Friday, January 21, 2011

Fugitive priest
Fugitive monk sought in teen's sex assault
Buddhist apparently has fled to Cambodia, officials say
Jan. 20, 2011, 8:55PM
Buddhist monk from Spring who is accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl in his congregation is believed to have fled to his native Cambodia, Harris County Sheriff's Office reports show.

Wat Angkorchum Por Venh, 41, is wanted on two charges of sexual assault of a child. Por Venh is accused of having sex with the teen at his temple from June until September.

The girl revealed she later became suicidal when she learned of his "possible" sexual relationship with another woman, court documents show.

Harris County sheriff's investigators are concerned there might be more victims that the monk could have approached at the Wat Angkorchum Cambodian Buddhist Temple at 16720 Kuykendahl and are asking any girls who may have been violated to contact them.

The monk's attorney had pledged his full cooperation with sheriff's investigators in December only to learn on Jan. 4 that Por Venh had fled the U.S., said Sgt. William Lilly of the Harris County Sheriff's Crimes Against Children Division.

"His attorney and I had met the week before Christmas, and he told me the monk was going to cooperate," Lilly said Thursday. "At that time, he said he still had to sit down and speak with the monk, and he said he would allow him to take a polygraph."

Lilly said the attorney, Cristobal Galindo, had been working to bring in translators so the monk could be questioned by investigators because Por Venh does not speak English.

Galindo then called sheriff's investigators on Jan. 4 to report he had gotten word that his client had fled the country and returned to Cambodia.

Galindo did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the case Thursday.

The case came to the sheriff's office's attention last month after the 16-year-old victim confided to a youth services specialist at Klein Forest High School that she had been having sex with a monk at the temple she attended and that she was in love with him, court papers show.

On Dec. 10, a sheriff's investigator questioned the girl at the school. She told him she frequently accompanied her mother to the temple on Kuykendahl, where her mother would deliver food to the monk because her mother cooked and cleaned for the temple, court documents say.

The girl alleged the monk would take her into his bedroom, where they would have sex, according to court records.

Teen became suicidal
The girl also later told investigators that she was in love with Por Venh but said she was also hurt because she later learned he was "possibly sexually active" with another woman involved with the temple, according to documents.

The girl reported this discovery hurt her because the monk had referred to himself and her as "boyfriend and girlfriend" in previous conversations they had, court papers show.

The girl confided to investigators that she was contemplating suicide by hanging herself or overdosing on pills.

Two charges of sexual assault of a child under 17 years old were first filed against Por Venh on Jan. 14, but both cases were dismissed Tuesday because of a typographical error in the court papers, said Donna Hawkins, a spokeswoman with the Harris County District Attorney's Office. Hawkins said she did not know what that error was.

Both charges were refiled against Por Venh on Wednesday and were on Thursday's court docket, but he did not appear, Hawkins said. He has been ordered held on bonds totaling $40,000.

Por Venh has no previous criminal history in Harris County.

Supposed to be celibate
Like most Cambodian monks in the U.S., Por Venh lived and studied in Cambodia, in the Kandal province, before taking a position at the temple in Spring, said Trent Walker, a scholar of Cambodian Buddhism who studied at the same temple that Por Venh did before moving to the U.S.

Monks like Por Venh live according to a set of Buddhist teachings, the vinaya, which requires them to refrain from sexual intercourse, said Walker, a fellow at the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University. If they do so while still a member of the monastic community, they are expelled and cannot be ordained again in this lifetime, he said.

"Generally, only a limited number of lay people come regularly to the temple to volunteer or offer food, (so) monks develop closer relationships with these people than other members of the community," said Walker, who has no direct knowledge of the criminal case.

"These relationships are almost always respectful and mutually beneficial and contain no romantic or sexual overtones."

Lilly is asking any other girls who might have been victimized by Por Venh to contact him at 713-830-3204.

Chronicle reporter Kate Shellnutt contributed to this report.

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