Man at center of North Beach church scandal welcomed despite checkered past 

  • Mike Koozmin/s.f. examiner file photo

In a Roman Catholic Church routinely accused of sexual wrongdoing, the San Francisco archdiocese has a distinction: it has been dragged into scandal not by a priest, but by a lay person.

Here, the most-recent sex accusations at a church are centered around a self-styled real estate developer, who gained the trust of priests and fellow worshippers despite a checkered past that includes alleged financial improprieties and a litany of lawsuits.


Before Bill McLaughlin came to San Francisco to become chair of the shrine's board of trustees, he left a trail of lawsuits and accusations behind him in Marin County, including allegedly stealing money from a former Tiburon mayor's campaign fund, according to court records.

Therese Hennessy, who served on the Tiburon Town Council from 1995 in 2001, did not call police after she learned her campaign treasurer, McLaughlin, wrote 15 checks to himself from the campaign fund in 2000, she swore in a deposition Feb. 7.

She confronted him and demanded he return the money -- and he did. But then Hennessy turned to McLaughlin's friend and confidante at St. Hilary Catholic Parish, Father James Tarantino.

She says she told the priest that McLaughlin was untrustworthy and was involved in other schemes that defrauded Marin residents out of their money. She added that McLaughlin "should not be placed in a position of having access to church funds," she said in the deposition.

When Tarantino came to The City to work as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's chief deputy in 2010, he chose as his residence the empty and available rectory next to the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. There, McLaughlin made a mark as its most-active lay volunteer.

And now, 14 years later, the duo are defendants in a lawsuit filed Jan. 29 in San Francisco Superior Court. The suit claims McLaughlin allegedly hired and used for sex Jhona Mathews, a 33-year-old single mother.

According to Mathews' lawsuit, she and McLaughlin had sex on church grounds, including in the sacristy. She also claims that McLaughlin spanked her with a wooden paddle allegedly gifted to him by Tarantino, who she says knew all about the illicit liaison and did nothing to stop it.

Mathews was fired from her job at the shrine in November. She is also accused of embezzling as much as $100,000 from the institution.

The lawsuit garnered worldwide attention, and it is the culmination of a lengthy drama over control of the church between leaders and former Supervisor Angela Alioto.

It is also the most recent in a series of legal actions taken against McLaughlin.


After arriving in San Francisco, McLaughlin built an image for himself among the worshippers and other shrine volunteers as a "millionaire with rough edges" who others could count on to get things done. People came to know him as a retired wealthy land developer who, when not caring for a disabled son, steered the shrine through a lengthy list of rebuilding projects, a volunteer role he also filled while at St Hilary's.

But the reputation that he left behind in Marin County, where he developed Seminary Ridge in the Strawberry area, was different.

Parts of his life across the Golden Gate Bridge are elusive. McLaughlin reportedly attended planning and Town Council meetings in Tiburon during the 1990s, but he was never registered to vote in the county, according to voter registration records.

Addresses on file at Marin County Superior Court show that he lived in waterfront homes in Tiburon, yet McLaughlin never owned any property under his own name and does not to this day, according to records on file with the Marin County Assessor's Office.

And as a renter, he was not beloved, according to Cathy Larson, owner of the Belvedere Land Co., a real estate firm.

"Did he pay his rent on time? No," she said Thursday. "Would I have him back as a tenant? No."

Other parts of his dealings there are better-documented. As a developer, he was sued more than 20 times in a five-year period, with the court leveling eight judgments against him for unpaid bills, courts records show.

Those who ran up against McLaughlin, a large man who has been said to have a forceful personality, say he could be brusque or overbearing when crossed.

"He was an outlaw," said Mert Lawwill, a retired motorcycle racing champion who lives next to St. Hilary Catholic Parish.

It was at that church Lawwill had run-ins with McLaughlin during the building's reconstruction in the early 2000s over access rights to a driveway.

"He was a complete jerk," Lawwill said. "The only happy thing about [the lawsuit] is that he's finally being exposed."


In another instance, Mill Valley resident Victoria Heiges said she paid McLaughlin $12,500 to draw up plans for a new home and to secure permits for construction, according to court records. He never did, and when Heiges discovered McLaughlin was not a licensed contractor, she sued him to recover part of the money, records show.

She wasn't the only one: A lumber company, a wrecking crew and a flooring company were some of the eight companies or people to whom the court awarded damages following soured business dealings with McLaughlin, records show.

Before his company, Emerald Bay Construction, had its business license suspended by the state of California, it was fined $6,000 by the California Labor Commission for not paying its employees workers' compensation benefits, records show.

The company also racked up more than $120,000 in unpaid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service for business income reported in the 1990s, filings show. There is no record of that debt being paid.

Another McLaughlin-owned company, Emerald Bay Development, held interests in properties in San Rafael before the properties went into default, were foreclosed upon and sold at auction, Marin County assessors' records show.

McLaughlin had about $30,000 in tax liens placed against him by the state Franchise Tax Board in 2005, but these were listed as paid off in 2009, the same year McLaughlin's father died.

McLaughlin's attorney, Jonathan Bass, who also serves as a shrine trustee, did not comment to The San Francisco Examiner.


When Hennessy, a former Tiburon mayor, warned Tarantino about McLaughlin, the priest was mindful, but did not distance himself from his busy volunteer.

"When you hear something like that, what does one do with it?" Tarantino told The San Francisco Examiner.

The priest also noted that McLaughlin was never arrested or charged with a crime.

"I am told many, many things ... I took what she said to heart. I filed it," Tarantino said.

The relationship between McLaughlin and Tarantino did extend beyond the church's physical walls. McLaughlin was a part of a group of St. Hilary's parishioners -- all men -- who took Tarantino out to eat. It was from this group, dubbed Boys Night Out by some participants, that McLaughlin was gifted a fraternity-style paddle inscribed with the message, "To Bill M. From Fr. T."

It is alleged in Mathews' lawsuit that McLaughlin spanked her bare bottom with the paddle as punishment.

Another Tiburon man and St. Hilary's parishioner, Bill Osenton, told The Examiner that he gifted the paddle to McLaughlin without Tarantino's knowledge.

When the priest found out about the paddle, he laughed it off as a harmless gesture marking the "mutual admiration society," Tarantino said. "I didn't think much of it ... I don't think anyone did."

McLaughlin's efforts as a volunteer at St. Hilary's won him some trust from Tarantino. And when McLaughlin followed Tarantino to North Beach, the same rigorous activity as a volunteer also won him respect from other St. Francis faithful.

As recently as last fall, McLaughlin hosted these new friends from San Francisco at an "enormous" home with a spacious yard and a pool in Kentfield that visitors assumed was his own, according to St. Francis attendee Kathleen Hewtson, who said she visited the home several times.

Now, with McLaughlin gone from the shrine, Mathews fighting her legal challenge after being fired herself and Tarantino requesting a transfer, there are lingering questions about the rise and fall of McLaughlin.

Hewtson, though, has some insight. The priests with whom McLaughlin held sway were also physically vulnerable: Father Greg Coiro, the shrine's past pastor, is suffering from kidney failure, and in addition to living with cancer, Tarantino has had a stent put into his heart.

With the trusting holy men ill, McLaughlin "took advantage" of them, Hewtson said.

"He took advantage of a poor, innocent priest ... and he defiled the church."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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