LOUDONVILLE — The leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany met Thursday with scores of former St. Clare’s Hospital employees whose pensions have been reduced or eliminated.
It was their first face-to-face dialogue on the crisis, which some have blamed on the diocese. It was mainly a listening and information session, with no solution offered -- only a pledge to work toward a solution.
The diocese initially said it would allow media coverage of the meeting but later backtracked, saying it wanted the meeting to be personal and private.
Afterward, the hundred-plus pensioners who attended had mixed reactions, with one telling The Daily Gazette she felt optimistic and another saying he felt like he’d been to a dog and pony show with limited substance.
For his part, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger described the meeting as the first step in a journey he would make with the pensioners as they sought a solution.
Lori Daviero, of Amsterdam, a leader in the effort to restore pension benefits to 1,100-plus former St. Clare’s employees, said she found cause for hope at Thursday’s meeting.
“It was very positive,” she said. “We left the meeting feeling very positive the bishop was going to present all our questions, all our concerns, at the next meeting” of the board of directors of the St. Clare’s Corp.
Daviero estimated the crowd numbered about 120, and she said their mood changed as the meeting progressed.
“They came in with a negative attitude and left with a positive attitude,” she said. “They wanted to be heard.”
And they got their chance, Daviero said; some described the dire financial straits they suddenly found themselves in.
She said she had not expected Scharfenberger to offer a solution Thursday, but she was happy with his response.
“He spoke with us," she said. "He didn’t specifically say he was on our side, but he said he hears us and he knows we need to be heard. He more or less said … ‘Where does the money come from?’ He didn't know.”
Eric Ziemann, of Saratoga Springs, left the meeting nonplussed.
“It was pretty much what I expected -- a lot of platitudes,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to accomplish.”
Ziemann said it was a lively crowd Thursday.
“A lot of energy -- I’d say well over a hundred people showed up, and dozens spoke, and people are pretty angry, and righteously so.”
One pensioner spoke of being the caregiver for a handicapped child. Another spoke of his wheelchair-bound wife. Others spoke of losing their homes, Ziemann said. He said the bishop responded with compassion, but no solutions: “He seems to want to work with us to get some financing to save this pension.”
Ziemann said the best part of the meeting was its unifying effect on the pensioners.
“It was a [public relations] show, this was,” Ziemann said. “But it sort of got us together, so that’s a good thing. It’s caused more cohesion in that group. There’s supposed to be more meetings. We’ll see what happens. Trust but verify, right? So we’ll see.”
Ziemann is among approximately 443 former St. Clare’s employees whose pensions are being reduced by about 30 percent. Daviero is among approximately 661 whose pensions are being eliminated.
After Thursday’s meeting, the diocese released the following statement from Scharfenberger:
“I am grateful to all those who expressed interest in today’s meeting — especially local media and political leaders who have been at the forefront of this issue for some time. Thank you for being respectful of our wishes to keep this conversation with former St. Clare’s employees as informal and personal as possible.
“Today’s gathering was never meant to be an information session; rather it was intended as a way for me to be a pastor to my people. Sometimes, it’s a fine line a bishop has to walk between being the leader of the ‘business’ side of the Church and being the spiritual father that is at the heart of my vocation and work. Today was about the latter.
“What we were attempting to do today was somewhat counter-cultural. Rather than making proclamations or seeking the spotlight, we wanted to do just the opposite, to provide a safe, quiet and private place for a conversation that was at times very difficult. We expect that there will be future events related to this matter, and we look forward to collaborating with local legislators and giving access to media at that time.
“Right now, my main concern is for the well-being of these former employees of St. Clare’s. I want to walk with them on the challenging journey they face. Today was the first step.”
The diocese has maintained that it never owned or operated the now-defunct Schenectady hospital and is not now responsible for solving its pension crisis. But some pensioners and local officials say the diocese's association with the Catholic-run hospital was too long and too close to ignore, and the diocese now has a moral, if not legal, responsibility to act.
The diocese and its leaders had a continual presence at the hospital -- buying land for it in 1919, recruiting a religious order from outside the diocese to run it, helping dedicate it in 1949 and helping shut it down in 2008. Scharfenberger until recently sat on the board of St. Clare’s Corporation, the successor entity that administers the pension fund.
The former hospital in Schenectady surrendered its operating license in 2008. Because there were only minimal contributions to the pension fund in the decade before closure, and none at all in the decade since, there is now not enough money in the fund to pay the 1,100 pension-eligible employees what they were promised. The shortfall has been estimated to be as large as $53.5 million.
Critically, years before closure, St. Clare’s administrators took advantage of a clause in federal pension law that allowed church-affiliated hospitals to opt out of federal pension insurance, leaving no safety net for retirees.
Along with the diocese, other possible solutions include a rescue by New York state, which ordered St. Clare’s closed as part of a statewide streamlining in 2008. (What is now called Ellis Medicine absorbed St. Clare’s as part of that process).
But the state Department of Health has said the $50 million in taxpayer money it paid to facilitate the 2008 merger — including $28.5 million for the pension fund — was the end of its financial involvement.
Ellis was absolved of any St. Clare’s pension responsibility as a condition of the merger 10 years ago and has said it will not provide money to shore up the fund now.
The plight of the former St. Clare’s employees has gained increasing attention and sympathy in the past two months, with news coverage and social media campaigns prompting support from elected officials. An online petition in support of fixing the pension plan had garnered 4,057 signatures as of Thursday evening.
Against this background, the diocese softened its tone, moving from a blunt rejection of responsibility to an empathetic call for dialogue, while maintaining it isn’t responsible to bail out the pension fund and can not afford to do so.