The Church of St. Francis in North Beach is a San Francisco landmark. To some Catholics, followers of the humble and gentle saint from Assisi, it’s the landmark, the church named after the namesake of this city. It’s been designated by Catholic Church officials as the national Shrine of St. Francis, and it’s home to a spectacular replica of the Italian chapel called the Porziuncola, where the Franciscan order was born.
It’s also the center of a battle over the use of the shrine, control of the Porziuncola – and, in larger sense, control of the property and operations of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, a powerful institution run by conservative clerics in a liberal city.
At the center of the battle are Monsignor James Tarantino, who as vicar of the archdiocese controls all of the Church’s extensive real-estate holdings, and Bill McLaughlin, chair of the Shrine Board of Trustees. The two, along with Rev. Harold Snider, who is in charge of the Shrine of St. Francis, have been involved in a struggle with former Sup. Angela Alioto and the Knights of St. Francis, on organization she created, over the future of the Shrine and the Porziuncola, which would not exist if Alioto hadn’t raised the millions of dollars it took to build it.
And while all of this has been going on, a former church employee who worked at the Shrine has filed a complaint with the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging that she was fired because she refused to continue having sex with McLaughlin.
The complaint by Jhona Mathews, filed Nov. 18, alleges that she faced discrimination because “I would not continue sexual favors in order to keep my job.” It states that, as a single mother, she needed the job in the Shrine rectory, where by some accounts Tarantino lives, but “I could not tolerate the sexual demands or physical abuse in order to keep my job.”
In the complaint, Mathews claims that “I had to engage in the sexual demands of Bill McLaughlin, including in the Sacristy on the premises of the Church…. These demands included. … spanking with a wooden paddle, kissing, fondling, oral sex, sexual intercourse, and sending me sexual email images.”
Mathews’ attorney, Sandra Ribera, confirmed that her client had filed the complaint and the allegations involved the chairman of the Shrine board, who Ribera said was one of Mathews’ supervisors.
In a brief conversation at the Shrine, McLaughlin told me that he was a “volunteer,” but would offer no further information. He’s clearly in the Shrine a lot; when I called over the morning of Nov. 21 to ask for him, the receptionist answering the phone said he’s “usually in by 10.”
When I called later, I was told he was in the office – but he declined to come to the phone.
Larry Kamer, a spokesperson for the Shrine, issued a statement saying:
“The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi yesterday received a copy of a complaint filed with the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment by a former Shrine employee, Jhona Matthews. In the complaint, Ms. Matthews alleges discrimination, harassment and retaliation related to the recent termination of her employment.
“We have reviewed the complaint and find it to be completely without merit. Furthermore, we deny Ms. Matthews’ allegations, which are untrue and inflammatory. Ms. Matthews was terminated for cause, but because this is a personnel matter, we cannot discuss it further. Our volunteer Board Chair, William McLaughlin, has asked for a leave of absence from his responsibilities. Mr. McLaughlin believes, and we agree, that this will help assure an objective review of the situation.”
UPDATE: Kamer just got back to me with a new statement saying that “The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi today terminated the service of its volunteer Board Chair, William McLaughlin, and has said it will undertake a comprehensive investigation of alleged improper behavior on the part of Mr. McLaughlin and a former Shrine employee, Jhona Matthews … We have today learned facts that give us reason to believe Mr. McLaughlin has acted in a manner unbecoming of his position. The Shrine has informed Mr. McLaughlin that his services as Board Chair have been terminated, effective immediately.”
McLaughlin is a longtime Tiburon resident who was active in St. Hilary’s Church there when Tarantino was pastor. After the monsignor was promoted to his position in San Francisco in 2010, McLaughlin took on his role at the North Beach Church, where Tarantino says a weekly Mass.
Numerous sources have told me that Tarantino also lives in the St. Francis rectory, but he would not respond to email or phone requests for comment. McLaughlin would only say that the monsignor “might or might not live here.”
For a church already staggering from charges of sexual abuse by priests, the implications are deep, and raise questions about who is allowed to supervise employees and how closely church officials were watching what went on in the Sacristy of the Shrine of St. Francis.
Tarantino is a leader in the Charismatic movement, a branch of Catholicism that involves faith healing and speaking in tongues. He conducts regular masses for Charismatics and is often a speaker at Charismatic Revival events.
The Charismatics, who spring from Protestant Pentacostalism, are sometimes (perhaps uncharitably) referred to as “holy rollers.”
As the head of the property office, Tarantino is responsible for overseeing the use not only of ecumenical facilities but of the secular real estate the Archdiocese owns. That’s created some tensions; El Tecolote, the Mission District newspaper, has reported that the Archdiocese is moving to evict Latino family-owned businesses to make way for more upscale outfits that can pay higher rent.
He is also in charge of the work that’s going on at the Shrine of St. Francis – a project that’s created a fair amount of controversy.
The Archdiocese took out a permit in July, 2013, to build a pet cemetery – actually, a columbarium, or a resting place for the ashes of cremated pets – in the basement of the church. The permit lists no licensed contractor; instead, it states, the work will be done by “the owner.”
Now: I’ve visited the site a few times, and I’ve never seen Monsignor Tarantino hauling out dirt or pouring concrete. It’s clear that contractors have been hired to do the work.
That’s technically legal: The “owner builder” law just requires the owner to certify that he or she is willing to take full responsibility for any legal problems – for workplace injuries to faulty workmanship – that may occur on the site.
That paperwork was signed by Tarantino.
A number of complaints have been filed with the Department of Building Inspection, alleging that the excavation work exceeded the scope of the permit, that the stairs to the church were cracking because of the underground work, and that work was being done without permits. The Department of Building Inspection thus far has issued no citations.
There’s also a complaint that work this extensive can’t be done on an historic landmark without a detailed environmental process. The City Planning Department is investigating that allegation – and on Nov. 14, DBI suspended the building permit at City Planning’s request.
I tried unsuccessfully for more than a month to get the Archdiocese to allow me to interview Tarantino, so a couple of weeks ago I got on my bicycle and rode out to North Beach. I rang the doorbell at the rectory door at 624 Vallejo, and was buzzed in.
At the top of the stairs, a man who identified himself as McLaughlin blocked my path and asked what I wanted. I asked if I could make an appointment to interview Monsignor Tarantino.
“You’ll have to go through the Archdiocese,” he said.
But the monsignor lives here, right? I asked.
“He may or may not live here, but you’ll have to contact the Archdiocese,” McLaughlin said.
I asked him if he was supervising the construction work, and he refused to answer, saying only that he was a “volunteer” at the church.
Kamer, a public-relations professional who is the spokesperson for the Shrine (and serves with McLaughlin on the Shrine board) told me he’s pretty sure that Tarantino does live in the rectory.
McLaughlin’s a bit of a mystery. He has very little of a trail on Google; one story mentioning that a man named Bill McLaughlin played a minor role in a Ponzi scheme in Tiburon (he was never charged with any crime or implicated in any criminal activity) and another discussing his efforts to save pets after Hurricane Katrina.
He was a major benefactor of St. Hilary’s when Tarantino was pastor. He’s been a part of several different companies in California, most of which no longer have valid corporate charters, records at the Secretary of State’s Office show.
But he’s generally kept a fairly low profile.
And he’s very involved in the project to build the pet columbarium.
McLaughlin’s been quoted in the Chronicle saying that the resting place for animals could attract new people to the church: “A lot of people I know mourn for their pets as many mourn for people.”
It’s an odd concept for strict Catholics: The Church doctrine is very clear that pets can’t be buried in a Catholic cemetery because pets don’t have souls. In fact, the Church for years was very lukewarm on the notion of cremation, since Catholics believe in the resurrection of the body.
But theology aside, the pet columbarium could be a big money-maker: Niches in the columbarium will involve substantial contributions and the Shine’s website lists more than $100,000 worth of “donation opportunities.”
BIG FIGHT OVER LITTLE CHAPEL
The Feast of St. Francis this year fell on the first Friday in October, a day that Catholics celebrate the holy sacrament of the Eucharist. It was also the last day that the Knights of St. Francis, the group formed to guard and manage the Porziuncola, was allowed to do its job at the little jewel of a chapel.
The Porziuncola Nuova is a near-exact replica of the spiritual home of St. Francis, and it took Alioto more than a decade to raise the millions of dollars to duplicate the Italian chapel, just outside Francis’s home village of Assisi.
There’s no doubt that the Porziuncola in San Francisco, which sits next to the Church of St. Francis, is a huge tourist attraction. And it exists entirely because Alioto, who went from a successful career in politics to a very successful and lucrative career as a civil rights trial lawyer, decided to make it happen.
She put a substantial amount of personal money into the effort and personally raised the rest. And when it was ready to open, in Sept. 2008, she formed the Archconfraternity of the Knights of St. Francis to maintain and protect the place. The Knights were given approval by William Levada, then the archbishop of San Francisco, and for four years, they staffed the place every single day.
But as time passed, the church hierarchy began attempting to take control of the Porziuncola – and ultimately, the Knights were kicked out. When I first visited in early November, the place was locked up while new “docents” were being trained to do what the Knights had been doing, successfully, since the opening day.
The hostility some on the Archdiocese began showing to Alioto was stunning. A church bulletin put out June 23, 2013 contained a message from the outgoing rector, Father Gregory Coiro denouncing Alioto and saying she has been “a source of disrespect, dissonance, division, distortion, delusion, dishonesty, disdain, derision, disinformation, duplicity, destruction, detraction and discord.”
Remember: The entire Porziuncula project, which also will involve a street piazza in front of the church, would never have happened without Alioto.
I asked Kamer if that bulletin actually reflected the Shrine’s position on Alioto, who worked for years to keep the church open when the Archdiocese was ready to close it. He hasn’t gotten back to me.
Alioto was stunned by the bulletin, but she makes no apologies for her efforts to preserve the Knights and their role as guardians of the Porziuncola. And she makes a point that’s as telling any anything in this tale.
The Church is run by men, very conservative men who, for example, opposed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and continue to fight against same-sex marriage.
“In my whole life, I haven’t ever felt like I was discriminated against because of my gender,” Alioto said. “But when I think about all of this, if I were a man I think it all would have been different.”