Sad or sinister? Trouble not new for monastery

Author: David McLemore
Date Published: 09/07/2006

Self-styled monks face new charges after child-sex cases in ’99

BLANCO, Texas – Christ of the Hills Monastery is empty now. The hum of insects and an insistent wind are the only sound.

The black-robed monks with their long beards and heavy Byzantine crosses vanished almost overnight, leaving unwashed dishes on the table and their sandals lined up neatly inside the onion-domed chapel. Gone too are the busloads of tourists and spiritual seekers who trekked to
this isolated hilltop for a glimpse of the ”miraculous” weeping icon of the Virgin Mary.

”It’s just really sad what’s happened here,” said Tom Flower, a longtime friend of the monks who volunteered to watch the place. ”It’s really shook me up.”

It shook up a lot of people in Blanco County on July 26 when local and state law officers swooped in by car and helicopter to raid the 25-year-old monastery, taking computers, photos and boxes of monastery records.

Authorities arrested founder Samuel A. Greene, also known as Father Benedict, and three other self-styled Russian Orthodox monks on charges they conspired to have sex with young boys at the monastery from 1993 to 1999. A fifth former monk charged in the indictment is in state prison on a child-sex conviction.

The indictment also alleges that Mr. Greene and the monks engaged in organized criminal activity by using the religious nature of the monastery to defraud the public. All have pleaded not guilty.

William E. Hughes, 55, also known as Father Vasili, and Walter P. Christley, 45, known as Father Pangratios, were released on $250,000 bond. A third man, Hugh B. Fallon, 40, also known as Father Tihkon, remains in the Blanco County Jail.

Mr. Greene was released on personal recognizance because he’s recovering from extensive injuries from an auto accident. He’s been confined to a Johnson City motel and could not be reached for comment. But San Antonio attorney Michael White said his client ”is devastated by the allegations. … His whole world has collapsed.”

During the July raid, authorities also seized the icon, which allegedly wept tears of myrrh, as evidence of the monks’ alleged scheme to defraud the faithful.

Blanco County District Attorney Sam Oatman filed a forfeiture claim on the 105-acre compound because it was believed to be used for money laundering, theft, fraud and child molestation.

An affidavit for the search warrant included comments Mr. Greene made to his probation officer saying that he had engaged in sex with young boys numerous times in the last 30 years.

”We always knew there was more going on than we could prove the last time,” said Blanco County Sheriff Bill Elsbury. ”So we kept our eyes open.”

Previous troubles

For the second time in about seven years, the specter of child sexual abuse marred the monastery’s picturesque Hill Country setting.

Mr. Greene, 61, and another monk, Jonathan Hitt, 45, also known as Father Jeremiah, were charged in 1999 with indecency with a child in incidents involving another teenage boy. Mr. Greene pleaded guilty and received probation. Mr. Hitt was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The monks of Christ of the Hills had ceased being a topic of
conversation, drifting into the background in this quiet ranching town of 1,500. For some, the monks were simply good neighbors.

”If our animals got out, they’d help bring them in,” said Anna Jones, whose ranch is near the monastery. ”When someone was sick, they’d drop by to visit and help out. I was shocked when they were arrested.”

But long robes, religious icons and a distinctly non-Western form of evangelism still strike a jarring note in Central Texas.

”The general feeling in town is that something was a little weird out there but we’re not going to rush to judgment,” said Ann Grimm, who works at Real Food Market, a health food store on the old town square.

Mr. Greene has played a role of part huckster, part saint for much of his life. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he grew up Catholic, claiming at times – without merit – to have taken vows as a Benedictine monk. In the 1970s in San Antonio, he ran a home for troubled teens while hawking Hill Country real estate in cheesy TV ads. He formed a corporation, Ecumenical Monks Inc., and built the monastery about eight
miles southwest of Blanco in 1981.

Four years later, the monks at Christ of the Hills acquired an
Orthodox-style image of the Virgin Mary that they said wept tears of myrrh and had healing powers.

Blanco County authorities say in the indictment that the icon was simply part of an elaborate hoax.

”They claimed the tears from the icon could cure cancer and blindness,” Sheriff Elsbury said. ”And they’d place eyedroppers of oil on cotton balls and offer them to visitors – for a donation.”

Sheriff’s investigators say they learned from former workers that leadership of the monastery ordered requests – and donations – for the icon’s tears be processed and prayer requests be discarded.

More charges may emerge as authorities talk with families whose children studied at the monastery, Sheriff Elsbury said.

Prior association

In 1991, the monastery became part of the New-York based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, an ecclesiastical authority that broke from Russia following the 1917 revolution.

That association ended eight years later following the allegations of child sexual abuse, as did the monastery’s practice of accepting novitiates under age 18 – and as young as 12. The cadre of full-time monks dropped to about seven.

”That year, we received evidence from a mother of a child at the monastery that sexual misconduct had been occurring there,” said Nicolas Ohotin, spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. ”Within 24 hours, the church suspended the clerics and dissolved our relationship.”

Previously, the church had sent priests to Texas to investigate concerns raised about activities at Christ of the Hills, but they never found sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, Mr. Ohotin said.

The current criminal charges against Mr. Greene and the other monks stemmed from a complaint by James B. Wright of repeated sexual abuse by Mr. Greene and the other monks when he was a 16-year-old novitiate at the monastery.

Austin attorney Mark Long, who represents Mr. Wright in a lawsuit against the monastery, the monks and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, said, ”James was the perfect victim … a troubled teenager … put under control of spiritual leaders who taught him that their orders were like God talking to you.”

Mr. Wright’s parents sent him to the monastery in late 1997 because of discipline problems at home, Mr. Long said. According to his lawsuit and his interviews with law enforcement officers in Blanco County, Mr. Wright said that during spring 1998, Mr. Greene began fondling him and requiring oral sex. Mr. Wright was 16.

The sexual activity continued through the year, he told authorities, with Mr. Greene providing marijuana and brandy to induce the boy to have sex with him and other monks. Several times, he told authorities, the monks orchestrated orgies. It continued, Mr. Wright said, until February 1999, when he left. The next year, Mr. Wright joined the Marines and served in Iraq. He left the service in 2003, is married and has one child.

”After all that time, the anguish and guilt James felt continued, until he felt he couldn’t stay silent anymore about what happened to him in Texas,” Mr. Long said.

Mr. Wright’s willingness to come forward greatly helped to kick-start the investigation, Sheriff Elsbury said. Authorities also have interviewed another young man, who said Mr. Greene and other monks sexually abused him in 1993 when he was 12 years old.

In the July 26 affidavit, Deputy William T. Smith cited a conversation in July 2005 between Mr. Greene and his probation officer in which Mr. Greene explained his failure to pass a polygraph exam because of anxiety about his suppressed sexual activity with boys.

He excused his behavior, Deputy Smith wrote in the affidavit, through his belief that ”boys enjoy the sexual activity and that he is actually helping to guide and direct otherwise troubled youth.”

A prior conviction and the confession of extensive history of sexual misconduct with children would appear to make legal representation of Mr. Greene difficult. Not so, says Mr. White, the attorney, who has known Mr. Greene for three decades.

”A lot of innocent people plead to things they didn’t do,” Mr. White said. ”As for the conversation with the probation officer, it’s the third-hand representation of a conversation that we don’t know actually happened.”