Chang quickly became friends with St. John’s then-president, Father Joseph Cahill, a vociferous conservative firebrand. Cahill single-handedly fought off a move to secularize St. John’s, insisting that all wisdom flowed from the Vatican. Cahill, who had a natural sympathy for Chang’s fiercely anti-Communist homeland, understood that her ties could help the university. In 1977, when she was 23, he tapped her to help direct the Asian Center as well as to be a fund-raiser who would court the wealthy Taiwanese community. And there was something else that attracted him to the youthful Chinese woman. If Cahill publicly preached orthodoxy, privately he had a roguish streak. Cahill, a man of the cloth, was also a man with a girlfriend—the two shared an address, property records indicate. Chang later claimed that she too had been intimate with Cahill, according to the Times, and one of his good-time friends. Cahill liked to gamble, and Chang accompanied him on trips to Belmont and Atlantic City, she later testified.
Father Harrington succeeded Cahill in 1989, just after Chang became an American citizen. Like Cahill, Harrington was a Vincentian, the Catholic order devoted to the poor. But Harrington was different, a friendly if bland public face with a welcoming smile. Unlike his predecessor, Harrington studiously avoided controversy. “Really I’m a CEO,” he later explained. Colleagues praised him for his strategic planning and cunning insights. “He has that rare ability to read people and situations,” Lou Carnesecca, St. John’s legendary basketball coach, once said.
Harrington expanded the Vincentian emphasis on the less fortunate—over 40 percent of the university budget goes to financial aid, among the highest for any private university—and even enrolled the homeless. But growth was his goal, and unlike Cahill, he made diversity and inclusion his watchwords. “Most of our student body is not Catholic,” he later boasted; St. John’s students come from 122 countries.
Until Harrington arrived, St. John’s was essentially a commuter school, best known nationally for its basketball team, which for a few glorious years starred Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson. When Harrington arrived, the university had a meager $74 million endowment; a gifted fund-raiser, he quickly changed that. In 2012, the endowment was $400.5 million. Harrington used that money to transform the university’s physical landscape, building dormitories and a gleaming new church, decorated with a mosaic of Vincentian history, and renovating the sports arena. At the main campus, in the heart of Queens, he established a green and leafy enclave with benches, bike racks, and manicured lawns, a stunning suburban expanse in the midst of the city bustle—Harrington thought of it as an oasis. And Harrington took the Queens institution global, as well as merging with or acquiring other campuses in New York. He expanded to Rome and Paris and sent emissaries—including Chang—around the world to spread the good news and to seek funds.
Chang was a perfect fit with Harrington’s new global goals. Soon after he took over as president came news the Taiwanese government had donated almost $700,000 to St. John’s, the first of many gifts. For Harrington, empowering Chang made flawless sense. “At that time … people [still] think Asia is the future,” Harrington later testified.
Before his departure, Cahill counseled Harrington on how to handle his new charge, telling his successor that Chang operated by her own rules. “Trust her. Let her do her job, and she’ll bring in money,” he told Harrington.
In one of their first meetings, Harrington got a glimpse of Chang’s rules. She worked her usual charms, deploying her ever-present smile, politeness, and over-the-top compliments. (“I know of no one as diplomatic or as articulate as you,” she once wrote to Harrington.) Then, as she was leaving, Chang presented her new boss with a gift-wrapped package. Harrington opened it later—and found a stack of $100 bills.
Harrington summoned Chang back to his office and, he later testified, told her the gift was not appropriate. Harrington, who’d taken a vow of poverty, lives in a modest communal house with other priests and receives $200 a month, ample for his necessities, he said. “I don’t need anything, Cecilia, I’m really fine,” he later explained to her. Plus, the nature of her gift made him uneasy. “I have a hang-up on cash … there has to be a record.”
Harrington testified that Chang was wounded by the rejection. “I want to work well with you,” he recalled her saying. “I don’t see why this is wrong.” She insisted that in Chinese culture wealthy women have to give gifts to their bosses. She liked to tap her handbag, signaling that she had plenty of wealth to dispense.
“I pledge to you that I … will do my best to understand [Chinese culture] going forward,” he told her.