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St. Clare’s retirees take action to protect their pensions

As the Pension Rights Center’s Operations and Referrals Manager, I hear from thousands of individuals each year. Over the past decade, many of these calls and e-mails have come from people who worked for religiously affiliated hospitals, schools, and social services agencies. These individuals – former orderlies, executives, nurses, social workers, and schoolteachers – have learned, often long after they had retired, that their plans have run into financial trouble and that their pensions are being cut and even eliminated. They have also learned that the religious entity associated with the plan refuses to take any responsibility for paying their benefits.

The situation is very unfair for these retirees who worked loyally for many years counting on receiving their lifetime pensions. To learn more about how these ‘church pension plans’ work, we have a series of fact sheets on the subject.

Whenever our staff hears about a new church pension problem, we provide the retirees with information to help them understand what has happened to them and link them with others who share their situation. We also reach out to journalists interested in the issue and connect the retirees with people who may be able to help them, including attorneys who can seek a remedy in court.

Our most recent example involves the retirees of St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady, New York. In this situation, the hospital closed down years ago and the pension fund dwindled to such an extent that many of the retirees have lost their entire benefit. The plan had been protected by the federal pension law and its insurance program, but a number of years ago, it received a government ruling that it was exempted from the law and its protections because of its relationship with the Diocese of Albany. But the Diocese now claims that it has no responsibility for paying the pensions of the St. Clare’s retirees.

We contacted Albany Law School professor David Pratt, an expert in pension law who had written about church plans. He agreed to help the retirees. He researched their situation, spoke at their meetings, and summarized the facts and the law for the media. The retirees formed an informal organization that was able to capture the attention of state officials and local news outlets. However, despite widespread support from their community, it became apparent that the retirees had no alternative but to file a lawsuit.

Last week, an impressive legal team, including David Pratt, Gary Stone, a lawyer in Legal Services NYC’s Brooklyn office, Victoria Esposito, the Advocacy Coordinator for the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, and Dara Smith and Meryl Grenadier, attorneys with AARP Foundation's litigation unit filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany on behalf of 125 of the 1,100 St. Clare's retirees whose pensions have stopped or been reduced.

At the press conference announcing the lawsuit, Mary Hartshorne, Co-Chair of the St. Clare’s retirees’ group explained that “We are very devoted to the Catholic Church and we have always lived our lives this way… For us to be treated like this is a shame… We are tired of being ignored… We are going to keep fighting this. If everybody thought we were going to lay back and take it, we are not.”

I am continually impressed by the dedication of retirees who rally together for a common cause – as well as the graciousness of the attorneys who have taken on these cases pro bono. 

Here are a few of the articles written about the lawsuit, Mary Hartshorne v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany:

AARP Bulletin: Lawsuit Puts Focus on Health Care Worker Pensions
Albany Times Union: Former St. Clare’s Workers Going to Court
New York Times: Faith in a Hidden Paycheck that Could Vanish for Good
Daily Gazette: St. Clare’s Pensioners File Suit Against Hospital Corporation, Albany Diocese
Pensions & Investments: St. Clare’s Hospital Workers Sue Over Unpaid Pension Benefits

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