Tucked away in the desert, not far from the prison in Florence, Arizona, there’s a mysterious, multi-million dollar religious compound that’s drawing criticism.
For the past 8 months, the Eyewitness News 4 Investigators have been documenting several families’ claims of brainwashing and inappropriate teachings at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery.
Under the condition that we wore the proper attire, we accepted an invitation inside the monastery in the hopes of uncovering this mystery.
DAVID SMITH: “I was looking, at the time, for a mystical side to religion. He was reported to work miracles. To have capabilities to read people’s thoughts and to levitate when he prayed. To heal people…”
David Smith, a former student, is referring to Father Ephraim, the leader of St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery.
It’s been said, Ephraim’s followers heard bells ringing when they stepped on this land — a signal to build, right here, on 106-acres.
This kind of beauty, architectural and natural, in the middle of Arizona is rare and so are the stories you’re about to hear.
From these religious grounds, there are tales of tormented families and anti-Semitic innuendo.
From across the country, parents came to the Investigators, desperately seeking help. Three families, two of which are Greek Orthodox, traveling, on their own dime, to Tucson.
They say, the leadership at St. Anthony’s Monastery is controlling their kids – kids like Niko Pantanizopoulos.
JOHN PANTANIZOPOULOS.: “Their brain is run by the monastery. They can’t read whatever they want to read. They have to ask for permission for everything they do.”
The father of Scott Nevins.
ASHLEY NEVINS: “They become more elusive to you. What they’re being told… They become more, maybe even deceptive if you will.”
And the mother of Paul Aleck.
MARY LOU ALECK: “They’re taking these young people in such a vulnerable part of their life and sucking them in to this… monastic way.”
A way of life, the parents say, has put their children through dramatic changes.
Take a look at Scott Nevins when he graduated high school. This is Scott two years later, at the monastery.
All of the parents say their children have been put through a process.
ASHLEY NEVINS: “You’re the frog in the kettle and they slowly turn the water up and before you know it you’re boiled… And the frog didn’t jump out because he didn’t see the heat change. That’s what happened to our son.”
David Smith spent 3 years in and out of St. Anthony’s Monastery.
He says, he was told to live with his wife like brother and sister. He also says, his spiritual advisor, Father Ephraim’s second-in-command, told him to whip himself when he thought of sex.
DAVID SMITH: “He told me I should cut the electrical cord, which I did, and he told me to do it on an inconspicuous part of my body. I chose, you know, my upper thighs.”
All of this may seem bizarre, but religious experts say it’s all very typical of monasticism. It’s how novices and monks are disciplined in their religion.
What’s not common, the experts say, are some of the other claims.
DAVID SMITH: “In confession, I was told about the protocols. It’s where I was taught that the end of the world is coming, that there’s a shadow government that controls the United States, that FEMA had concentration camps set up to destroy families with.”
The Eyewitness News 4 Investigators found, Father Ephraim himself makes reference to The Protocols of Zion. That’s a book that claims there’s a secret Jewish conspiracy for world domination.
In one of his own writings, Father Ephraim references the Protocols. He calls the Zionists “infamous” and the Protocols “notorious”, but, religious experts say, any reference at all to that writing goes against Greek Orthodox faith.
FATHER ANTHONY: “No, no. It is. It is a lie. And I am sure it is a lie.”
Father Anthony led the Greek Orthodox Church in Tucson for 30 years.
He admits he helped Ephraim build the monastery in Florence. He believes Ephraim is misunderstood.
TEDESCO: Why can’t Father Ephraim speak on his own behalf?
FATHER ANTHONY: “Because he is Father Ephraim. He’s not going to play those games that people… they like to play.”
And when asked about the families, torn apart, Father Anthony said, the parents need to look within themselves.
FATHER ANTHONY: It’s very easy to criticize someone else because I didn’t do my job as a parent, as a priest, as an individual in my country, or anything else.
Within days of our interview with Father Anthony, one of those sons returned home to his parents.
He hadn’t spoken with his mother and father in several years.
Meanwhile, we’ve been contacted by hundreds of supporters of the monastery, worldwide. They say the claims are false and Father Anthony is adamant, the accusations are a lie.
He says the monastery prays for Israel and the United States every day.