Blanco monastery guest guilty of child molestation
Express-News Staff Writer
BLANCO -- A third man linked to Christ of the Hills Monastery has been convicted of child molestation for offenses that occurred in Florida before his arrival at the religious enclave southwest of town in 2003.
Gary M. Sabino, 47, faces a mandatory life sentence after being found guilty late Thursday of two counts each of capital sexual battery and lewd and lascivious molestation, said Eva Vergos, who prosecuted the trial in Pasco County, Fla.
Sabino abused a friend's three daughters during overnight stays at his Holiday, Fla., home in 2001 and 2002, she said Friday.
After jumping bail in 2003, he was captured last October at the monastery where he'd spent 20 months as a guest and laborer.
Following years of fallout from indecency convictions against two of their membership, the local monks were dismayed to be caught in the dark shadow cast by Sabino.
"If I'd have had even the slightest inkling that he was hiding from the law, especially for that reason, I would have turned him in in a second," the monastery's abbot, Father Vasili, said Friday.
"He wouldn't tell us why he was here," he said of Sabino.
In taped interviews played for jurors in the Florida trial, Sabino said he told the Blanco monks he'd come there to avoid his ex-wife, Vergos said.
The revelation that Sabino took refuge in a place where child abuse had previously occurred "certainly makes you raise an eyebrow," she said.
As many as 14 monks once stayed at the monastery known for its "weeping icon," a painting of the Virgin Mary said to cry tears of rose oil.
These days, visits by "pilgrims" are down, finances are tight and only five monks remain, including Samuel A Greene Jr., who founded the monastery in 1980.
"We do have a hard time and every time someone like you writes one of those articles, it gets worse," Vasili said.
Consorting with fugitives or kids is barred by probation terms for Greene, aka Father Benedict, under his 2000 plea deal on nine counts of indecency.
He and Jonathan Hitt, aka Father Jeremiah, sexually abused the same novice monk in 1997. Greene pleaded guilty after Hitt was convicted at trial of eight counts of indecency and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In 2002, the monastery settled a suit brought by the youth for nearly $1 million.
Authorities didn't pursue revocation of Greene's probation because they believed his claim that he didn't realize the guest the monks knew as "Michael" was a wanted man.
"The first inkling we had that anything was wrong was when law enforcement came and took Michael away," said Father Pangratios, monastery spokesman.
Sabino was a parishioner at St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Church in Tampa, led by the Rev. Steven Sunderland, who studied theology at the Blanco monastery in the early 1990s.
Sunderland acknowledged helping Sabino secure bail and an attorney. He denied any part in his flight, but said he'd often spoken fondly of Blanco to parishioners.
"I did not know where he was," Sunderland said Friday. "I was so happy when he was arrested. I thought he was dead and at least it put my mind at rest that he was alive."
But prosecutor Vergos said Sabino told police that Sunderland knew he'd gone to Blanco. And Vasili said he once pressed Sunderland during a phone call to explain why Sabino was in Blanco.
"He said, 'You'll have to ask him,'" Vasili said. Sunderland denied any such conversation.
Both Vasili and Sunderland recalled Sabino as an extremely hard worker. "The guy was almost manic in the amount of work he did here," Vasili said.
Sabino faces a mandatory life term on the sexual battery charges when sentenced Aug. 5, and up to 30 years on the other two counts, Vergos said.
He awaits trial on a charge of lewd and lascivious molestation, based on a complaint by another girl who said he abused her at his home, Vergos said. email@example.com
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