4 Blanco Monks Plead Not Guilty to Sex Charges
By Zeke MacCormack
San Antonio Express-News
July 31, 2006
Johnson City — Four monks from a monastery near Blanco pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of sexually assaulting a novice monk in the 1990s and engaging in organized crime related to the alleged assaults.
Appearing in court, their black robes replaced with orange jail jumpsuits, were William E. Hughes, Walter P. Christley and Hugh B. Fallon.
Samuel A. Greene Jr., who established the Christ of the Hills monastery in 1981, waived arraignment and entered a not guilty plea through his attorney.
Greene, 61, who is the monastery's spiritual leader and is known as "Father Benedict," also faces a charge of sexual performance by a minor. Freed on a personal recognizance bond because of ill health, he declined comment.
The fifth man indicted July 24, former monk Jonathan Hitt, 45, is serving a 10-year prison term on a 1999 conviction for indecency with a novice monk.
The religious enclave was affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church through most of the 1990s, but church officials broke off the relationship in 1999.
Greene received 10 years' probation in 2000 after pleading guilty to indecency with the same novice monk whose outcry put Hitt, aka "Father Jeremiah," in prison.
Blanco County Sheriff Bill Elsbury says the new charges arose from remarks Greene made to his probation officer about alleged past sexual abuse of boys dating to the 1970s.
Trials are unlikely to occur before next year because evidence seized from the monastery in a dawn raid July 25 still is being examined by local and state investigators, U.S. postal inspectors and Internal Revenue Service agents.
The federal agencies became involved after Greene reportedly admitted that the monastery's famed "weeping icon" — a picture of the Virgin Mary said to cry tears of rose oil — is a fraud.
Elsbury said the monastery used its Web site and mass mailings to solicit donations from "pilgrims" who once flocked to the hilltop sanctuary to pray to the icon.
Hughes, 55, aka "Father Vasili," and Christley, 44, aka "Father Pagratios," appeared before state District Judge Dan Mills and said they're trying to hire attorneys. Fallon, 40, aka "Father Tihkon," asked for a court-appointed attorney.
Afterward, camera crews jostled for position as the three tight-lipped defendants were escorted back to jail, where they're each held under $250,000 bond.
Monastery backers decried the treatment by investigators of the men and the sanctuary they consider holy, as well as the cherished icon's seizure.
"I've never seen anything that would suggest any kind of illegal or indecent behavior, ever," said Lydia, a longtime clerk at the monastery's store who declined to give her last name. "I wouldn't be surprised if tour buses of pilgrims come and pray for the return of the icon."
When authorities raided the monastery in 1999, they brought along a Russian Orthodox bishop from New York in deference to the religious objects and purported sacredness of the site.
But because of findings in that case, no such accommodation was made at last week's raid.
"We didn't make any arrangements to preserve the sanctity of the church because, as far as we're concerned, it's not a church," Elsbury said. "As far as I'm concerned, the whole place is a criminal enterprise subject to asset forfeiture."
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