With a great deal of media and political attention surrounding the temporarily cooled Rhode Island and Hasbro Children’s Hospitals UNAP strike, a recent episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast that featured former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet reignited my attention on another ongoing healthcare workers’ rights issue in Rhode Island: allegations that Bishop Tobin and The Catholic Diocese of Providence mismanaged the nurses’ pension fund and could leave retirees, including some four-decade-long employees, in destitution at the end of their lives.
Ms. Violet, a former nun who is a pro bono attorney for many of the elderly retired nurses in this matter, displayed striking passion as she described a situation that she clearly identifies as unjust.
Arlene Violet: I remember when I was a young nun picketing with those nurses who were trying to start a union. But it’s also very discouraging because I was a nun for 23 years and it’s so discouraging to me to see how unjust The Catholic Church is in this situation. I mean, for example, these nurses worked for far less money (than if they had worked at public or private hospitals), as part of their vocation to earn less at a Catholic hospital. They were promised this pension. When Bishop Tobin got here 10 years ago, he gradually stopped giving the necessary contributions to that pension. Meanwhile, mailings would go out saying that everything was copacetic with the pension, until last August, (when) The Diocese had the pension file into receivership and said, ‘Everybody should be cut 40%.’ Now, I represent pro bono all of the the older people ages 75 to 99 years of age, who get an average pension of $750 per month with no cost of living increase. There’s no way that you can cut them 40%!
The other part of it, Bill, is that the nurses were making a dollar an hour, so their social security check is de minimis. So here are people who have worked 40, 45 years of their lives, and they are faced with potentially going on welfare at the end of their lives, which is such an insult to them. It’s very discouraging to me that The Diocese put them in this situation.
Bill Bartholomew (Motif): What is a way out at this point for The Diocese?
AV: (The Diocese) certainly has property. One of the counts in state courts alleged fraudulent conveyance, which means that (Bishop Tobin) sold off (Catholic) hospitals knowing that the pension funds would be hurt. But he did it anyway. (It also alleged) that they colluded with the people buying these hospitals to not fund the pension with some of the proceeds. So, if we prove fraudulent conveyance, the nurses own the hospitals. My clients, the bakers, the candlestick makers will end up owning those hospitals, which we can then sell to put the money back into the pension. That’s the strongest argument that we have.
Ms. Violet went on to say that the nurses might not be the only Catholic workers whose pensions may be in jeopardy, with teachers and other education workers potentially heading for a similar situation.
AV: What’s awful now is what may be happening to the teachers who are in the Catholic school system, and all of the janitors, all the people who work for The Diocese. That hasn’t been officially announced, but it would be a darn shame if they take a hit like this as well. There’s no reason for it! It’s an issue of priorities, and the priorities of this Bishop have been totally off-base as far as I’m concerned.
A call to Bishop Tobin’s office was not returned in time for publication of this article. Look for additional pieces on this topic in Motif as the situation surrounding the Catholic workers’ pension fiasco continues to expand.