Sheriff says quiet monastery hid dark secrets

1999 assault inquiry never ended, Blanco lawman says

Austin American-Statesman/July 27, 2006
By Miguel Liscano

Blanco -- Bill Elsbury sat in a pickup Wednesday afternoon outside the entrance to the Christ of the Hills monastery, where the television vans had gathered again.

Seven years ago, an investigation headed by Elsbury, the Blanco County sheriff, had brought camera crews to the hilltop monastery when its founder and another monk were accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy.

Father Jeremiah went to prison. Father Benedict got 10 years of probation and returned to the monastery, where the monks carried on and the pilgrims continued to visit the weeping icon of the Virgin Mary.

Elsbury said Wednesday that he thought there were more victims but that he couldn't prove it in 1999. So he waited.

"As far as we're concerned, our investigation into their behavior and this type of criminal conduct . . . never ceased," Elsbury said.

This month, Father Benedict - the founder and spiritual leader of the monastery whose real name is Samuel Greene Jr. - told his probation officer in a taped interview that he had sexual contact with boys over a 30-year period starting in the 1970s, according to court documents.

Greene told his probation officer that the boys enjoyed the sexual activity and that he was "actually helping to guide and direct otherwise troubled youth," the documents said. Greene also said he'd been able to avoid criminal charges for years because "God was on his side," the documents said.

Then he implicated four of his fellow monks, saying they participated in sex acts with two teenage boys in the 1990s, the documents said. Investigators tracked down the two victims - one was 16 at the time; the other was 15 or 16 - who confirmed the abuse, the documents said.

On Tuesday, Elsbury and other authorities marched into the monastery, armed with a search warrant. They arrested Greene, 61; William Edward Hughes, 55, known as Father Vasilli; Walter Paul Christley, 44, known as Father Pangratios; and Hugh Brian Fallon, 40, known as Father Tihkon.

All four were charged with sexual assault of a child and organized criminal activity, both first-degree felonies punishable by up to life in prison. So was Father Jeremiah - 45-year-old Jonathan Irving Hitt - who is still serving a 10-year prison sentence for his 1999 conviction.

Greene was released on a personal recognizance bond Tuesday because of poor health, a sheriff's office official said. The other four were being held at the Blanco County Jail on Wednesday night with bail set at $250,000 each.

"This thing is still evolving as we speak," Elsbury said. "I mean, we're still actively pursuing additional" victims.

Greene ran a home for troubled boys called Galilee Ranch in the countryside east of San Antonio in the late 1960s and later became a familiar face on San Antonio television as S.A. "Sam" Greene, selling real estate throughout the Hill Country.

Greene founded Ecumenical Monks Inc. in 1972 for Christian clergy and laypeople seeking a monastic life. In 1981, the group created its hilltop sanctuary on 105 acres near Blanco and aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, but the church broke its ties in 1999, after the investigation.

For nearly 20 years, the monks quietly tended to their gardens and held worship services. They also took in teenagers as novices, or candidate monks. Some came for religious instruction; others were brought by parents hoping the monks could solve behavioral problems.

And they welcomed visitors by the thousands, pilgrims drawn by stories of the Virgin Mary icon that wept tears of myrrh, a fragrant oil. The monks promoted the icon in mailings and on a Web site, claiming that the tears had cured people of cancer and other illnesses.

People around Blanco said they never really saw much of the monks except when they showed up at the post office or the grocery store in their distinctive black robes.

"When I would see them at the grocery store or something, they didn't really talk to anybody," said Sherri Stockman, who owns Real Foods Market & Cafe on the city's square. "They kept to themselves. I figured they were just being monks."

The monastery is a few miles from town, at the end of a dirt road that opens onto two temples, living quarters, a cemetery and a meeting hall. It was empty Wednesday, and the Virgin Mary was gone, seized by authorities as evidence.

Next to the lectern it had stood upon was a donation box with $7 in it and prayer candles that sold for $1. Elsbury said the monks would also sell cotton balls they said were stained with the Virgin's tears: $3 each.

Elsbury said the weeping icon could lead to additional charges for the monks.

"It's just a scam," Elsbury said. "And they bilked many people out of money under false pretenses, playing with peoples' emotions.

"I think we have evidence in our possession that will unequivocally prove that to be a fraud."

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