Monk’s sex trial to begin today

Author: Dick Stanley
Date Published: 08/02/1999

Second Orthodox monk said to be too ill for trial on indecency with a child charges

The first of two Hill Country monks accused of indecency with a child is scheduled to go on trial today in Johnson City.

Jonathan Irving Hitt, known as Father Jeremiah, faces nine felony counts involving a 13-year-old former novice, or candidate monk, at the Christ of the Hills Monastery near Blanco.

Hitt could receive as much as 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.

The trial of the second monk — Samuel Alexander Greene Jr., the monastery’s 54-year-old founder known as Father Benedict — has been postponed indefinitely because of a congestive heart failure problem.

“He’s not in good enough health to stand trial,” said Eva Walla , administrator to state District Judge Gilford Jones of Burnet, who will preside over Hitt’s trial.

Hitt, 37, is the financial officer at Christ of the Hills, which has been famous since 1985 for a painted icon of the Virgin Mary that monastery officials say weeps myrrh. They claim the myrrh, a fragrant oil, has miraculously cured blindness, cancer and other diseases.

The monastery was aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia until July, when it was expelled by the church’s New York-based governing body for reasons unrelated to the criminal cases.

Greene and Hitt have pleaded innocent to the criminal charges, but they and their lawyers are unable to discuss the accusations because Jones has imposed a gag order on all parties to the case.

“I think (Hitt) is innocent until proven guilty,” said Michael Kinsey , a former classmate of Hitt’s at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin.

Since their arrests in January, Hitt and Greene each have been free on a $50,000 bond raised by friends and family in San Antonio and Austin. The two were indicted in February on three counts each, charging that in the summer of 1997 they compelled an adolescent novice to touch their genitals.

The monks were reindicted in July to add six more counts each of exposing themselves to the novice, who has since left the monastery.

Lin Hughes, an Austin lawyer representing the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, said Christ of the Hills was expelled after monastery officials rebuffed a financial audit sought by the church.

Pursuit of the audit, which began before the criminal charges were made against Greene and Hitt, grew out of concern about the monastery’s promotion of the weeping icon — in mailings, e-mail, newspaper ads and on a Web site — which has drawn thousands of people from all over the country.

Viewing of the icon — even soaking up the myrrh with cotton balls — is free of charge, but the monks maintain a gift shop filled with expensive Orthodox religious items imported from Greece and Russia.

Greene and Hitt, as well as 12 novices, monks and priests, and one nun at the monastery all are converts to Orthodox Christianity.

They are part of what religious scholars said is a recent trend in which thousands of Americans have converted to Eastern Orthodox religions.

The conversions are said to reflect a yearning for Christianity’s roots, and for Orthodoxy’s majestic rituals, which include incense and colorful painted icons of Jesus, Mary and saints.

Hitt, a graduate of the University of Texas who grew up in Austin, obtained a master’s of divinity from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin before he converted to Orthodoxy.

Greene, a New York native, is a former Roman Catholic monk who founded Christ of the Hills in 1972 in San Antonio as a non-denominational home for Christians seeking a monastic experience of contemplative poverty.

He later moved the monastery to the Hill Country, first near Boerne in Kendall County, and in 1980 to its present location on a desolate hilltop near Blanco, where it soon joined the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.