Court documents obtained by The San Francisco Examiner also show a person who has been battered by circumstances, some out of her control and others of her own doing, throughout a long-troubled life.
In a Feb. 12 ruling rejecting Jhona Mathews’ claim for unemployment benefits, a judge said the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi on Vallejo Street acted properly when it fired the single mother in November for committing a financial crime against a previous employer.
Mathews served 10 days in jail in Marin County in September for the crime, which involved using an Office Depot charge card that belonged to her former employer, court records show.
But according to the 33-year-old’s lawsuit, filed Jan. 29 in San Francisco Superior Court, she was fired from her job of about a year for a much different reason.
That lawsuit contains lurid allegations of a quid-pro-quo sexual relationship between Mathews and her supervisor at the shrine, church volunteer Bill McLaughlin.
Mathews said she was forced to have sex with McLaughlin in the sacristy and submit to spankings with a wooden paddle. She also claimed that church leaders — including McLaughlin, with whom she had the sexual relationship “from the outset of her employment” — fired her Nov. 6 in retaliation for breaking off the liaison with the 64-year-old.
Mathews will appeal the decision, said her attorney, and the civil lawsuit is still pending against the church, a prominent priest and McLaughlin.
Meanwhile, the church has filed a police report claiming that more than $100,000 was embezzled from the shrine during Mathews’ tenure. No arrests have been made and charges have not been filed by the District Attorney’s Office.
But the competing implications are that either Mathews, who as a secretary had some access to the church’s books, or McLaughlin, who has been accused of embezzling money from acquaintances in the past, had something to do with it.
“Bill McLaughlin came in with a game plan to defraud the church and use my client to pin the blame on,” said Sandra Ribera, Mathews’ attorney. “He preyed on her vulnerabilities.”
Those vulnerabilities, court records show, began early in Mathews’ life.
SEXUAL ABUSE, DRUG ADDICTION
Long before the scandal involving the shrine, Mathews had her fair share of hardships. Court records show a life peppered with drug addiction and run-ins with the law.
Mathews never knew her father, and her teen mother, an admitted addict, was unable to care for her. At the age of 3, she was molested by an uncle. Mathews was raped again at 13, this time by her step-grandfather. She even testified at his trial, where he was convicted.
Despite those horrors, Mathews was able to succeed in sports and scholastics in high school in Visalia.
The major turning point that led to her downward spiral, according to court records, came when Mathews was 20 years old. That’s when she found her grandmother — the woman who raised her when her mother could not and with whom she still lived at the time — dead.
Mathews, who said in court records that she tried to resuscitate her grandmother, was subsequently blamed by family members for the death.
Methamphetamine use followed, then a series of crimes to get the cash necessary to support her addiction. At one point, according to court records, Mathews did six months in jail in Alameda County after she was found passed out on a BART train with meth in her purse.
Noting her hard life, several judges at different times gave her a number of second chances. A cycle of jail and rehab began in 2001 and lasted until 2010, when she entered rehab for the final time, court records show.
A nonviolent drug offender her entire life, her lone felony conviction came in 2007 in Marin County when she pleaded guilty to buying expensive sunglasses and other items with a stolen credit card and then returning the pricey goods for cash to feed her drug habit (arresting officers, according to court records, noticed needle marks on her arms).
Before she could start serving that jail term, she and her then-boyfriend were arrested in Arizona with a load of marijuana in their car. She pleaded guilty to trafficking and received more probation time, records show. In turn, she was picked up in San Francisco shortly thereafter for driving a stolen car.
Her roommate at her Potrero Hill home — which was raided by the U.S. Secret Service for reportedly housing a printing press for counterfeit money — bailed her out quickly, court records show.
Mathews was kicked out of rehab for having a relationship with a fellow client. She lost her probation and went back to jail after testing positive for meth and cocaine, court records show.
By the time she entered that final rehab stint Feb. 22, 2010, she had been kicked out of no fewer than three other rehab programs. Mathews was also pregnant.
THE FORGIVENESS BUSINESS
The job at the church, offered to Mathews by McLaughlin after the pair met while she worked for a San Rafael carpet company, was supposed to be redemption: it paid well and offered her now-3½-year-old daughter the stability Mathews never had.
Mathews had pulled her life together enough to make an impression at the shrine during her short time there. She wore flashy clothes, drove expensive cars and turned heads with her 5-foot-8 frame in high heels, said Chris Stockton, another church volunteer.
The relationship with McLaughlin started as soon as the job began, according to Mathews, and was a condition of her employment. She never told anyone about the sex and was powerless to stop it, she claimed, because she desperately needed the job.
Mathews was fired after she cut off the sexual relationship around Oct. 4, she claimed. That was shortly after she pleaded guilty to using an Office Depot charge card that belonged to her former employer.
By Oct. 30, church leaders were planning her exit for reasons that had recently “come to light,” according to an internal church email written by Monsignor James Tarantino, the prominent priest also named in Mathews’ lawsuit.
The email did not specify the reason.
Meanwhile, the scandal has left a vacuum in leadership at the shrine. It’s allowed attorney and former Supervisor Angela Alioto — who first heard Mathews’ story before offering the case to Ribera, who accepted it — to reassert herself as a force. Alioto had clashed repeatedly with McLaughlin and Tarantino since the two arrived at the church from Marin County in 2010.
Now McLaughlin is gone, relieved of his duties, and soon Tarantino will be reassigned to a parish on the Peninsula.
Jobless and awaiting her lawsuit’s initial court date in July, Mathews is bouncing between friends’ homes with her daughter in tow, according to her attorney.