BLANCO, Texas — Pilgrims by the thousands have navigated the winding roads to Christ of the Hills Monastery for more than 20 years to witness a miracle, a painting of the Virgin Mary said to weep rose-scented tears.
Now five of the order's monks are under indictment, charged with sexually assaulting boys; the tearful icon has apparently been exposed as a fake; and lawyers for the state have moved to take possession of the 105-acre compound, calling it "contraband" used during the commission of felonies.
"That wasn't a church," Blanco County Sheriff William Elsbury said recently. "It was a pedophile factory."
In the farming community of Blanco, about five miles northeast of the monastery, residents had always had their doubts about the monks. "Maybe it was because you didn't have proof, just a feeling that something was wrong," resident Amy Elrod said. "They were out of town just enough to where it wasn't right in front of you."
But the Virgin Mary brought tourist dollars into town, and no one here raised much of a fuss -- even after a 14-year-old said in 1999 that two monks had abused him two years earlier. Those monks, both of whom are accused in the current case, were found to have committed indecency with the boy.
"You suspected more of them were involved, but they didn't get caught until now," gift shop owner Charlene Pace said. "They didn't seem like real monks. It was creepy."
In July, the monastery's founder, Samuel Alexander Greene Jr., 62, was charged with felonies including sexual assault of a child starting in 1993, money laundering and fraud. Also charged are William Edward Hughes, 55; Walter Paul Christley, 44; Hugh Brian Fallon, 40; and Jonathan Irving Hitt, 45.
Greene and Hitt were the two involved in the indecency case. Hitt was convicted in 1999 and is serving 10 years in prison; Greene, who has congestive heart failure, pleaded guilty in 2000 in a deal for 10 years' probation.
The alleged victims in the current case, then ages 15 and 16, had been receiving religious training at the monastery.
According to court documents, the boys were given drugs and alcohol and instructed to perform oral sex or participate in orgies.
Four of the monks have pleaded not guilty. Hitt has not yet entered a plea.
A onetime real estate pitchman, Greene set up the monastery in 1981. When investigators raided the enclave in 1999, Elsbury said, they found about 10 firearms and "a liquor cabinet to rival the governor's" in Greene's trailer. "They claimed to live a monastic lifestyle, but a select group of six or eight lived like kings, while the rest were in dirty sandals and looked like they ate grasshoppers," he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia -- which had accepted the monastery in 1991 -- cut ties with the monks in 1999.
According to the court papers in the current case, Greene implicated himself and his fellow monks: When he failed a lie-detector test meant to monitor his behavior on probation -- he is forbidden to have contact with children -- Greene said it was because he felt guilty about previous actions. Greene then described episodes of abuse, naming monks and boys, the court documents say. Two of those he identified as victims agreed to press charges.
The brothers of Christ of the Hills Monastery -- with their long hair, scraggly beards and black robes -- had been a curiosity in Blanco for years. They came into town, bought groceries, kept to themselves and said little.
Residents said they had often seen the monks at the post office opening mail and putting charitable donations into haphazard piles.
The attached notes were sometimes thrown in the trash unread, Pace said.
"They seemed very interested in the money," she said.
But with the arrests, the fact that the painting's tears were faked cannot be denied, Elsbury said.
"It's a scam. They would go in there at different times out of public view and place tears on there with an eyedropper," the sheriff said. "They got a lot of people snowed."
In July's raid, authorities recovered a bottle of rosewater and bags of cotton balls -- the raw materials for souvenirs that were sold as tears that had dripped from the painting. Each cotton ball carried a $3 price tag.
The monastery complex is deserted now. Outside the double-wide that was Greene's living quarters, empty wine and beer bottles lie scattered. A silvery spire atop a small church glints in the sun. St. Anna's Cafe, advertising espresso, juice and snacks, is shuttered.
But a small open-air shrine near the monastery exit still offers the faithful an opportunity to pray -- and make a donation. A glass bowl is filled with pennies. Prayers scrawled in ink cover a wooden shelf. Some are specific: "Help my husband stop drinking please. Amen"; others are a simple plea -- "Por Favor."
Pace hopes the latest scandal will shut the doors of Christ of the Hills for good. "They're a blight on our pretty little town," she said.