Blanco Monks Face Sex Assault Charges

By Zeke MacCormack
Expess-News [Blanco TX]
July 25, 2006

BLANCO — A bid by Samuel Greene Jr. to clear his conscience instead implicated the controversial founder of Christ of the Hills Monastery and four followers in alleged sexual assaults of two boys there in the 1990s, authorities say.

Dozens of local, state and federal investigators swept into the religious enclave at dawn Tuesday with indictments returned Monday and a warrant to search the 105-acre site for evidence of sexual misconduct, said Blanco County Sheriff Bill Elsbury.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a complete fraud," he said of the monastery that opened in 1981 and housed a so-called "weeping icon" that once attracted thousands of pilgrims each week.

An affidavit filed in support of a search warrant quotes Greene, who's on probation for indecency with a novice monk in 1997, as admitting he'd molested untold numbers of boys since the 1970s.

The new charges concern another former novice monk who claims he regularly was assaulted starting in 1993 by Greene, aka "Father Benedict," and the other four who were indicted.

The affidavit by Deputy William Smith says Greene justified the alleged abuse and believed "the boys enjoy the sexual activity and that he is actually helping to guide and direct otherwise troubled youths."

It says Greene, 61, rationalized his past conduct by saying "the reason he was able to avoid criminal charges all these years was that God was on his side."

Before opening the Eastern Orthodox Christian monastery in 1981, Greene was known around San Antonio for his colorful real estate pitches on television and radio as "Sam the Land Man."

Drawing on his business expertise, the monastery launched a sophisticated marketing campaign — centered on the weeping icon — that tax records show brought in as much as $750,000 some years.

The raid capped a yearlong investigation — which is still ongoing — that Elsbury said unfolded amid tight secrecy due to fears that evidence might be destroyed or that investigators could face resistance if word leaked out.

"The monks were totally surprised," District Attorney Sam Oatman said by cell phone from the site Tuesday evening.

"We're taking the icon into custody as we speak, as a criminal instrument, as part of the fraud that we're investigating for grand jury presentation," he said.

Elsbury said deputies tracked down two former novice monks named by Greene as victims last year in an interview with his probation officer, Wynn Stevenson.

The affidavit says the men, whose names are not being released, confirmed being sexually abused by Greene and other monks as boys.

"A1 in his recorded statement described actual orgy situations," says the affidavit, referring to the complainant.

Ironically, Elsbury said, Greene gave the incriminating statement in an effort to reassure Stevenson he was abiding by the terms of his probation.

Elsbury said Greene was asked to take a polygraph test, and failed, last July in the wake of reports — never substantiated — that he'd been around kids while on probation.

"His claim to his probation officer is that he had not reviolated, but what was causing the bad (polygraph) result was the guilt from all the things he had done in the past," Elsbury said. "(Stevenson) said, 'OK, purge yourself and we'll retake the test. Get it off your chest.'"

Stevenson secretly recorded the interview in which Greene admitted molestations dating back to the 1970s, Elsbury said.

Besides naming the two boys tracked down by investigators, Elsbury said Greene confirmed suspicions that the picture of the Virgin Mary that was said to weep tears of rose oil was a fake.

"The whole thing is going to be exposed as a sham," the sheriff said. "They just put the tear drops on there themselves and then got all these people making donations trying to get some kind of miracle cure."

The indictments returned Monday evening by a specially convened grand jury concern only one boy's complaint.

The arrests may mark the final chapter for the troubled religious community that once bustled with visitors and 14 monks but has taken on the feel of a ghost town of late.

About 35 law enforcement personnel converged on the dusty hilltop monastery at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, including local deputies, several Texas Rangers, evidence technicians from the Department of Public Safety and agents of the U.S. Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service.

Federal authorities were involved since donations to the weeping icon were solicited over the internet and through the mail.

Elsbury said Greene was convalescing in Austin from a recent car wreck when charged Tuesday with sexual assault of a child, organized crime and sexual performance by a child.

Arrested without incident at the monastery was its abbott, William E. Hughes, 55, aka "Father Vasili," Walter P. Christley, 44, aka "Father Pagratios," and Hugh Brian Fallon, 40, aka "Father Tihkon," each charged with organized crime and sexual assault of a child, Elsbury said.

Also indicted on those charges was Jonathan Hitt, 45, aka "Father Jeremiah," who's serving a 10-year sentence for abusing the same boy that Greene pleaded guilty to abusing in 2000.

Bond was set at $250,000 each, but due to health issues, Greene was released on a personal recognizance bond. Arraignment was set for July 31.

An elderly ward of the monks was transferred to a nursing home, and one monk, identified as Father Moses, was not implicated in the investigation and was allowed to remain at the monastery.

Many locals had expressed their doubts about the weeping icon and the bearded, black-robed monks who largely kept to themselves.

The monks had reacted to Hitt's jury conviction by saying he'd been falsely accused by a novice who'd proven his untruthfulness in his years at the monastery. They cast Greene's guilty plea as a gambit by an innocent man to avoid prison.

To casual observers, the sordid episode closed in 2002 when the former novice's lawsuit against the monastery was settled for about $1 million.

But Elsbury said his own suspicions never subsided.

"We kept a constant look at these individuals," he said Tuesday. "It was a matter of us believing that there's criminal activity ongoing out there."

Doubts about the monks were fueled by the arrest there in 2004 of Gary Sabino, who was wanted in Florida on child molestation charges. The monks claimed not to know why Sabino, an acquaintance of a past monastery resident, had chosen to take refuge there.

Vasili contended the whole monastery had unfairly been cast under a cloud of suspicion due to the misdeeds of a few.

"We do have a hard time, and every time someone like you writes one of those articles, it gets worse," he said after the arrest of Sabino.


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