy, violence and pot-smoking, as well as unabashed capitalism.

The documents offer a rare glimpse inside the renegade abbey, where monks displayed unwavering loyalty to a huckster-turned-holy man named Sam A. Greene Jr.

Greene, known as Father Benedict, still lives on the monastery property despite pleading guilty to indecency. He was sentenced to 10 years probation in 2000.

Father Pangratios, a follower of Greene for two decades, sees no problem with the presence of a child molester.

”If he is guilty, he has admitted it publicly, and he is repenting of it,” he said. ”That’s what a monastery is all about.”

Greene still wears the black robes of a monk, but claims he no longer wields any authority.

”Pray for me,” said the portly convict as he shuffled up a ramp to his double-wide trailer, leaning on a walker and breathing heavily from an oxygen tank. He refused to answer any questions for this report.

Lasting alliance

Greene, 57, first came into prominence as a real estate broker whose catchy pitches filled San Antonio airwaves in the 1970s.

Before that, he operated a home for wayward youths in Wilson County called Galilee Boy’s Ranch. It was there that he forged a lasting alliance with a runaway teen named William E. Hughes.

In 1972, the men formed a nonprofit corporation, Ecumenical Monks Inc., with Hughes as president and Greene as secretary/treasurer. The corporation has served as their spiritual and financial vehicle as they shifted affiliation from one organized religion to another.

At the time they bought 105 acres outside of Blanco and opened Christ of the Hills in 1981, they claimed to be Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The modest monastery gained fame in 1985 when scented oil began appearing beneath the eyes of a painting of the Virgin Mary. More than 100,000 ”pilgrims” trekked up the rutted dirt road some years to witness what the hopeful call a miracle but others dub a sham.

Drawing on Greene’s business expertise, a sophisticated marketing campaign was launched using fliers, billboards, Web pages and solicitation letters.

As much as $750,000 a year in donations poured in for Ecumenical Monks Inc., Internal Revenue Service records show. And profits at the abbey gift shop regularly top $100,000 a year. Donors received letters of thanks – generated by computer but designed to appear as personal responses – that included cotton wetted with icon ”tears of myrrh.”

But donations declined sharply after the scandal, with $185,373 netted in 2000, the most recent tax records show. Visitations are also down, said the monastery’s official greeter, 80-year-old Wally Brown.

”It’s coming back a little bit, but it’s very slow, probably about 200 a week,” said Brown, sitting in a chair in the dusty parking lot.

The brotherhood

In 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia admitted the monastery as ”a brotherhood” into its Eastern Diocese. Greene, who’d been cultivating a relationship with the church for years, won backing from Archbishop Laurus of New York during a three-hour visit in 1990.

”They live without special comfort, very sparely, rather simply and primitively,” Laurus reported of the Blanco monks. ”At the same time, one senses in them a good disposition and the desire for spiritual progress.”

Hughes, who goes by Father Vasili, was appointed abbot of the monastery’s 18 monks. It now has eight monks, including Greene.

Greene previously used the title of bishop, but the Russian church refused to recognize his ordination, so they named him the ”spiritual leader” in Blanco. He initially charmed church officials, records show, but he later came into focus as a foul-mouthed taskmaster who ruled in Blanco with a mix of tenderness and terror.

Other aspects of abbey life were worrisome even before it joined the church. A priest who visited Blanco in 1990 advised superiors in New York that he was ”rather cautious concerning the authenticity of the icon.”

And, his letter said, ”There is far too much solicitation based upon the icon and its alleged miracles.”

The monks say nothing is done to make the icon ”cry.”

When serious problems later arose, the church found itself powerless to enforce its will in Blanco because, unlike its other abbeys, Greene’s group had not given its property to the church. The Russian church, which was accused of negligence in the boy’s lawsuit, severed relations with the monastery in 1999.

The monks quickly joined a Ukrainian Orthodox Church based in Kiev, said Hughes. But the abbey’s Web site and brochures still cite ties to its former New York church.

Crime and punishment

In June 1993, a rambunctious 8-year-old called ”SSG” in court records moved from Houston to the abbey, where his parents had wed and he had been baptized. The boy had struggled in school and she was single, his mother later testified, so she turned to the monks for ”one-on-one instruction and some fathering.”

Greene impressed her as ”a very charismatic individual who had a warm and open heart,” said the woman, who declined to be interviewed for this report. Ironically, Greene’s magnetism helped spawn his legal woes when he lobbied those opposed to letting the boy stay at the abbey.

”Father Benedict, being the salesman that everybody talks about, convinced us all that the kid needed help, and we were stupid enough to go along,” recalled Hughes, 51, last month. ”It turned everybody’s life upside down the day that boy arrived.”

The Holy Angel School, now closed, opened under the direction of Jonathan Hitt, known as ”Father Jeremiah.” SSG donned the robes of a novice, a monk in training.

”He really wanted to become a novice,” his mother later testified. ”I thought he was too young to make that decision.”

That view was shared by the Russian church, which later banned novices under 18, and by Robert L. Nichols, a history professor at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota.

”The whole thing sounds to me to be so irregular,” said Nichols, an authority on Orthodox churches in Russia. ”It’s awfully strange to have an 8-year-old boy there.”

That was just one aspect of monastic life in Blanco that Nichols found troubling upon examining church records for the Express-News.

”They don’t even seem to behave as monks,” he said.

‘Elder house’

SSG sometimes stayed in a hillside trailer called the ”elder house,” with Hitt and Greene’s mother, Carolyn. It was there that Hitt climbed into the boy’s bed and repeatedly kissed and molested him starting in June 1997, the youngster testified at Hitt’s trial two years later.

”I felt it was really wrong, but I didn’t say anything,” the boy, now 16, told jurors. ”I was scared.”

The youth confided the abuse to no one, he testified, but Greene soon called him to his trailer to discuss it. ”He said it was perfectly OK and not to tell anybody, especially my mom,” he said.

Not only did the abuse by Hitt continue, the boy told authorities, but Greene began summoning him to lie atop him in bed and be groped. Sensing that her son was being ”polarized” against her, the woman withdrew him in late 1997. ”I felt like he had been very brainwashed,” she later testified.

SSG made his complaint one year later, after hearing kids at his new school discuss homosexuality in a derogatory manner. Hitt denied wrongdoing and called SSG a chronic liar at his 1999 trial in Johnson City, just north of the abbey.

But jurors believed the boy and witnesses who testified that they saw the two in bed. Hitt, now 41, was sentenced to 10 years on eight counts of indecency.

The monks saw the verdict as proof of their contention that a fair trial was impossible in the county where they had long complained of hostility and vandalism. Hughes says that’s why Greene agreed to the plea bargain that netted him a sentence of 10 years deferred adjudication. That means his record will be wiped clean if he completes his probation.

Despite Greene’s sworn admission in court that he molested SSG, Hughes said, ”I personally want to believe that it did not happen.

”He’s still here and we still love him, and that love for him will never disappear.”

The church investigates

The Blanco monks long professed absolute loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, but they repeatedly disobeyed church directives and stymied its attempts to investigate them.

And while church leaders claim that the seriousness of problems in Blanco weren’t known until SSG spoke up, records show they reacted slowly to clear signs of trouble.

Seven months before the first abuse of SSG, the church was warned that the ”abusive” atmosphere in Blanco was cause for scandal.

That assessment came from Father Gregory, who spent three years at the Blanco abbey after transferring there from Milwaukee in 1993. In a Nov. 4, 1996, letter to a superior in New York, he said Greene exhibited ”two very distinctive personalities.”

”He can be a very sweet and loving grandfather-type, showering great affection on those entrusted to his care,” Father Gregory said. ”And almost immediately, he could lose all control and fly into a rage; becoming verbally abusive and using a great deal of foul language to the point of terrorizing those usually younger and weaker.”

Child Protective Services should be called in to protect SSG, he suggested.

Father Gregory also addressed the issue of spirituality, saying, ”Making money and work assignments seem to be more important than the prayer life.”

SSG’s attorney, Larry Doherty, called the letter a ”smoking gun” for his 1999 suit against the New York church and the monks. He sought $270 million in damages for SSG on the grounds of negligence, fraud, assault and the intentional infliction of distress.

Doherty called Christ of the Hills Monastery ”a sham,” and said of its monks, ”They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

He claims that Greene assumed the monastic lifestyle since it is ”conducive to his sexual preference.” Citing his right against self-incrimination, Greene refused to say during sworn depositions if he is homosexual.

Hughes bristled at the ”sham” label and blamed much of the monastery’s troubles on church politics.

”We are an Orthodox monastery and the higher, larger groups of orthodoxy use their power to squelch the smaller groups all the way down the line,” Hughes said. ”History proves that, and that’s what’s going on now.”

That scenario was dismissed by Professor Nichols.

”It seems to me that the Russian Orthodox Church was willing to sponsor them, but then (the Blanco monks) wouldn’t accept any kind of discipline or supervision,” Nichols said.

”You don’t get to do whatever you want.”

Beside the drugs and sexual allegations, which he called bizarre, Nichols said the continued ownership of land by Greene, the real estate license still held by Hughes, the commercialism and the monastery’s power structure are all outside the norm.

”What struck me was that the person who seems to be running the show there is Father Benedict, not the abbot,” Nichols said.

Church officials reached the same conclusion during their investigations of Blanco.

Greene, who served as a church ambassador of sorts, repeatedly eluded direct questioning by claiming ill health, records show.

And, to the end, he vigorously denied any wrongdoing in letters to church leaders. He dismissed Father Gregory’s criticism as the work of a disobedient rumor monger, while touting his value to the church in a land dispute in Israel.

”With the assistance of then-president of the United States, George Bush (who is a personal friend of mine) … I was successful in receiving the assurances from the highest elected official in Israel that the status quo regarding our properties in Jerusalem would be maintained,” Greene wrote to officials in the church.

First victim?

SSG was the first to get Greene into court on sex abuse charges, but records show he wasn’t alone in making such an allegation.

Decades earlier, Hughes accused Greene of improper sexual conduct with him at the boys ranch. He now says that he concocted a false charge out of anger, drugs and peer pressure. But the account, reflected in the deposition of a Wilson County constable taken after SSG’s case arose, still dogs Greene.

And Hughes’ claim that he never had sexual relations with Greene is called into question by a man who says he also was at the boys ranch at the time. In a sworn statement dated June 1, 1999, Anthony F. Cortez said he once interrupted Hughes and Greene as they engaged in sex at the ranch in the early 1970s.

Cortez also claimed that Greene gave him drugs and made unwelcome advances.

”It really screwed up my life,” Cortez said. ”I’m sure there were many other kids who’s life (sic) were messed up due to Sam Greene’s sickness.”

More recently, a second novice at Christ of the Hills shared troubling accusations against Greene with Russian church officials. The youth, who spent a year in Blanco, described regular sessions in 1998 where select monks gathered to smoke pot and listen as Greene heard confessions over a speaker phone.

”Father Benedict would ask the priests and the monks to give a kiss to one of the other monks,” the youth said. ”When this came to me, I would turn away, and I was told that I was homophobic.”

Greene’s response to the accusation – a mixture of indignation and remorse – was typical of the Blanco monks’ replies to inquiries by church leaders.

”While the preposterous charges and innuendo contained in this letter are utterly false, malicious and with no merit whatsoever, at the same time I must repent and beg forgiveness for my sins,” Greene wrote.

Hughes also flatly dismissed the boy’s account.

”I don’t think any minors here are, or ever will be, in danger of anything immoral or illegal,” said Hughes, who signed off by saying, ”I am a worm and not a man. I am guilty of all these kinds of sins and more.”

Tensions escalated in June 1998 when two priests dispatched by church officials in New York were turned away because the Blanco monks objected to talking to married clergy. But sordid allegations shared with the priests by locals, including claims by monks that Greene is clairvoyant, set off alarm bells.

”To be frank,” one priest reported to his superiors, ”(Greene) has all the qualities of a cult leader and has spiritually damaged many innocent people and may continue to be a scandal to our church.”

The church suspended Hitt and Greene in late 1998, but efforts to install new leaders in Blanco were rebuffed. The bishops then voted to dissolve the monastery, but attempts to reassign the monks met with flat refusal in May 1999.

Not the only crime

Law officers say that the molestation of SSG wasn’t the only serious crime committed at the elder house in 1997. A caretaker for the late Carolyn Greene reported finding bruises that March around the ailing woman’s breasts and vagina, said Blanco County Sheriff Bill Elsbury. The sexual assault complaint was validated by the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services.

An agency investigator who questioned the monks reported finding the Beatles’ hit ”Let It Be” on his voice mail upon returning to his office in San Marcos. Elsbury said the case was closed, in large part, because of the stabbing death of a crucial witness, caretaker Joyce Mulvey, in May 1997.

The 80-year-old victim was unable to name her attacker due to mental incompetence, officials said.

James Tenney, Mulvey’s husband, was convicted of murdering her at their home. He was sentenced to 65 years.

Tenney had been a familiar face at the abbey, where he was the handyman.

The settlement

An agreed judgment for $912,500 was entered by the parties to SSG’s lawsuit Dec. 13 in state district court in Travis County, where the case was awaiting trial. The victim received $500,000 under the settlement, with $412,500 going for his legal services and related expenses. Court records don’t reflect the individual obligations of the defendants – the monastery, Ecumenical Monks Inc., the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Greene, Hitt and Hughes.

The church’s insurance carrier paid the full amount after a court dismissed its argument that the damages weren’t covered by its policy written in New York, said Richard Jacobs, attorney for the Russian bishops. The insurers are appealing that decision.

Jacobs said church leaders were confident they could convince a jury that Greene, whom he termed ”a hustler,” had misled them about activities in Blanco. But rather than risk a large award at trial, he said the church settled for what was a nominal amount compared to the $40 million requested by SSG’s lawyer in mediation.

Hughes admits that pot-smoking and other indiscretions occurred at the abbey, but he denied any knowledge of sexual misconduct by monks. He said being sued made the monks realize ”that there were a lot of things that we really did need to change, and those things have been changed to the best that everybody can.”

Still, Hughes said, the scandal unfairly tainted everyone there and nearly bankrupted the abbey, which paid out more than $130,000 in legal fees.

But the unsavory affair hasn’t deterred ”pilgrims” such as Richard Jaimes from seeking miracles and spiritual solace at the abbey.

”I’m aware of it, but my faith is intact,” said the 80-year-old San Antonian. ”I wouldn’t blame the whole religion. We’re all sinners.”

He visited the weeping icon with his sister-in-law from Dallas – who hasn’t spoken since suffering a stroke three years ago – in hopes that it would restore her voice.

”One thing’s for sure,” Jaimes said, ”it can’t hurt.”

zmaccormack@express-news.net