Waite: St. Clare’s pensioners’ plea is straight from the heart

Former employee at St. Clare’s Hospital Mary Hartshorne at her townhouse in Ballston Lake on Tuesday, December 13, 2022.

Former employee at St. Clare’s Hospital Mary Hartshorne at her townhouse in Ballston Lake on Tuesday, December 13, 2022.

St. Clare’s Hospital isn’t just where Mary Hartshorne worked for nearly 30 years. It’s not just where she made her second family, eating lunch nearly every day in the cafeteria alongside priests, doctors, administrative staff and nurses. It’s also where health care professionals saved her life. 

In 1977, Hartshorne, now 72, was a young mother working in the St. Clare’s radiology department. During a shift one day, she struggled to breathe and she felt pressure in her chest. She walked over to the ER, where her friend, an emergency care physician, gave her oxygen and put her on a stretcher.

A chest X-ray revealed multiple blood clots in her lungs, and Hartshorne was taken in for emergency surgery to put a filter in the main vein to the heart. 

Doctors told Hartshorne she likely would have been dead if not for the surgery.

More than four decades later, the filter is still in place, and St. Clare’s, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, continues to occupy a huge place in Hartshorne’s heart. 

“I was very proud to say that I worked in such a close-knit, family-type of environment,” Harthsorne said.

Perhaps that’s why she continues to feel so personally betrayed as one of more than 1,100 former employees of the now-defunct Schenectady hospital who haven’t been paid the pension they were promised. The employees, with 10 to 50 years of service, were technicians, cafeteria workers, nurses, doctors and many others.  Some lost pensions all together, while some saw their benefits reduced. 

The St. Clare’s pension crisis – a timeline

Hartshorne is the chair of the St. Clare’s Pension Recovery Alliance, a mantle she took on about four years ago after her friend and coworker, the late Lori Nicolella Daviero, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. With high-powered pro-bono legal help, the pensioners were represented in a 2019 lawsuit filed by the AARP Foundation suing the diocese for its role in causing the crisis. With no resolution and the lawsuit languishing as a result of the pandemic and legal maneuvering, the pensioners received a boost in May when New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a separate lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, alleging numerous instances of negligence and intentional wrongdoing that led to the pension crisis. At the state’s request, a judge ruled recently that the two lawsuits can merge, providing a sense of optimism among the pensioners that help could soon arrive. 

Of course, helping people is what St. Clare’s was all about. And it’s supposed to be what the Roman Catholic Church is about. 

But each delay tactic and deflection of blame as the pension crisis wears on is just another reminder of the church’s failures. While far less gruesome and gut-wrenching than the myriad cases of abuse still miring the church in scandal, the St. Clare’s pension crisis remains a gross failed promise that scars the very people the church was supposed to protect. Settling the pensioners’ lawsuits immediately with a deal that makes the roughly $55 million shortfall whole is the only way the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany can start to build back any sort of trust. And, even then, it may already be too late to many Catholics. Reasonable people may be rightly concerned that the diocese is merely playing a waiting game to wriggle out of full financial responsibility. 

For the record, the diocese provided the following statement about the pension crisis: 

“Many questions remain as to how the pension promised to the dedicated St Clare’s employees failed. As the civil lawsuits progress, the plight of those who lost their pension is of great concern to Bishop Edward Scharfenberger,” the statement reads. 

My esteemed former colleague John Cropley chronicled the St. Clare’s pension crisis in detail over the years. Based on his extensive reportage, here’s the gist of what happened:

Leaders of the diocese and administrators of the pension fund not only allegedly failed to manage the pension fund, they also allegedly failed to properly inform employees about the pensions’ troubles. In addition, hospital leaders failed to insure the pension plan, taking advantage of an IRS ruling that granted the diocese’s and hospital corporation’s request to declare the St. Clare’s pension plan a plan of the church, which made it exempt from the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). 

For Hartshorne, the crisis played out like this: After retiring from the hospital in 2012, she collected a pension and was able to afford to live in a small house on a lake. 

Then, on Oct. 18, 2018, Hartshorne got a letter telling her the pension payments would soon stop. 

“I immediately thought ‘it’s a misprint,’” Hartshorne said. 

It wasn’t. 

“All of a sudden, boom, done, pull the rug out.” 

As a result, she had to sell her house – she now rents a modest townhouse that she shares with foster kids she’s recently taken in. She gets by on Social Security and a private Reiki business, but she lives within much more limited means than she had once imagined. 

Other pensioners have dealt with tougher situations, Hartshorne said. One, now in her 70s, lives in a room in her friend’s house. Another had to sell a farm that’s been in the family for generations. 

Hartshorne and other pensioners wish they’d known the pensions were in trouble. Then they could have planned for their retirement differently. Instead, hospital leaders deceived them about the health of the benefits.

Understandably, Hartshorne remains frustrated. 

“I’m disgusted with it. And I know Lori would be exactly the same way, saying the same thing. Shame on you, people. How dare you do that to us? When we took care of you and your families, we took care of them as if they were our own family,” she said. “I want them to know how strong we are in the fact that we won’t give up.” 

State leaders like Sen. Jim Tedisco and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara are optimistic the merging of the two lawsuits can lead to a quick resolution. They also say they are open to state assistance, which could include some sort of public funding, but the hope is to avoid that route. In addition, Santabarbara said he plans to propose a legislative solution that would eliminate the insurance loophole and prevent something like this from happening in the future. 

But for now, the pensioners continue to apply pressure. The holidays are a good time to do so, Hartshorne says. 

The holidays are a time when families gather to cherish each other’s company, to regale each other with tales of life’s milestones over long and plentiful meals. 

Hartshorne said she felt like a member of the St. Clare’s family from her first days there in 1968. But all these years later, she can’t help but feel abandoned by leaders of a hospital that once gave her a second chance at life.  

“The survivors of the St. Clare’s pension collapse are certainly close to my heart,” Bishop Scharfenberger said in a statement. “As I would do with survivors of any difficult or traumatic situation, I offer my pastoral care, and I would meet with any individual in difficulties, even if they are in litigation, provided that counsel on either side would be willing.”

For the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, it’s time to practice what you preach. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: -News-, Andrew Waite, News, Opinion, Opinion, Schenectady, Schenectady County


Amen to practice what you preach and shame on the bishop. The stalling tactic is right from the DJ.Trump playbook. What about all who will never live to see a settlement?
Perhaps one special collection (like was once done for retired nuns) would partially right the wrong. Of course, some accountability and perhaps, jail time might be appropriate.

christophe Stalka

Special collections aren’t needed. Find out where the 50 million from the state went. Look at the ownership of that huge piece of valuable property.the answers are easy to find.

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