BISHOP SCHARFENBERGER addresses media after meeting with former employees of St. Clare’s. (Photo by Mary DeTurris Poust)
BISHOP SCHARFENBERGER addresses media after meeting with former employees of St. Clare’s. (Photo by Mary DeTurris Poust)

In an effort to identify issues and figure out a way to assist those in need, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger met with former employees of St. Clare’s Hospital Dec. 20 at Siena College, calling it a “first step” in what will be an ongoing conversation. 

“I wanted this to be our time and I wanted to listen to you as a pastor,” Bishop Scharfenberger told the group gathered at the Sarazen Student Union (SSU) on the Loudonville campus. “A lot of people know I was a pastor for many years, and my natural inclination is to want to listen.”

Sponsored by the Diocese of Albany, the event was an opportunity for the Bishop to hear directly from those former employees directly affected by the pension crisis that has been unfolding in recent months.

In October, 1,100 former employees of St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady received a letter of notice that those drawing pensions would either begin receiving smaller checks, or would stop receiving their pension altogether by February 2019. 

While the Diocese is not financially or legally responsible for fixing the pension crisis, Bishop Scharfenberger has voiced a strong desire to help find a solution. Like a shepherd who cares for his flock, the Bishop said he hopes to assist those suffering from the tragic situation. 

“Some of us are 69 or 70 and can’t work,” said a former employee at the gathering. “Some of us are afraid to retire. Some of us are unable to work and were depending on this pension.”

Approximately 100 people attended the discussion, which included a panel that helped moderate the conversation, including Honorable Victoria A. Graffeo, retired judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. In her opening address, Judge Graffeo said the purpose of the meeting was “to listen and learn what we need to know.”

“We are so fortunate to have such a caring Bishop for a really tragic and unfortunate situation,” said Judge Graffeo. “This is so important because having information is having power.”

Other panel members included Jon Allen, a management consultant who specializes in healthcare and non-profit strategies and leadership development; Kevin Testo, a certified public accountant from The Bonadio Group; and Rev. Tom Konopka, a clinical social worker, director of the Albany Diocesan Consultation Center and pastor at St. Mary’s in Clinton Heights. Representatives from St. Clare’s Corporation were notified of the panel discussion but did not attend.

Attendees were seated at tables around the SSU. Each table was asked to discuss their concerns and choose a representative to speak on behalf of the group. The Diocese provided three prompted questions for attendees to spark discussion: What is the level of communication between former employees and the St. Clare’s Corporation, how are individuals being affected, and what would pensioners like Bishop Scharfenberger to take away from the meeting.

Strong feelings
Some in attendance expressed anger regarding what they said was a lack of transparency on the part of St. Clare’s Corporation as to where pension funds went, as well what they classified as a lack of communication between St. Clare’s Corporation and employees who lost their pensions. Concern was also expressed over how people might get their pensions back and how the Diocese could help. 

Many former employees shared personal stories of how the pension loss directly impacts them. Some will no longer be able to afford their current housing and will need to move; others don’t know when, or if, they will be able to retire without a pension to sustain them. 

A former nurse who served at St. Clare’s for 24 years, echoed the Bishop’s call for the listening session saying, “This was the time for meaningful conversation and to make things right.”

“We hoped to travel in our retirement, we have healthcare we can’t afford, [and] we have an adult disabled daughter [we support],” an attendee said of his family. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

“A lot of people planned for retirement with this as part of their plan, and they’re scared to death as to what will happen,” said another former employee. “We want to include the Diocese and state, and work together to get this done.”

Along with the grief, attendees spoke highly of the close bond shared between St. Clare’s employees. 

“What a great family reunion this is despite the circumstances,” said a former employee of 14 years. “We’re a family. My kids were born at St. Clare’s and the care at St. Clare’s was second to none.”

“Bishop, I want to thank you for having this opportunity because this is what we need,” the employee continued. “We need dialogue and we need to figure out how we’re going to solve this.”

Bishop responds
“I wish I could tell you I had a solution,” said Bishop Scharfenberger as he addressed the crowd at the end of the session. “But as you get to know me, you see I have a pastoral heart, and I hear you. I hear you from the depths of my heart.”

After the event, a statementfrom Bishop Scharfenberger was released by the Albany Diocese.

It read, in part:

“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.”

Although the Albany Diocese never oversaw operations of St. Clare’s, it has been affiliated with the hospital since 1919, when the Diocese purchased land for the hospital. Bishop Scharfenberger is currently a member of the board of St. Clare’s Corporation, joining in 2015 at the invitation of the board president. It was then that Bishop Scharfenberger first became aware of pension issues and urged the board to notify pensioners immediately. At that time, pension funding was expected to last, depending on one’s plan, until 2024 to 2028. In October of this year, however, pensioners were notified that the plan would terminate in early 2019, with some pensioners receiving 70 percent of their expected pension and others, depending on when they reached retirement age, receiving nothing. Because the St. Clare’s pension is what is known as a “church plan,” it is not covered by federal pension insurance.

“I would sell my house if I could, but I can’t fix this alone,” said Bishop Scharfenberger to the former employees sharing their stories Dec. 20. “I need to work with you, with anybody who can help. So, help me.”