Joseph Jiang's fight to keep his priesthood
The separate dreams of a new priest, a teenage girl, and an emotional mother—and the damage wrought by a harsh awakening.
IT WAS A BALMY Monday night in June—no school the next morning, life slowing down, fun a priority. So the Maritain* family cheerfully drove all the way from Lincoln County to the Central West End to pick up their friend Father Joseph (the Reverend Xiu Hui Joseph Jiang) and bring him back to their house. He’d already eaten, but he bought the Maritains—Ellen, Tim, and their five daughters—a sausage dinner, plus beer for the grownups. Then they all plopped down on the U-shaped gray sofa, watched Mork & Mindy and Happy Days reruns, and goofed around with Wii Bowling. Because it was so late, Jiang would spend the night, as he’d done twice before, and they’d drop him off in time for morning Mass.
Intensely serious, 30-year-old Jiang was new to the country, the priesthood, and his role as associate pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. He treasured these respites from duty and worry. And when the Maritain girls called him their brother, he felt a rush of belonging he’d never experienced in his own home. Ellen texted him often, checking on his knee surgery or his mood, inviting him out for a bonfire, teasing him out of the solemn priestly role without ever diminishing its importance. The eldest daughter, 16-year-old Laura, had opened her troubled heart to him a year earlier; since then he’d kept a close eye on her, glad to see her depression lift and a bubbly confidence take its place.
He had some bad news for his adopted family, though. They’d been eagerly house-hunting, tired of being crammed into a small ranch house with only one bathroom. Getting a loan might be hard: They’d declared their second bankruptcy two years earlier, their current home had a market value of less than $84,000, and they had credit card debt. So Jiang had come up with an idea: He would buy a house, as an investment, and they could live there for five years while they saved for a down payment. His parents had agreed to send him $100,000, and he had about $30,000 in savings…
On Memorial Day 2012, he’d mentioned this plan to his mentor, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, who’d bluntly called it a foolish idea. Not yet dissuaded, Jiang called his bank. But when he did the math, he realized that he’d never qualify for a mortgage on a priest’s salary. Ellen Maritain had been sending him links for homes, none costing less than $300,000. (One was $425,000, and the text noted, “this house is quite nice and expensive so close to you.”)
Monday night was too relaxed for him to ruin the mood, so he put off telling Ellen until the next day. After the Maritains dropped him off Tuesday morning, they went on to Grant’s Farm, where they texted him photos, including one of a smiling Laura posed with a Clydesdale. That afternoon, Jiang was playing golf with a parishioner. He used the long drive to the course to call Ellen and break the news, he says, and the phone conversation was brief, a little terse: She was clearly disappointed, and he felt bad about letting her down. That evening, he called again, but she didn’t answer. He left a message; no response. Texted several times; nothing. This wasn’t like her. His stomach clutched—was this because of the house? Wednesday evening, he drove to the Maritains’ home.
Ellen and Tim confronted him in the driveway.
Ellen said, “What have you done?”
JIANG CALLED THE archbishop late that night, sobbing so hard, the words were barely comprehensible. “They want to take away my priesthood!”—Carlson made out that much but couldn’t calm him enough to extract anything sensible. “Get some sleep,” he urged. “We’ll talk tomorrow morning.”
Jiang was indeed calmer the next morning, filled with bleak resolve. Carlson could hear snippets of conversation and staticky flight announcements in the background. Jiang was about to fly back to China.
The Maritains had accused him of molesting Laura that Monday evening, he explained. Such an allegation was enough to destroy a priest; it didn’t have to be true. They’d said she was suicidal again and convinced she was going to hell; she’d need psychiatric care, might even have to be institutionalized. He’d asked to see her, hoping she’d clear all this up, but they refused. When he asked what they wanted him to do, Ellen said, “You tell us,” and he blurted, “I will pay for everything.” So he wrote them a check for $20,000 and left it on their windshield with an apology.
The archbishop winced, knowing that to anyone else, that check would look like a clear admission of guilt. Jiang’s explanation was a muddle of hurt feelings and panic: He said he’d realized that all they wanted was money, so maybe if he gave it to them, they’d stop making these accusations and harmony could be restored. And if Laura really was suicidal again, and somehow he was to blame…
“Did you do this?” Carlson asked.
“No! I kissed her, but I kissed all of them! On the cheek, to say hello or goodbye!”
“Then stay,” Carlson said, “and clear your name.”
THE USUAL MECHANISMS kicked into place. The archbishop called and offered a pastoral apology, saying he understood there’d been some kissing. “And touching,” Ellen added sharply. A deacon was charged with investigating. After hearing Ellen’s account, he said this should be reported to police and social services. Ellen said she’d rather it was just handled through the church.
The archdiocese reported it anyway.
When a Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy came to the Maritains’ house, Ellen said she’d gone into Laura’s room on June 19 and Laura had put away her phone a little too fast. Suspicious, Ellen took it and read an email in which Jiang said he “loved” Laura. Ellen and Tim questioned Laura from 9 p.m. until 3 a.m., and Laura eventually told them that Jiang loved her and wanted to marry her, that he’d kissed her with an open mouth and touched her “under her shirt and below her stomach.” To Ellen’s horror, Laura had a new, secret email account; she said Jiang had wanted her to set it up so that they could communicate in private. Ellen said that when they confronted Jiang, he admitted being in love with Laura and pointed, on his own body, to the places he’d touched, indicating the chest and pubic regions.
Laura had been writing about “new affections” exchanged that Monday night—when Jiang and all seven of the Maritains were together in the living room. Most family members remembered Laura sitting on the sofa, with Jiang on her right and Ellen on her left, but farther up, at the end of the chaise extension. The Maritains said Jiang and Laura were covered by a blanket. Laura couldn’t remember how it got there. (Jiang says there was no blanket: “It was June!”)
When Laura was interviewed at The Child Center in Wentzville, she said he’d touched her breast, put his hand beneath the waistband of her shorts, and placed her hand on his chest and stomach. She pointed to the left pelvic bone and said she hadn’t felt “him,” just skin.
Laura was a month short of 17. Arguing that Jiang, as her priest, had been in a position of “care and custody” over her, the Lincoln County prosecutor charged him with a class C felony: endangering the welfare of a child. He was also charged with witness tampering (leaving the $20,000 check as an alleged bribe).
Jiang was stripped of his priestly faculties, placed on administrative leave, and moved to Regina Cleri, a retirement home for priests in their declining years. Parents, parishioners, and other priests in the diocese were all formally notified. The news broke fast: “St. Louis priest is described as predator.”
XIU HUI JIANG (Joseph is his confirmation name) was his parents’ second son, which, in China, meant that his very birth was illegal. He was shuttled between his aunt and grandparents until he reached school age, and then his parents fibbed about his date of birth to reduce the penalty. His older brother, the son responsible for carrying on the family name and making all important family decisions, seemed to have a path cleared for him, his needs and wishes indulged at every step. “Admit it!” Jiang sometimes exclaimed to his parents. “Admit you love my brother more!”
Xiu Hui already knew his own path, though. He’d made his mind up at age 5, when he watched a priest risk his freedom to say Mass in secret for the Jiang family. At 14, Xiu Hui entered a seminary prep school.
One of the priests asked the first-year boys what they’d choose, if they could have any gift from God.
“Martyrdom,” Xiu Hui said.
In St. Louis, it sounds a bit melodramatic. But in China, where Catholicism had been taken over by the state, martyrdom was an ever-present possibility. Priests who remained loyal to the pope had been imprisoned, tortured, or “disappeared.” Xiu Hui prayed to be that strong. He wanted an all-or-nothing faith, not a watered-down practice of convenience.
In 2001, he moved on to the official seminary in Beijing. At the end of his first year, it was announced that two bishops chosen by the government were coming to celebrate Mass. When this happened in 2000, the student body staged a landmark protest. Jiang’s class was sternly asked whether any of them would refuse to attend Mass.
Jiang had already organized a protest with a group of enthusiastic classmates. He stood. Glanced to each side. Slowly turned to look behind him.
No one else was standing.
He’d just made himself a lone target, likely to be kicked out of seminary and maybe even arrested. Terrified, he hid out with family and friends. Then a well-connected missionary secured the pope’s permission to bring Jiang to the States. Carlson, then the bishop in Saginaw, Michigan, agreed to sponsor him.
“Why did you have to do this?” Jiang’s mother wailed. “Why can’t you be like everybody else and not say anything?” His father said quietly, “You don’t know much English. You don’t know anybody over there. What if you don’t like it? What if you can’t eat their food?”
At 20, no obstacle seems insurmountable. A few months later, in fall 2006, Jiang would look up at the moon his parents had seen hours earlier and give way to sobs. But at the moment, his choice looked simple: “This is the only way I can be a priest.”
The flight was at 8:06 a.m., so he rose before dawn to beat the traffic. He would be traveling from the south, moving inward on the highway’s concentric rings.
The first entrance was closed. The next was miles away, and a truck was blocking it. The third entrance was jammed to a standstill. When he finally reached the airport, it was 8:30. He rushed inside—and there was his mother, whom he’d begged not to come. All he could do was kiss her and run to the gate.
There’d been a typhoon in Hong Kong, so luckily for Jiang, the plane was almost as late as he was. Sweat drying, he found his seat and took long, rasping breaths. For two months all he’d done was hide and plan. Now he looked out the thick airplane window, realizing that this could be the last time he ever saw his family.
The plane began to taxi forward, accelerating hard, and the vibration shook him, and then they were airborne, aiming for the heavens, and Jiang started to cry. Not for what he was leaving—that would come later. He cried because he was free now. Free to be a priest.
MAY 29, 2010. JOSEPH JIANG LAY FACE down on the cold marble floor in front of the New Cathedral’s altar, prostrating himself to God in the sacrament of holy orders. One by one, the cantor read off the litany of saints, and the congregation asked each one to pray for its new priests.
He’d made it.
Carlson had gotten him to a good seminary, and then he’d followed his mentor to St. Louis.
He had yet to meet the Maritains.
That Memorial Day weekend, they’d driven to the Ozarks to visit Sister Jennie Spin. Ellen had been drawn to this woman three years earlier, impressed by her ability to read people’s souls. She’d introduced herself as a third-order Franciscan nun—married but chaste and living in simplicity—and claimed close ties to the pope, many cardinals, and the archbishop of St. Louis. She said that her mother was a Cherokee Indian and her father a member of “an enemy tribe” and that she’d been taken in by Franciscan nuns with “black souls” who beat her whenever she had a vision of the Blessed Mother. (This all comes from Ellen’s written chronicle of those years; the Maritains declined to be interviewed, and Spin did not respond to a request for comment.)
Short and round, Spin had strong opinions, a taste for expensive food, and a habit of spitting when disgusted. She was often disgusted. Dancing was evil, and Halloween and Santa were demonic. But she could also be warm and nurturing. She assured Ellen that she was a wonderful mother and wife and had a beautiful soul; the Blessed Virgin was very pleased with her.
Ellen began bringing her daughters to prayer meetings. Tim, a convert to Catholicism, was wary of all this—the statue of the Blessed Virgin whose cheeks turned rosy when she was pleased; the strange rites and rules. But he traveled for work and didn’t want to ruin his precious time at home by fighting.
“Anointings” progressed to “deliverances.” During one, the horrified Maritain girls watched their mother stiffen and begin jerking, unable to breathe. “Jennie began calling all sexual spirits to leave my sexual organs,” Ellen later wrote. “I do remember hearing Father [the Reverend Phillip Wagner] calling out all spirits of witchcraft and spirits of molestation.” (Wagner is now a diocesan pastor in Powell, Wyoming. He did not return messages seeking comment and, when reached by phone, groaned and hung up.)
In May 2009, Laura, then 13, received her first “deliverance.” She was encouraged “to cough out the evil spirits into the toilet,” her mother wrote, and “to stop being so depressed and quiet.”
Tim had been out of work for a while, and that July they filed for their second bankruptcy. In November, Spin had her followers buy Tim some expensive luggage for his new job; Ellen later heard that Spin had told people they were destitute.
Meanwhile, the “deliverances” in-creased in intensity, as did Spin’s proclamations of sexual sin. People were asked to vomit out the “spirit of hiddenness, spirit of lust, spirit of molestation…” Ellen was informed, publicly, that a friend’s husband was in love with her. Another friend’s sons were supposedly demonic and homosexual. A teenage girl was supposedly a lesbian with “the hots” for Laura.
In early May 2010, in front of the Maritains, Spin accused Laura of molesting her little sister. Then Spin and another follower took Laura into a bedroom. “The Blessed Mother has shown me your soul flung into the deepest abyss of hell,” Laura later reported Spin saying. Then, Laura said, Spin launched into the usual litany, calling out “spirits of molestation, lesbianism, homosexuality, incubus, succubus, and other sexual spirits…lying spirits, the spirit of hiddenness… I break every stronghold! I break every shackle! The sword of St. Michael cuts you! I snipe you with the sword of St. Michael!”
Ellen later wrote that when she learned this, she was shocked and angry; she’d never given permission for all these “deliverances” on her daughters. “They are minors! We are outraged!” But every time she grew disenchanted with Spin, there would be another “miracle,” another amazing bit of mindreading or prophecy, another vivid account of a grateful person saved. (One man supposedly gave her thousands of dollars, and a 93-year-old Freemason vomited up half a rat.) Spin kept priestly garb in her dresser and doled out relics and holy oil.
Summed up, it sounds ridiculous; lived, it must have had a mysterious power, at least for Ellen. In late May, she and Tim drove to the Ozarks for a pricey lunch on the lake with Spin and her husband. “Next year your family will have the Blessed Sacrament in your home,” Spin promised. “I am getting the approval from Rome.”
On Memorial Day weekend 2010, as Jiang was taking his final vows, Ellen was driving the girls to the Ozarks for a barbecue with Spin.
By then, Spin didn’t have many devotées left. She said they’d dropped away because they were too materialistic and didn’t want to give up their sexual sins. She persuaded the Maritains to leave their parish (it was “demonic”) and listed priests they should avoid (they were “fornicators”). She ordered the girls to abandon their friends and warned them that the Blessed Mother frowned upon nail polish and dangly earrings. They were to give up their toys and dolls, and Christmas should be celebrated without presents.
Then, when even the American Girl doll had been buried, Spin had a few of her remaining devotées buy the girls bikes and a puppy.
That Memorial Day weekend, Ellen would later write, “Jennie took me aside and told me that she was working on a benefactor for our family. She stated she wanted to pay our house off for us so we could be debt free.”
IN FALL 2010, ELLEN PULLED LAURA from a Catholic girls’ college prep school and began homeschooling her. Again disenchanted with Spin, Ellen had decided that the family should move south and start fresh. She was in torment over Spin, resentful of her control but terrified of breaking away from someone so holy and well connected. Driving one of her younger daughters to a prayer session, Ellen admitted that she didn’t know why she was taking her and begged the little girl to pray for her.
Meanwhile, the Maritains had begun coming into the city to attend Mass at the New Cathedral. At Christmas, they chatted with the young priest from China. In February 2011, they had him over to dinner. That March, they began inviting him to have ice cream with them after church or come to their house for a bonfire. They marveled to each other how happy they were when they were with Father.
Antennae up, Spin sent along an Easter card for their new priest friend and enclosed $100. Puzzled, Jiang said he didn’t even know this woman and gave the money to the Maritain girls.
On Easter Sunday, Laura received another “deliverance.” This time, though, there was a counterweight. “After we got home we received a phone call from Father Joseph,” Ellen later wrote. “We all were filled with such joy and great excitement that he had called.”
Laura, then 15, already had a bit of a crush on Jiang: In her journal, she wrote, “I laugh at how I’ve always loved him; always watched him. Even when he was just a Deacon.” By May 2, 2011, the girls were referring to Jiang as “brother,” and Laura wrote excitedly in her journal, “It has been prophesied (mom) that I am to evaluate patients for exorcisms. [My sister’s] vision reveals brother to be the future pope.” Laura was thrilled with this guidance, because she’d been so sad lately, troubled by Spin’s accusations and angry at her parents for allowing the woman into their life. “I feel like I need to get very close to brother,” Laura wrote. “It was by no accident that brother has come into the family. We are to be together forever, always.”
Ellen was just as fervent. She would later write, “Father Joseph truly is Jesus on earth.”
In June 2011, Ellen invited Jiang to meet her and the girls at Chesterfield Mall. (It was her wedding anniversary, but Tim was out of town.) She told Jiang that Laura needed his counsel. The two walked outside the mall while the family waited within eyeshot. Laura confided how depressed she was, how she’d thought about ending her life. Jiang told her she was good, intelligent, smart, beautiful; he urged her to share her troubles so they would not grow too heavy.
Afterward, she wrote in her journal, “I looked into his eyes and knew that he loved me.”
The Maritains now trusted Jiang completely, and Spin apparently sensed this alienation of their affection for her. “We are your family now,” she reportedly told Ellen. “We’re all you’ve got. …Don’t let Satan win this… You also need to stop being selfish with your priest. He does not belong to you. He is the first of many that will be coming to your family. It is time that you start sharing him.”
Instead, Ellen told Jiang about Spin. When she said she’d been so sure that someone close to the archbishop wouldn’t lead them astray, Jiang pulled out his phone and called Carlson, who’d never heard of the woman. Jiang listed all the red flags in what Ellen told him about “Sister Jennie” and promised that he’d stay by the family’s side as they extricated themselves. He urged Ellen to write a letter to the archbishop detailing Spin’s interactions with them.
It ran 115 pages. At the end, Ellen wrote, “Recently we were researching baboon spirits and came across some interesting information,” then listed parallels between shamanism and Spin’s practices.
Carlson wrote to Spin, requesting that she stay away from his archdiocese.
Soon after the break, a call came in to the archdiocese, reporting with concern that Jiang was babysitting the Maritain children. The call was placed by Spin’s friend Father Phil Wagner. Around the same time, a woman called the archdiocesan hotline with the same concern, identifying herself as a friend of the family. The woman was Jennie Spin.
This is interesting, because according to Ellen’s letter, Spin repeatedly urged her to leave the kids with a woman who helped with “deliverances.” Ellen, who didn’t like the woman, replied that her children were old enough to watch their baby sister and, when Spin pressed, said, well, maybe she’d leave them with Father Jiang instead. Spin reportedly replied, “Oh no honey! Never leave them with Father. He is pure and innocent and would never hurt your girls, but it is against Canon Law for him to be alone with the girls. He probably doesn’t even know that. You don’t want what happened to poor Father to happen to him.”
THE FELONY CHARGE AGAINST JIANG puzzled his attorney, Paul D’Agrosa. How would Jiang have “care and custody” of Laura when, by all accounts, he’d never even been alone with her? The family produced a registry for Laura’s confirmation—as though to suggest that by serving as her confirmation sponsor he had a sort of custody over her—but their timing was off: When Laura was confirmed, Jiang wasn’t even in St. Louis. It was one of her younger sisters he’d sponsored.
Circuit Judge Chris Kunza Mennemeyer granted D’Agrosa’s motion to dismiss the felony charge, and Lincoln County prosecutor Leah Wommack-Askey chose not to continue with the misdemeanor. She did not comment for the story, but D’Agrosa says that after she deposed Laura, he talked to Wommack-Askey. “She left me with the impression that, first of all, [Laura] was reluctant to prosecute, and in fact she was not saying things consistent with what her parents were alleging. And all [Laura] wanted to do was be a normal kid and leave this behind. The parents had a different idea, of course, and it was causing a rift, and they were threatening to withhold [Laura’s] college tuition, and that was putting her in quite a box.”
The criminal charges were dropped in November 2013, but in the process of discovery, Jiang had seen the draft email Laura had been writing when her mother came in: “Thank you for last night’s new affections,” it began. “I did like it and it’s ok! I hope you really do like it too and it was ok for you! And I hope it’s something we can do again, if that’s alright to say!”
That unsent email was about to become the most damning evidence in a civil suit filed by the Maritains on Laura’s behalf.
AFTER THE 2012 ALLEGATION, when the archbishop called the family with a carefully general pastoral apology, he suggested that the Maritains give back Jiang’s $20,000 check. They turned it over to the police instead. In July of the following year, they filed a civil suit against the archdiocese and named Carlson individually, alleging that he had “attempted to intentionally spillage evidence, indicating fraud and a desire to suppress the truth.”
The lawsuit did not name Jiang until two years later.
A motion was made to dismiss the archdiocese from the suit on the grounds that none of the alleged conduct took place on archdiocesan property. Then damaging new evidence surfaced: affidavits from two witnesses who claimed to have seen Jiang kissing and fondling Laura in the rectory parking lot.
The witnesses were her little sisters, who’d dictated their accounts to their mother. According to the affidavits, both girls had had seen Jiang giving Laura a kiss “partially on her lips” on the parking lot—hence on archdiocesan property.
The lawsuit stated that Jiang “often bought [Laura] expensive gifts—like an expensive Coach purse.” He says Ellen bought Laura a purse, and she hated it, so he jokingly texted Laura, “I bought you a purse.” Thinking he was serious, she thanked him effusively, so he figured he’d better follow through. He sent her mom a picture of a nondescript brown purse—he’d never bought a purse in his life—and asked whether that was something Laura would like, because he had three unused gift cards, two for the Galleria and one for Nordstrom. The whole family went, and Laura picked out a pricey Coach purse, $121 more than the gift cards combined. Because Ellen made no move toward her wallet, Jiang says, he paid the balance.
He adds that he bought all of them presents. He gave the girls a Bose speaker, regifted a pair of expensive sunglasses to Tim, gave one of the younger girls a set of DVDs that she wanted…
The suit noted that he’d told Laura she was beautiful, and he had, several times. But he’d also told her sisters they were beautiful; there’s a text to one of the little girls in which he writes, “You looked so beautiful today.” He said “I love you” to all of them, and the mom and all the girls texted “I love you” to him regularly.
He did take a special interest in Laura, though. She’d always had a phobia about germs (one of Spin’s followers had tried a deliverance for that), so he was delighted the day she took a sip from his glass. “I am happy that [I] have helped you to become who you are today,” he emailed her, “and I am so happy to see you smiling!”
There was also precedent for Ellen’s suspicion of intimacy: In November 2011, Laura told Jiang that her mother had decided that they were too close. He pulled back immediately and texted Ellen, “I believe there has been a terrible misunderstanding. She is feeling very bad and depressed. I do believe we can talk and put this to rest. God bless.”
Ellen texted back in all caps: “PLEASE UNDERSTAND YOU DID NOT DO ANYTHING WRONG!!! YOU CAUSED NO CONFUSION!!…There was merely a misunderstanding.” The family hung an extra stocking that Christmas with his name on it and sent him an album of shared memories, but he still kept his distance.
Then, in January 2012, he was at the hospital administering last rites to a man who was dying alone. For the first time in my life, I have this family, Jiang thought. What am I doing?
He returned to the friendship. The hiatus had made Ellen and Laura even more emotional, and they begged him several times to please never leave them again.
The lawsuit stated that the night Jiang returned to the Maritains’ house, “he kissed the minor Plaintiff on the mouth and pinned her up against a wall.” And that he “started sending the minor Plaintiff’s mother on errands to get him items so that he could be alone with the minor Plaintiff.” These “errands” were fleeting ones—for example, bringing him a beverage from the kitchen. Allegedly he stole kisses from Laura in those moments and “soon manipulated her into sexual contact.”
Yet in June 2012, he emailed Laura that he worried he was there too often and added, “I don’t want your parents to misunderstand you again. I want you to have peace with them.”
She wrote back, “My parents understand and it’s ok! I have a much better relationship with them now!…Last Sunday, when you did not come out, it made my mom very sad.”
During the Child Center interview, Laura said she’d had a small surgery on her arm, and Jiang asked whether she wanted him to come see her. “Of course I did, but I just didn’t want to say it,” she said shyly. She talked about his wanting to kiss her, saying, “He’d look at me, he’d ask for it without saying, like, ‘Give me a kiss.’” She said, “He told me he wished he could have the honor of taking me as his wife.” Regarding her parents’ finding the unsent email, she sounded embarrassed: “You know, I made it seem like, you know, I liked it, even though I really didn’t.”
WHEN JERRY CARMODY AND HIS daughter Ryann Carmody agreed to defend Jiang in the civil suit, they started gathering texts, emails, and Laura’s journal entries. First, they looked into the house. The Maritains maintain that they never wanted Jiang’s money and he never told them he wasn’t going to buy the house after all.
There’s no conclusive proof on either side. But Ellen’s protestations had been mild. There was a warm, bubbly text in late May, when Jiang first shared his plan: “You have a beautiful heart!” she began, and she ended, “We want nothing from you, just you and your love.”
“I just want to help, because I love your family, and that is why I want to do this for you,” he replied.
“It is enough to know that you desire to help us in this way, you never have to do any more, just knowing that you want to shows us how much you care and love us!” Ellen texted back. “In time, God will provide, we are use [sic] to waiting, it is how our life is. It will all come in due time. You know we love you, you do not have to do anything! Just smile!”
“I am smiling,” he replied, “but it doesn’t mean I am stopping trying my best to help you.”
A few days later, he received a disappointed text from Ellen about a house that had been leased when they got there.
“Just talked to my mom about the house again,” Jiang texted to cheer her up.
“I don’t know what to say,” she replied.
Jiang says that on June 11, Ellen suggested that he see a banker and bring Tim with him. By then, Jiang says, he’d talked to U.S. Bank, and he was starting to worry that this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“Maybe I was really naïve, but I just wanted to help them any way I could,” he says now. “The Chinese concept of family is really quite different. But after I did the calculations, I said, ‘I cannot help you get a house now, but I can put the savings that I have in investment and in a few years have a much bigger down payment.’ The conversation did not last very long. I felt guilty at promising something I could not do.”
AS SHE PREPARED JIANG’S DEFENSE, Ryann’s next worry was the family’s claim that Jiang “directed the minor Plaintiff to set up a secret email account to receive his emails.” Then she saw the emails Laura had sent earlier:
May 25, 2012: “I felt bad that you didn’t have my email too. You can use this email or you can use. Either one is me. I love you more than anything forever!! Know that! All of my love…”
Jiang’s reply: “Don’t feel bad, because we never exchanged email! Now, I have it, or them! Know that I love you very much and will do anything for you! Be happy!”
May 25, 2012: “Dearest Father, Know you never have to do anything for me! I love you so much! You are more than enough! My love for you is so unconditional you don’t even have to love me in return! I will be happy as long as you are!”
June 13, 2012, again from Laura: “I’d like to keep our emails private if you don’t mind. No one knows I email you, and I’d kind of like to keep it as a private way to contact you if I need to, as long as you don’t mind if it’s our secret.”
She then sent a long, heartfelt email, thanking him “for everything you’ve done for me and how good you’ve been to me!!” It had been a year since their talk at Chesterfield Mall, she wrote. “I will never forget the things you told me.” She added that he was the only person she felt truly comfortable with and close to and she’d had “a lot of beautiful dreams” about him.
She followed with a hasty apology: “Father, I’m very very sorry if I gushed too much in that last email! I hope that I didn’t say anything wrong or out of place!”
He wrote back, “My dear, you don’t need to apologize for anything! I just hope you didn’t type that email with two fingers on your iPhone!…I am so happy that you trust enough to tell me what is on your heart! Did I not tell you I will be here for you?”
In another email, she wrote, “I’m sorry if I care too much and if I love too much! I don’t mean to be silly or overbearing! I know lately I’ve been really expressive with my love for you and my emotions. I’m sorry if it’s too much or annoying or anything negative like that. I don’t mean to bother you or scare you or anything… I know I love people too much sometimes.”
The next time Jiang was at the house, he mustered his nerve and checked her phone to see how someone else might perceive her emails to him. He left the email app open, and she confronted him. He apologized profusely, then assured her that he was a very emotional person, too: “[I] just don’t show much or express much. At an early age, was hurt, so felt very much insecure since, and learned to be protective of myself, and to bottle everything inside of me. Sometimes, it is incredibly miserable. I don’t want you to experience what I have experienced before. I want you to be open and to be expressive, and to be emotional.”
After assuring Jiang that she’d forgiven him, Laura emailed to say she “was thinking about the security of our emails and I became insecure myself! So I decided that in order to ensure our privacy I’d just create a new email address!” She ended by encouraging him, “Always be honest with me! And don’t be afraid to share how you’re feeling! Be honest! Be open! Be secure! You’re safe with me!”—all things he’d been saying to her since that talk at the mall.
Ryann relaxed. But her biggest worry remained: the unsent email thanking Jiang for “new affections.” “I hope you weren’t offended when I moved your hand away a few times,” the draft said. “It wasn’t because its [sic] not ok, its just because its new and I kind of have to ease a little into new things… Next time you will be able to touch more. I’m sorry too if I wasn’t doing something right for you. I was in a sort of not so great position for what you wanted, but I hope it was still good.”
Jiang still swore that all he’d ever done was kiss her goodbye and never in a romantic way. He said he considered the Maritains his family, the girls his sisters: “I thought they felt the same way about me. I didn’t think that Laura felt any differently than the rest of the family.”
If there had been “new affections,” what exactly did Laura mean by that? A year earlier, she’d written in her journal that she had “many questions about affection…like is it okay for me to desire brother’s affection?… I seek the affection as a source of comfort & love, so I guess it’s okay.” She was squeamish about touch of any kind because of her germ phobia, and she wrote that kissing people made her uncomfortable: “Dear God, help me w/showing affection. Make it easier for me…”
She also wrote in her journal, “I kiss him when no one is looking” (June 27, 2011) and, “He gave me slow meaningful kisses and they were returned” (October 19, 2011). Yet in interviews and sworn testimony, she said he first gave her a “real” kiss on April 29, 2012.
Laura didn’t even mention that “real kiss” in her journal. Around the same time, she was texting “Father” not to be embarrassed that he’d fallen asleep with his head on her shoulder: “It made me feel like you were comfortable with me. I didn’t mind at all! I am your sister; you are my brother! We are family!”
“That doesn’t sound like they were swapping spit,” Ryann murmured.
“At first we thought that maybe her mother wrote the letter,” Ryann says now. “But as time went on, we thought [Laura] wrote it and never intended to send it. She had a special section in her cell phone under Notes where she would keep notes of her conversations with Father.”
ON HOLY THURSDAY, APRIL 2014, instead of participating in the annual ceremony to renew his priestly vows, Jiang went with his lawyer to the police station, where he was taken into custody and charged with two felony counts of first-degree statutory sodomy involving a boy younger than 14.
Dazed, he sat on a steel bench and tried to pray the rosary on his fingers. This cannot be an accident, he thought, struggling to fathom what God wanted of him.
A 12-year-old student at the New Cathedral’s grade school had told his parents that two years earlier, when he was in the fourth grade, an Asian priest had twice pulled him out of line when his class went to Mass, taken him to a bathroom in the basement of the cathedral, and molested him.
City police detectives had not even visited the New Cathedral or its school, St. Louis the King, let alone interviewed teachers or principal or Jiang himself, before charging Jiang. So D’Agrosa called the boy’s homeroom teacher, who couldn’t remember any occasion when the boy had left Mass or been pulled out of line. “She used three words to describe him: embellish, exaggerate, delusional,” D’Agrosa wrote afterward. She was “99 percent certain she never let a kid go anywhere, and never let a kid go anywhere with priests… Her impression was that the parents were tearing this kid apart because of their animosity toward each other.” Others described the boy as sensitive, a storyteller, not always a truth-teller. And the sexton said he didn’t unlock the basement restroom until 9 a.m., about 30 minutes after the kids’ weekly Mass.
In an interview at the Children’s Advocacy Center, the boy said he’d blurted out what happened after telling his father he was gay. “He absolutely hates gay people…And I didn’t want him to hate me.” The father asked what made him think he was gay—“did have I ever got have anybody ever touched me,” the boy stammered, “and I told him yes.” The father promptly called the police. “I asked him not to get involved but I guess he had to,” the boy said, refusing to give details of the alleged event. “I heard that [the priest] touched another boy in high school… On the news or my mom reported to me.” When the interviewer asked where the church bathrooms were, he said he’d forgotten. When she asked whether he’d be willing to look at photos to identify the priest, he said, “I wouldn’t tell… ’Cause I know he probably in jail or something…but I really like I just don’t wanna answer any more questions about that.” The boy did agree to meet a police detective at the cathedral to show her where the incident took place—but failed to show up.
The boy’s parents had divorced after four years of marriage, and there was a long and ugly history of custody arguments in their court file. The boy’s father had been banned from the grounds of a previous archdiocesan school after trying to choke one of the teachers in a rage. At the school before that, he’d grabbed the principal by the shirt. The boy had once accused a female cousin of sexually abusing him; the charge was not substantiated. The court file reflected diagnoses of attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and behavioral problems.
Jiang underwent a two-hour polygraph in which he answered specific questions and “adamantly denied any criminal sexual behavior involving that child, or any other child whomsoever,” noted professional polygraphist Thomas Neske, a former police officer. Neske found no signs of deception: “It is my opinion he had responded truthfully.”
In September 2014, the boy’s family wrote to the archdiocese, asking for a financial settlement. Instead, D’Agrosa built his case. He cringed for Jiang when, after a court appearance, a woman with a bullhorn screamed, “Child rapist!” at him. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests denounced him as a “child-molesting cleric,” “a cunning predator,” and “a predator priest.”
The following June, D’Agrosa learned that then–Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce had dismissed the case against Jiang, saying she was “unable to proceed at this time.”
Relieved past words, Jiang went out and bought D’Agrosa a thank-you present, a print for his office. But as he hung it, D’Agrosa was still fuming. Throughout the case, friends had said things like “Oh, you’re representing the priest.” “What was inherent in that statement was ‘You’re representing a child molester,’” he says now. “Believe me, certain dioceses and priests deserve that reputation—they earned it—but that doesn’t mean you can just falsely accuse a priest and there be no consequences, because once the accusation is made, it cannot be unmade. When the case gets dismissed, people say, ‘He had a smart lawyer.’ And if you go to trial and a jury finds you not guilty, it’s ‘He beat the system.’ That’s what angers me about the second case. Not the first. Father Jiang bears some responsibility for that. He was naïve—the days are gone when a priest sleeps in a home! But the second case, to not even investigate...”
JIANG MAY HAVE PRAYED FOR MARTYDOM as a boy, but this was not the sort he’d had in mind. In June 2015, he filed a lawsuit against the boy’s parents, police, and SNAP, alleging that he’d been defamed with false accusations rooted in religious and ethnic discrimination and denied due process and that SNAP had engaged in a smear campaign against him.
D’Agrosa was dubious about the wisdom of stirring up more publicity, but Jiang was determined. “It’s not about revenge,” he said. “It’s for other priests who might be falsely accused,” their guilt assumed in advance.
During the discovery period, as attorneys gathered information to prepare for trial, U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson sanctioned SNAP for refusing to provide emails and texts sent among the boy’s parents, SNAP, and attorneys. SNAP argued that releasing such materials could discourage future victims from trusting their anonymity. The judge disagreed. Going forward, she wrote, it will be taken as fact “that the SNAP defendants conspired with one another and others to obtain plaintiff’s conviction.”
THE MARITAINS’ CIVIL SUIT went to trial in April 2017, almost five years after the first allegations were made.
The family brought in co-counsel from Minnesota: Patrick Wendell Noaker, whose website describes him and his partner as “Hard-Charging Aggressive Experienced Sexual Abuse Attorneys.” In this case, he partnered with Nicole Gorov-
sky and Ken Chackes, whose firm posted an October 2016 press release in the website’s News section stating, “In this case, Jane Doe 119 was sexually molested by Father Joseph Jiang…the Archdiocese and Archbishop had been warned that Fr. Jiang was dangerous, abusive, and had been living a double life.”
Chackes declined to comment.
Gorovsky, who has since left the firm and could not be reached for comment, said in court that Jiang “groomed the whole family, expertly.”
Spin was deposed for the trial, but her deposition has been sealed.
Dr. Stephen Peterson, a forensic psychiatrist who has served as an expert witness in sex abuse cases, testified that Laura told him Jiang placed her hand on his penis. The defense noted that when she’d first been interviewed, almost five years earlier, she’d said he put her hand on his stomach but not on “him.” Laura took the stand and testified that she’d felt pubic hair.
“I was so shocked and afraid and didn’t know what to do,” she said, crying.
Peterson found Laura to have PTSD and sexual arousal disorder. She’d joined an online dating service and was having frequent casual sex. She told a girlfriend about Peterson’s diagnosis and said she didn’t agree with it. Nor did the psychologist she’d been seeing regularly, Mary Fitzgibbons, who testified that Laura didn’t want to go through with the lawsuit but was afraid that her parents would stop paying her tuition.
The defense called Dr. Michael Jarvis, director of inpatient psychiatry at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, who said he found no signs of PTSD or sexual arousal disorder, just a low-grade depression that she’d had before ever meeting Jiang.
Jerry Carmody confronted Peterson with a journal entry in which Laura said she was worried that she was prosecuting an innocent man. Peterson testified that Laura was afraid she’d ruined Jiang’s life—but that didn’t mean he was innocent.
In his closing argument, Jerry said it was impossible to even be sure it was Laura who wrote the unsent email, let alone that she ever intended to send it. He reminded the jury of her earlier journal entries alleging kisses and romance long before she now claimed they’d begun. Ask yourself why he never once tried to get Laura alone, even for a walk, Jerry urged the jury. Why there weren’t any sexual texts or emails (with the exception of the innuendo in the unsent one). Why he’d choose that night—when they were playing Wii with all the lights on and seven other people on the sofa and Laura’s mother sitting next to her—to take such liberties.
The lawsuit was alleging first-degree sexual abuse and battery and asking for $1.5 million in actual damages and an undisclosed amount in punitive damages. The jury was instructed that they had to find that the contact was either forcibly coerced or not consensual in order to find in Laura’s favor; Missouri statute makes that requirement for first-degree sexual abuse. Laura’s attorneys tried (unsuccessfully) to argue that for the battery claim, consent was irrelevant because she was only 16.
The jury found 10-2 in Jiang’s favor.
“The whole idea that this all happened in a very small room with seven people on the couch was absolutely ridiculous,” says Margie Chandler, the forewoman. “I think she’s a fine girl, and all of us wished nothing but wonderful things for her. She’s very intelligent, very bright—but I think she fell in love with him, and I think she was taking every action he did in a different way. Her journals were telling.” Chandler thinks it’s perfectly possible that Jiang accidentally brushed up against Laura: “He was snuggling with everybody!”
Chandler adds that she and several other jury members were “a little frustrated with the lack of guidance he got from the archdiocese, given what a huge cultural change it had been for him.” Jiang’s idea of a priest’s role was shaped in a milieu closer to that of the first half of the 1900s in this country, when priests shared family occasions and vacations without raising any eyebrows.
Joseph, Laura, Ellen—they’d all been vulnerable, hollowed by need, eager to believe. Jiang had craved a family’s easy warmth; Laura was eager for affection and a grown-up romance; Ellen needed emotional, spiritual, and practical support. When those needs tangled, their close-knit friendship snarled into knots and then unraveled.
Innocence could have been manipulated from any direction.
A SLIGHT FIGURE IN SHIMMERING vestments, Jiang bows deeply to the altar, then quickly climbs the steps of the cathedral’s carved marble pulpit. The congregation stills. He begins an old-school homily, drawing on Scripture—he has sorely missed being able to say Mass in public. Then he looks out at the crowded pews, sprinkled among them parishioners who’ve prayed for him, given him pep talks, even sent dinner to the hotel where he and his attorneys prepped for trial.
“I thought that I loved God very much, so much that I left everything behind to come to this country to become a priest,” Jiang says. “I thought I was full of courage.” Over the past five years, he continues, he has at times wanted to take the advice of Job’s wife: “Curse God and die.” Not by his own hand, because that is against church teaching. “But if a truck were to pass by and kill me, I would have been happy to go. It is your prayers that sustained me.”
This will be his only homily on the subject. He has returned to the priesthood as he knew it, surrounded by the serene beauty of the basilica. But he is not the same. Shocked out of naïveté, he feels that he’s now a better, if warier, priest. And when Ryann remarks, “There was a lot of snuggling with the whole family,” Jiang shakes his head ruefully. “Never happen again.”
Did the experience leave him cynical, reluctant to open up?
“Maybe initially,” he says. “But there’s been so much real kindness. Before, I never reached out to people, because I was very independent. With this, I lost everything; I cannot reciprocate. So I can see that their kindness has no strings attached.”
The Maritains managed a $270,000 loan in November 2015 and bought a new four-bedroom house for $275,000. At the civil trial, Tim testified that they had to move because the memories were so awful. Yet Ryann says she was told they couldn’t take the sofa into evidence, because the family was still using it. She was allowed to go look at it and says that sofa—“where those memories were allegedly created”—was the main piece of furniture in the family’s new living room.
On June 12 of this year, Laura was denied a new trial and ordered to pay $48,516 to cover Jiang’s and the archdiocese’s legal expenses. She’s set to graduate with honors from an acclaimed university and go on to graduate school.
Jiang has dismissed SNAP from his lawsuit. The settlement agreement that SNAP signed stated: “The SNAP defendants have no personal knowledge as to the complaints against Fr. Joseph Jiang and acknowledge that all matters and claims against Fr. Joseph Jiang have either been dismissed or adjudicated in favor of Fr. Joseph Jiang. SNAP acknowledges that false claims of clergy sexual abuse injure those clerics falsely accused and the Roman Catholic Church. SNAP apologizes for any false or inaccurate statements related to the complaints against Fr. Joseph Jiang that it or its representatives made which in any way disparaged Fr. Joseph Jiang.”
Jiang’s court record has been expunged.