Priest at center of North Beach church sex scandal speaks out 

Monsignor James Tarantino has spoken out about an alleged sex scandal at the North Beach shrine next to his residence, saying his reputation has been ruined and his character humbled.

But, he insists, he is not bitter and hopes that all involved find peace and healing.

The San Francisco native had spent 33 years building a sterling reputation as one of the local Roman Catholic Church's finest priests -- a religious résumé that includes rebuilding Marin Catholic High School into an academic powerhouse as its president and transforming a sleepy and rundown Catholic parish in Tiburon into a vibrant community with an active school as its still-revered parish priest.

And now, at 62, with a terminal illness returning after first appearing nearly 40 years ago, his name is connected with an alleged sex scandal at the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi.

"It's unfortunate," he said during an hourlong interview with The San Francisco Examiner, his first with media since the scandal broke at the Vallejo Street church that adjoins his residence. "After decades of hard work, my reputation is ruined."

"But," he said, "I'm not making it about me. I'm not a victim here."

He says he is neither angry nor bitter. Tarantino said he prays every day for Bill McLaughlin, the former volunteer and friend of Tarantino's from St. Hilary's in Tiburon who is accused by former shrine employee Jhona Mathews of using her for sex.

And he prays for Mathews, too, he says, the woman who accuses him of knowing all about the sordid situation.

At times, Tarantino, a San Francisco native who grew up near Monterey Boulevard, does sound agitated, if not angry.

"To embroil me in this is ridiculous," he said. "I was never there [at the shrine] ... I just live here.

"I feel bad for them. I feel bad for the great people at the shrine who worked real, real hard. And I feel bad for the church -- it's another black eye for the church. It's very sad."

Nearly everyone who knew Tarantino in Marin and in San Francisco speak very highly of his abilities as a preacher, of his personal charisma, and of his acumen as an administrator.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone thought highly enough of him to name him the archdiocese's vicar-general -- in charge of the day-to-day dealings for churches and Catholics from Monterey to Eureka. And the church hierarchy thought highly enough of him to grant him the honorific title of monsignor -- an honor since abolished, except in rare circumstances, by Pope Francis.

Tarantino has resigned that post and will return to the role of a humble parish priest in July, at a new posting in Belmont.

It may be his last.

"I don't know how much time I have left," said Tarantino, who said he was first diagnosed with cancer and given four months to live -- at age 23.

He doesn't regret working with McLaughlin, an outsized man with a "strong personality" who often rubbed people the wrong way, to whom he has not spoken since the scandal broke.

Nor does he have hard feelings for Angela Alioto.

It was Alioto whose vision of St. Francis as part of a greater religious complex clashed with the presence of Tarantino, who lived at the rectory that was supposed to be part of a Franciscan think tank. Tarantino said he had "no idea" that he was trampling on the plans of Alioto, who has made her dislike of the priest known.

"At the end of the day, this is about power," Tarantino said. "This is about power and ego and authority. I mean, my goodness -- it's about winners and losers and who's going to be on top."

But at the end -- of a storied career, and perhaps his life -- he is taking the ordeal as a final lesson.

"In order to grow a little bit more humble before the Lord, you have to be humiliated,” he said. “This is a great humiliation for me, but hopefully it will make me a better priest and a better person."

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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