Three busloads of retirees and potential retirees from Our Lady of Fatima Hospital and the former Saint Joseph Hospital protested outside Superior Court on South Main Street Wednesday morning. Inside, Judge Brian Stern heard from involved parties about the status of an underfunded pension that could throw many into poverty. Just over 100 workers, mostly women and mostly nurses, walked up and down the sidewalk in loud protest.
“This is a woman’s issue,” said one retired nurse to me. “This is the way the church treats women.”
Those protesting feel they did everything right. They worked long hours, on holidays and over nights, for low wages because they wanted to do what is right and help people. Having worked all their lives and finally reached the age of retirement, they now find that they are facing lives of poverty.
The two hospitals were sold by the diocese to Prospect Medical Holdings, a California-based, for-profit corporation, three years ago. Since that time, a three-member board of directors at Saint Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island has been responsible for all investment and management decisions regarding the pension fund. In August it was learned that the pension was underfunded by over $40 million and heading for insolvency. Lives are literally on the line here.
Special ire was aimed at Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin, who appointed Reverend Timothy Reilly, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, to the pension board. Tobin denied a “moral responsibility” to the pensioners on the part of himself or the Roman Catholic Church.
Retired nurses Marylin Horan and Rita Battey disagree. “Yeah you do have a moral obligation,” said Horan. For Horan and Battey, the crisis in their pension has also caused a crisis in their faith. They refuse to give any more money to the church until they are made whole.
“I’ve had to separate my faith in God from the Catholic church,” said Battey.
Horan started as a nurse in 1964, getting paid a dollar an hour. After 44 years of dedicated work she retired. Now she faces economic uncertainty.
Both were especially annoyed that a collection was held for the priest retirement fund the week the news broke about their pension. Even though it was only an issue of unfortunate timing, the irony stung. “I don’t think anyone connected to the Catholic Church is blameless,” said Battey.
Laura Tedeschi is a clinical dietician who was laid off in a cost cutting measure after the hospitals were sold. Holding a poster of Tobin, she called it the “face of deception.” Her husband recently passed away and she’s raising her 14-year old daughter on her own. “To find out that the pension I was eligible for is very likely not going to be materializing, is frightening.”
The only elected official at the picket was Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence). Regunberg, who is running for Lt Governor, said he would stand with the pensioners.
After the courthouse the protest moved to Cathedral Square, where Bishop Tobin has his offices and his church. Though neither Tobin nor any Diocesan officials met with the protesters, the diocese did release the following statement:
“Those concerned about the pension situation of St Joseph Health Services are good people who worked long and hard in the health care field. The Diocese of Providence understands and shares their concerns, and we hope that their difficult situation will come to a positive resolution as soon as possible.
“Unfortunately, they have been given some misleading information about this very complex situation. The Diocese of Providence has not been involved in the administration or management of the hospitals for over 50 years. The Diocese of Providence did not create this problem and we are not able to resolve it.
“There were many different parties involved in the corporate transaction between CharterCare and Prospect Medical Holdings in 2014 that led to the current pension problem. Transparency and cooperation from all parties will be important going forward if this problem is to be resolved.”
A nurse told me that she remembered the excellent care she was happy to give to former Providence Bishop Louis Gélineau. That memory is now bittersweet.