With pension plan out of money, Diocese retirees worry

Employees of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., had faith that their pension plan would help them retire.

It won’t. The diocese has canceled the pension program and will cut a one-time check for the workers instead, the Eau Claire Leader Telegram says.

“It’s heartbreaking. You depend on those pension checks,” George Fugina, 70, tells the paper. “I thought I’d be done working soon, but now I guess I’m going to have to stay and keep working.”

He was a janitor at a church for 31 years and planned to retire this year.

The pension plan covered Catholic school teachers, custodians, secretaries, rectory workers and other lay employees throughout the diocese in west Central Wisconsin, but it’s been underfunded for years.

Because it’s run by a religious institution, the pension plan isn’t protected by the federal pension insurance program. Congress made that change in 1974.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of a one-time payout from a diocese to end a pension altogether,” says Charles Zech, an economics research professor and founding director of the Center for Church Management at Villanova University. “You would hope a faith-based organization would do better than that by their employees. The whole thing just doesn’t seem very pastoral to me. We expect more from our church leaders.”

Drexel University professor Norman Stein, a policy adviser for the Pension Rights Center, was more direct.

“It seems to be immoral for a church to screw former employees who they made a promise to and force them to live out their lives in poverty or financially hurting,” Stein tells the Leader Telegram. “You have other choices. For a church to choose to steal from its employees, and ultimately that’s what this really is, is unfortunate.”

Mary Slobodnik, who taught school for 34 years, says she took a lower salary because she thought being in a Catholic school was her calling. But when her $423 monthly pension check stops coming this summer, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

“It’s not a whole lot of money, but I use it for getting groceries and paying some bills,” said Slobodnik, 61, of Altoona, Wis.

She thinks the diocese should sell some of its assets to fund the pension plan.

“The Diocese of La Crosse acknowledges that some may view the decision to be one denying them a promise, and the Diocese hears and recognizes those feelings,” Bishop William Patrick Callahan said in a statement. “As has been witnessed by both religious organizations and private businesses alike, due to market volatility, many employees have found themselves without the support of the retirement funds that they had planned to receive; the Diocese has made a decision in order to avoid that distress and best preserve all employees’ retirement funds.”

One retiree says it would have been nice if the diocese had said “we’re sorry.”