ALBANY — The St. Clare’s pensioners’ lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany is set to move forward in Supreme Court in Schenectady County after the diocese chose not to oppose the plaintiffs’ motion to lift a stay on the case prompted by the diocese’s bankruptcy filing.
The March 15 filing paused the pair of cases, which were merged in December, brought by the pensioners and state Attorney General Letitia James that accuse the diocese of violating its fiduciary and legal obligations under state law when 1,100 former St. Clare’s employees lost all or some of their benefits when their pension plan was terminated in February 2019.
With the diocese facing hundreds of pending lawsuits brought by alleged victims of sexual abuse, the diocese has requested that the bankruptcy court allow the St. Clare’s suit to go forward in state court in order to identify potential liability.
The pensioners are seeking at least $55 million in damages from the diocese in order to make the plaintiffs whole.
“Because of the substantial effect a decision will have on its Chapter 11 Reorganization Plan, the diocese has requested that the bankruptcy court require that regular status reports of the progress of the case be provided so that the bankruptcy court and the creditors in the bankruptcy case are apprised of developments that may affect the Chapter 11 proceeding,” the diocese said in a statement. “We are eager to see this matter resolved for the pensioners and for the diocese.”
Mary Hartshorne, chairwoman of the St. Clare’s Hospital Recovery Alliance, on Friday said that she was heartened by the news that the court case will move ahead.
“It’s good news for us definitely because we were in a position of a stay because of the bankruptcy and we don’t have to worry about that now and now we can move forward,” she said. “We were really at a point where we thought we were going to make some good points on our side, so even though they were going to declare bankruptcy, we had filed long before that. So I think we’re in a pretty good position. This is a positive thing.”
The pensioners are receiving legal assistance from the AARP Foundation and attorneys working pro bono in handling the claim against the diocese.
Hartshorne said she is hoping for movement in the legal case this month, but is expecting the legal proceedings to resume in the fall.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, who has been advocating on behalf of the pensioners, says that the diocese’s request for the suit to move ahead represents a good step forward.
“It is and it was the right thing to do and it’s the Christian thing to do right now because the sooner the better we can get an answer and a conclusion to this,” he said on Friday. “It’s very significant for our retirees, who right now are facing the most difficult situation of any group of people. It’s the worst inflation in 40 years, they’re having problems keeping their homes, paying their mortgage and putting food on their table and paying their healthcare bills. Some have already sold their homes.”
In April, Hartshorne penned an open letter to Pope Francis seeking a solution to the pension matter.
“Our devastation is that we have been treated so poorly by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany,” she wrote in the letter. “It is the exact opposite of what we always believed that the church promoted among its family. I beg you to listen to our story and help us to find a solution. I come to you because you are the leader of the Catholic faith, and here in Albany, we have lost faith, especially since the diocese has recently declared bankruptcy. Shame on them. Pope Francis, we have no one to turn to because all of the people that we trusted have lied to us. We are enduring sickness as a result of this, and death is imminent in many cases with each passing day.”
In its statement on Thursday, the diocese said that the hardships that pensioners had suffered as described in Hartshorne’s letter had concerned Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, who urged the former St. Clare’s employees to reach out for assistance, even with the lawsuit pending.
Hartshorne, who has been responding to Twitter posts from Pope Francis’ account by asking the pontiff to respond to her letter, said she believes the letter has caught the attention of church officials.
“I definitely do,” she said. “I had some naysayers in the beginning who told me that it won’t make a difference, but I said it couldn’t hurt and I thought someone would respond to it. I’m still waiting for a receipt, but I’m sure there are a few letters that go to the Vatican. I think knowing what our pensioners are going through personally would affect the pope, bishop and all of them. Because in my opinion, they’ve put the legal approach instead of the caring approach that the church should have had.”
Tedisco says that the pensioners’ efforts are gathering momentum.
“They need financial support from the Catholic constituents and I think they might have gotten serious feedback from individuals who are a part of that affiliation about this not being a Christian thing to do,” he said of the diocese. “I certainly think that affects their ability to be assisted by those parishioners in a financial way. So maybe this is a part of them receiving feedback from Catholics across the region and across the state.”
Contact Ted Remsnyder at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @TedRemsnyder.