It is great to see the growing support for the St. Clare's Hospital retirees whose pensions will soon be cut or eliminated.
These retirees deserve better than the broken promises and lack of accountability that leave them facing a much poorer retirement than the one they were told to expect.
The Schenectady hospital closed down 10 years ago, and was plagued by financial struggles in the years leading up to its state-mandated shutdown. Today the pension fund's assets total $29 million, but obligations to current and future St. Clare's retirees are estimated at $68.7 million.
That's a big gap, and while it goes a long way toward explaining the financial bombshell that's hit St. Clare's retirees, it shouldn't excuse what's happened.
These men and women were promised pensions in exchange for their years of hard work, and those promises have now been revealed to be little more than empty words.
What's been especially disappointing has been the collective lack of responsibility for this debacle from key stakeholders.
St. Clare's was a Catholic hospital, affiliated with and sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. Former Bishop Howard Hubbard chaired the hospital's board of trustees in its final days and negotiated its closure, and current Bishop Edward Scharfenberger sat on the board of directors of the St. Clare's Corp. until very recently.
Despite this very close association, the diocese maintains that it never owned or operated St. Clare's and is thus not responsible for its pension costs.
The diocese's initial statement to The Daily Gazette was notable for its cold, even callous tone: "The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany was never involved in the governance or operation of St. Clare's Hospital or St. Clare's Corporation, including their assets, liabilities and pension plan. We have no further comment beyond our statement. All questions regarding St. Clare's must be directed to the St. Clare's Corporation."
The diocese's tone shifted last week, when Scharfenberger issued a more conciliatory statement in which he remarked upon how "deeply affected" he was by the "stories of struggling I am hearing from you related to the loss or decrease in your much-needed pensions. I understand that for many of you this situation has left you in dire straits in what should be your retirement years."
He then recommended that the diocese offer to facilitate and mediate discussions between pensioners and the trustees of St. Clare's Corporation, which administers the pension fund.
Which is a step in the right direction, if nothing else, and perhaps a reason for the hope.
As to whether the diocese has a legal responsibility to the St. Clare's retirees, I cannot say.
But it certainly has a moral responsibility to do more.
The diocese is not the only entity that bears some responsibility for the St. Clare's pension crisis.
A resolution passed by the Schenectady County Legislature also singled out the state of New York, saying the state ordered the closure of St. Clare's without providing adequate funding to stabilize the pension fund. Another key player, the St. Clare's Corporation, has endorsed the Legislature's resolution.
Fixing the pension fund's precarious finances won't be easy.
But we owe it to the retirees to try.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]