Woman honored for work on behalf of St. Clare’s Hospital pensioners

Mary Hartshorne speaks to a television news crew in 2019 about the plight of former employees of the old St. Clare's Hospital who had lost their pensions.

Mary Hartshorne speaks to a television news crew in 2019 about the plight of former employees of the old St. Clare's Hospital who had lost their pensions.

MALTA — A leader of the fight to regain pensions for employees of the former St. Clare’s Hospital has been honored as a Woman Of Distinction by the state Senate.

Mary Hartshorne, a Malta resident, said she was surprised by the award, and humbled.

“I’m humbled by it because we haven’t reached the resolution,” she said. Nearly three years after 1,100 former employees learned their pension benefits would be reduced or eliminated, the matter is still progressing through civil litigation.

And even if the pensioners finally win in court, there’s not a pot of money to dip into. After years of financial stress, St. Clare’s was merged out of existence in 2008 and its pension fund is insolvent.

The Women of Distinction Awards are presented each year to 63 women across New York, one in each Senate district.

State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, who has advocated extensively for the pensioners since their pension crisis began, chose Hartshorne for the 49th Senate District in recognition of what she has done and still is attempting to do.

“Mary Hartshorne has worked night and day as a leader in the effort to fight for these health care workers who cared for some of the most vulnerable and saw their pensions evaporate in the snap of a finger causing many to face dire economic situations in their retirement years,” Tedisco said in a prepared statement. “She is truly a woman of distinction and I am proud to represent her and present Mary with this statewide honor.”

Hartshorne told The Daily Gazette on Thursday that one of the few causes for optimism after three years is that the struggle is still alive.

The retirees’ attorneys think there may be some movement in court in the autumn, she said. “But they don’t have anything concrete yet.”

She appreciates their efforts on behalf of the pensioners.

“The attorneys and their staff, they also have full-time jobs, many of them do,” she said. 

More than 100 pensioners sued St. Clare’s Corp. and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, which was closely associated with St. Clare’s Hospital. Both deny responsibility for the collapse of the underfunded, uninsured pension fund.

The pensioners are represented by the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Brooklyn Legal Services, AARP Foundation and two individual attorneys. The state Attorney General’s Office has inserted itself in the matter in its role as a watchdog over nonprofits.

The pandemic has added to the pensioners’ problems, Hartshorne said, delaying court proceedings and creating health risks. 

“We still have essential workers, we’ve got people who were on the front lines,” she said. “I’m so proud of all of them.”

As for herself, Hartshorne wishes there were more pensioners out front with her, but understands why some are too intimidated to take an active role.

“I think it’s a combination of things but I do believe the church is quite powerful,” she said. “I still hear people say ‘I don’t believe those priests would ever do anything like [sexually abusing children.'”

Some people don’t want to be involved in a battle with the Catholic Church for fear of damage to their careers or livelihood, said Hartshorne, a mostly-retired grandmother of five.

“I don’t have anything to lose unless they want my old clunker of a car,” she said.

“I wish I had more to tell you.”

An earlier version of this story misidentified Mary Hartshorne as an attorney. She was a sonographer for many years at St. Clare’s Hospital.

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