In a time of trials that have tested the will of the faithful worldwide, the Roman Catholic Church in San Francisco has emerged relatively unscathed.
The sex abuse scandals staining archdioceses in Boston, Los Angeles and now Chicago have had no parallel in San Francisco. Instead, the local archdiocese's reputation has recently been sullied across the world by lurid claims of sexual battery and harassment, all allegedly committed within one of its most sacred spaces.
A lawsuit filed late last month by a 33-year-old woman formerly employed by the church accuses her ex-bosses of harboring a veritable den of sin underneath the roof of a shrine dedicated to The City's patron saint. Jhona Mathews alleges that one of the men, who is in his 60s, hired and used her for sex. And a charming and popular priest who wielded significant influence as the archdiocese's second-in-command let it all happen, the suit claims.
The lawsuit contains lurid details, including paddling the woman's bare bottom, and comes after years of chaos at the North Beach church, including a fight over interring dead pets and a holy order's dismissal from the chapel.
HOUSE OF WORSHIP RICH IN HISTORY
Catholics have worshipped at what's now the corner of Columbus Avenue and Vallejo Street since the Gold Rush days. Once a thriving parish for the Italian-Americans who still lend their culture to the area, damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake and the steady exodus parishioners from the church led the archdiocese to close the Church of St. Francis in the 1990s. It was reborn a few years later in with a new mission, and special status, from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi — the namesake and patron saint of San Francisco.
On a hill that allows it to greet the daily gaggle of guidebook-clutching visitors hiking up to North Beach from downtown, the shrine includes the Norman Gothic church — parts of which date to 1849, and survived the 1906 earthquake and fire — with interior frescoes that depict St. Francis' life. The shrine also includes in an adjoining building the Porziuncola, a scaled-down replica of the tiny stone chapel that St. Francis himself adopted as his own in the early 13th century and that still stands inside a cathedral in Assisi, Italy.
It was at the shrine that Mathews, a 33-year-old single mother who had worked as a clerk at a carpet company in Marin, was hired as an administrative assistant in 2012. Despite having no training and little formal education, she held the job for about a year.
Mathews was fired last November, she alleges in a lawsuit filed Jan. 29, after refusing to continue to submit to the sexual demands of Bill McLaughlin, a 67-year-old Marin construction contractor and volunteer chairman of the shrine's board of trustees, who allegedly made Mathews submit to routine “oral, anal, and vaginal sex” as conditions of her employment.
(Scroll down to read the full text of the lawsuit.)
These acts were allegedly consummated in the church's sacristy, a private area behind the altar generally only open to priests and select attendants. “Punishments” were delivered to Mathews via bare-bottomed spankings with a wooden paddle when she resisted, the lawsuit claims.
That fraternity-initiation-style paddle, according to the lawsuit, was given as a gift to McLaughlin by Monsignor James Tarantino. Tarantino was named to the position of vicar general, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's chief deputy, after Cordileone's arrival in San Francisco in 2012.
A legend in Catholic circles in Marin County for his leadership at the helm of Marin Catholic High School and St. Hilary Catholic Parish in Tiburon, Tarantino received the honorific title of monsignor and held significant power over the archdiocese's day-to-day operations after arriving in San Francisco in 2010. When not working 12-hour days at the chancellery near St. Mary's Cathedral, he resided in the refurbished rectory next door to the shrine. The lawsuit claims that he knew about the quid-pro-quo sexual relationship between McLaughlin and Mathews but did nothing to stop it.
Church leaders — as well as parishioners who remember Tarantino from Marin — deny most of the allegations in the lawsuit.
Mathews was fired from her job Nov. 6, church leaders say, but for allegedly embezzling a “substantial” amount of money eight months prior to her firing. It wasn't immediately reported to police. The investigation is now with the District Attorney's Office, according to the San Francisco Police Department.
And church brass ousted McLaughlin that same month after they learned of his alleged “inappropriate actions,” according to Larry Kamer, a crisis communications expert who was brought on to the shrine's board of trustees in May 2013. Kamer is now serving as the church's spokesman during the lawsuit.
“She was fired for issues of financial impropriety and for no other reason,” said Kamer, who added that “the church acted quickly and responsibly” in removing both individuals from their posts.
Neither archdiocese officials nor Kamer would give details about what actions resulted in McLaughlin's removal. They also would not elaborate on how Mathews could have embezzled such a large amount of cash months prior — and why Father Harold Snider, the brown-robed Capuchin friar who serves as the shrine's current rector, waited until Nov. 13 to file a police report at nearby Central Police Station about the alleged theft.
A STRUGGLE TO SAVE SOMETHING SACRED
The current imbroglio implicates the church Angela Alioto, the daughter of a former mayor, calls her own. But it does not vex her, though perhaps it should. Catholicism is at the heart of the former San Francisco supervisor's identity. The trial attorney and daughter of one of The City's most famous mayors, her sons, daughter and grandchildren are all named after popes and saints.
Alioto has family ties to Tarantino, whose father worked with her uncle at the Alioto-Lazio Fish Co. near Fisherman's Wharf. They share Sicilian heritage. But San Francisco is a small town — and North Beach is a smaller village. Upon Tarantino's arrival at the shrine, which Alioto considers her home turf, they tangled almost immediately.
Alioto has a special, unique love for St. Francis, to whom she fondly refers to in conversation as “Francesco.” She tells why: Away at school in Italy at the age of 15, with a period of partying among the fashionable boys of Florence ended by her parents, a sulking Angela arrived in Assisi. On a cold, windless day, she made an unwilling pilgrimage to the church where St. Francis is laid to rest — and was greeted by a warm breeze that she said was the breath of the Holy Spirit blessing her.
Since then she has considered herself not merely Catholic. “I am a Franciscan,” she proclaims with a beatific wave of her arms. This means charity to the poor and homeless, medical care for all — and honoring the patron saint of her hometown.
It was Alioto in the late 1990s who began the campaign to reopen the shuttered church as a shrine to St. Francis, she said, raising more than $2 million from Dede Wilsey and others among The City's gentry. And it was Alioto who formed a volunteer group dubbed the Knights of St. Francis to watch over the Porziuncola and the church, to welcome visitors and shoo away vandals.
The knights would also have some dominion over the rest of her vision for the area: A planned pedestrian piazza on the block of Vallejo Street that would be closed to traffic and link the church with nearby Caffe Trieste, and a Franciscan University of Political Thought in the run-down rectory next door.
Alioto's clout helped the shrine receive a papal blessing from Cardinal William Levada, who served as archbishop of San Francisco when she was at the height of her political power in the mid-1990s, as well as a prized relic — a piece of St. Francis's original shrine, on display now. But her outsized personality — she is a self-proclaimed “loudmouthed Sicilian woman” — helped lead to the beginning of trouble at the shrine.
Upon his arrival in San Francisco in 2010, Tarantino as vicar general chose the run-down rectory next door as his residence. That building, too, was renovated and retrofitted, with the work overseen by alleged sexual abuser McLaughlin, who also managed construction work at St. Hilary's as a volunteer.
That thwarted Alioto's plans for the Franciscan think tank. So Alioto clashed with the newly arrived priest and his active layman friend about who exactly had sway over what went on at the shrine, according to accounts from both sides.
And she was not winning. Along with the Porziuncola, Alioto had opened a shop of St. Francis-themed religious gifts and trinkets — called Francesco Rocks — set up in the basement of the shrine beginning in 2011. In a May 2013 letter from Tarantino, the shop was told to vacate the premises by July.
At the same time, the shrine grabbed international headlines for something that had nothing to do with St. Francis. After the shrine's designation, great cost was expended to make the building seismically safe — money spent by the archdiocese on a church that is splendid but, as the sparsely attended Masses show, not self-sufficient.
The idea to make the basement of the church into a pet columbarium — a final resting place for the ashes of dogs, cats, and other animals that the wildlife-loving St. Francis might have appreciated — came from McLaughlin, according to news reports. The idea received Cordileone's blessing, and could have raised as much as $125,000 toward keeping the church afloat, church newspaper Catholic San Francisco reported at the time.
The pet cemetery idea made Alioto furious. From there, things worsened. A friendly priest who had served as the shrine's rector, in charge of day-to-day doings, was reassigned. The new Capuchin friars put in his place put down new rules: any religious activities conducted at the shrine needed approval from the archdiocese — that is, Alioto says, from McLaughlin, a daily presence at the shrine while Tarantino worked long hours at the archdiocese chancellery offices. Meanwhile, Monsignor Tarantino, a talented preacher (his sermons are available online as podcasts) began celebrating a Sunday evening Mass at the shrine in early November.
With the new overseers, Alioto was out. But not down.
In an October letter to the top Vatican officials in the U. S., she accused the shrine's new leadership — “Monsignor Tarantino and his right-hand man, 'Bill'” — of forcibly removing members of the knights as they tried to pray in the chapel.
A war of words ensued, played out in local media. The church seemed to gain the upper hand. On Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis, the Capuchin friars began a new docent program that made the knights superfluous. Then, the final straw: The next day, a sign appeared on the shuttered door of the Porziuncola announcing that it was “temporarily closed.”
“I can put up with a lot,” she says, recounting the tale of the time that the front of her childhood home in Presidio Terrace was “blown off” by a bomb possibly intended for her father, then-Mayor Joseph Alioto. “But when you kick the Knights of St. Francis out, you have a problem with me.”
NEARER THE CHURCH, THE FARTHER FROM GOD
Tarantino oversaw only a few drama-free Masses at the shrine before alleged victim Jhona Mathews was fired Nov. 6. A week later, Father Harold Snider, who became the shrine's rector in the summer, went to police to report that a massive amount of funds had gone missing in March.
Then, on Nov. 18, Mathews filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging that a “violent” and “abusive” McLaughlin had used her as his sexual plaything for the prior year.
The details of her accusations, repeated in the Jan. 29 lawsuit filed by attorney Sandra Ribera — the daughter of a former San Francisco police chief who has litigated several cases with Alioto — and in news outlets around the world, read like a salacious novel: rough sex in the church and sacristy, sexually explicit emails and text messages, including photos of a bare rear end reddened by blows from a wooden paddle.
The paddle — engraved with the initials “BNO,” for “Boys' Night Out,” and the words “To Bill M. From Fr. T.” — has been a focus of news reports. And it's the paddle that enrages Tarantino's defenders.
“This is a really wonderful man, vilified,” said Tiburon resident Bill Ostenton, a close confidante of Tarantino's from his tenure at St. Hilary's who claims that he gave McLaughlin the paddle without Tarantino's knowledge. “The only thing that Father Tarantino did at St. Francis was live there.”
Mathews said she took the job in order to provide for her daughter on McLaughlin's suggestion, and was hired despite a legal history that includes credit card fraud, according to church officials, with little formal education or training and no knowledge of the Catholic religion or church. She is now destitute and legally homeless as she sleeps on friends' couches, according to Ribera.
Tarantino, too, has moved on since the scandal allegations first broke.
On the day Mathews' lawsuit was filed, church officials announced Tarantino's removal from his role as Cordileone's vicar-general. That powerful post allowed him great control over the day-to-day doings of the archdiocese while Cordileone — disliked by some of The City's liberals, Catholic and apostates alike, for his active support of gay-marriage ban Proposition 8 and, more recently, his opposition to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in November — concerned himself with the national stage.
Beginning in July, Tarantino will serve a much more modest role of parish priest at a church in Belmont, residing in the rectory on Vallejo Street in the meantime. On vacation in Hawaii, he could not be reached for comment last week. In the meantime, Alioto and her Knights of St. Francis have returned. She held court in the Porziuncola on a recent morning, talking eagerly of an upcoming trip to Rome to meet with Vatican officials.
There is even talk of welcoming the current pope, Francis, to the shrine.