State trying to seize Christ of the Hills Monastery property

BLANCO — The state is trying to seize Christ of the Hills Monastery, claiming in court filings that the religious enclave is “contraband” because it was used in the commission of money laundering, theft, fraud and child molestation offenses.

A notice of seizure was filed Wednesday on the 105-acre parcel outside Blanco that’s owned by Ecumenical Monks Inc.

The founder and spiritual leader of the monastery, Samuel A. Greene Jr., took issue Thursday with it being called contraband, saying, “I don’t believe it is.”

A nonprofit formed in 1972, Ecumenical Monks Inc. lists its president as William E. Hughes, also known as Father Vasili, and Greene as secretary-treasurer.

The monastery followed Eastern Orthodox traditions but has not been affiliated with any denomination since 1999, when an autonomous U.S.-based branch of the Russian Orthodox Church cut its ties with the monks there.

District Attorney Sam Oatman’s bid to take the property follows the July 25 arrests of Greene, also known as Father Benedict, and four followers on charges of sexual assault of a minor and engaging in organized crime related to the alleged assaults.

All of the defendants remain behind bars except Greene, who also faces a charge of sexual performance of a child. He was released on a personal recognizance bond due to poor health and is not allowed back on the monastery property. He is living in hotels in Johnson City and Blanco.

Hughes, 55; Walter P. Christley, 44; and Hugh B. Fallon, 40, have pleaded not guilty and are being held on $250,000 bond each at the Blanco County Jail.

The fifth defendant indicted July 24, former monk Jonathan Hitt, is serving a 10-year term on a 1999 indecency rap.

As in the new case, that charge concerned a former novice’s claim he was repeatedly molested by senior monks.

The previous complaint also saw Greene plead guilty to indecency in 2000 and receive 10 years’ probation. The youth and his attorneys split just under $1 million in a lawsuit settlement reached in 2002.

The seizure initiative and sexual assault cases are among several new legal scrapes involving the monastery, which opened 5 miles southwest of town in 1982.

The hilltop sanctuary once housed about a dozen monks and drew thousands of pilgrims weekly, but now is largely deserted.

When the few visitors who still come hear of the recent uproar, “they can’t hardly believe it,” said Tom Flower, a friend of Greene who’s been caretaker of the site since the recent arrests.

Its main drawing card, a painting of the Virgin Mary that was said to cry tears of oil starting in 1985, was seized when dozens of law officers with warrants swarmed the monastery before dawn July 25.

Getting his first look at the monastery that day, prosecutor Oatman expressed surprise at its state of disrepair and said, via cell phone from there, “How anyone would bring their children up here to get involved with these people is beyond me.”

The raid arose from a probation officer’s interview with Greene last year in which Greene reportedly admitted molesting children since the 1970s and said the weeping icon was fake, said Blanco County Sheriff Bill Elsbury.

Investigators from the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Postal Service were called in because the icon was advertised in mailings and on the monastery Web page, which helped raise up to $750,000 in annual donations from the faithful.

Flower, an Anglican priest who’s long supported Greene and vouched for the icon’s legitimacy, is still reeling from Greene’s admission that the icon is fake.

“I confronted him. I said I want to know the truth, were the tears real or phony? And he said they were phony,” a dejected Flower said. “I believed it all these years. I really did. I believed it firmly in my heart. I can’t tell you how upset I am.”

Flower said he didn’t ask Greene about the molestation allegations. Greene declined to comment on the icon or the current charges.

Another former novice monk this week filed a lawsuit, claiming he was molested in the late 1990s by Greene, Hughes and Christley, also known as Father Pangratios.

James B. Wright Jr., 25, said in his suit that his parents sent him in 1996 to the monastery “for spiritual enlightenment and maturity.”

Instead, the suit states, the defendants supplied Wright with marijuana and alcohol and used him to gratify their sexual desires until he left in 1999.

The monks were negligent and breached their duty to safeguard him, the suit states, and perpetrated a fraud by claiming to provide him a religious-based education.

Also named as defendants are Ecumenical Monks Inc., which denied the allegations in court filings, and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

A lawyer for the New York-based religious group said her clients were duped by Greene and his followers into admitting them as clergy in 1991, but severed ties with the monastery in 1999 when it learned of problems.

“We firmly believe there was a concerted effort to deceive the church,” said attorney Lin Hughes.

“It just never occurred to (church leaders) that these people who appeared to be living a religious life would lie under oath, much less break their religious vows,” she said.

Just this month, Hughes said, her clients reached a confidential financial settlement with another man who claimed he was molested while living at the Blanco monastery in the 1990s.

While maintaining the church was not liable, she said, “If it’s cheaper to settle than it is to defend, you settle.”

Wright’s attorney said his client, who is not the novice whose claims led to the recent arrests, did not object to being publicly identified.

The attorney, Mark Long, said he hopes the arrests lead to the monastery’s demise.

“The icon’s a fraud and several young boys have been molested there, so what was the purpose of the monastery to begin with?” Long said. “It sounds like a place set up to scam people and for some of the monks to recruit young people to molest. It’s horrible.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Antonio Express-News, USA
Aug. 11, 2006
Zeke MacGormack

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday August 12, 2006.
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