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.”

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

    They don't seem to do that for much of anything…

    The Catholic church has a $170 Billion operating budget. You'd think they'd be able to help out their own pensioners.

    • Mike

      All organized religion is a scam, but the Catholic Church is in a league of its own. I remember years ago going to the Vatican Museum in Rome. Room after room of priceless art and antiquities, the wealth of which could scarcely be estimated. But when it comes to taking care of its workers or making amends for victims of its own sexual predators, they plead poverty. How they get away with it I have no idea.

      • Agreed 100%…and I’ve visited the Vatican as well (some of my father’s ashes are scattered in St. Peter’s Square (don’t tell the Pope).

        I thought the exact same thing – “So much wealth”, and then right outside the Vatican…beggars asking for scraps.

      • Kassie

        I think of the money they have and how they can’t even take care of their own cemeteries. I toured the Saint Louis cemetery in New Orleans. Basically a non-profit keeps it running and in shape, even though it is owned by the Catholic Church. It is all a scam. Anywhere they can push the burden onto the government or non-profits, they do. They are also lobbying against sex abuse laws that favor victims.

      • ec99

        I recall the climax to the book/movie “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” in which Pope Kiril I declares he will liquidate the Church’s treasure to aid a poverty-stricken world.

    • DJ Wambeke

      It’s a bit more complex than this. 150 of that 170 billion figure is actually the budget for catholic-affiliated hospitals and institutions of higher education. The budget of all parishes in the US comes to about 11 billion. (Not sure if the remaining 9 billion is all diocesan or other, though.)
      It’s certainly the case that the diocese of La Crosse did wrong to its employees by not properly funding the pension for many years, but given that reality the decision right now to give the money in a lump sum payment may actually be a good decision. The article does say that the effect will vary by individual, but some people will end up with more money this way.

  • Angry Jonny

    The Catholic Church: screwing the young and the old alike.

    • crystals


  • Veronica

    Churches have exemptions to pretty much all labor laws. If you’ve been working for a Church, you can’t get unemployment insurance, they can mandate you meet a religious test for employment…and I guess they can screw over pensioners now too.

    Do NOT work for a church. It doesn’t matter the denomination, just don’t do it.

    • Al

      I think the dioceses, synods, etc. are masters at navigating policy and their respective legislatures (and Congress), and a lot of churches–a majority of Minnesota churches are quite small–get dragged along in the wake. Stinks.

      • Veronica

        Maybe, but the small churches also benefit by being able to pay less, not have to afford their workers basic protections, etc. All of these things add up to not much accountability and create an environment ripe for abuse of all kinds—all in the name of religion.

        • Al

          Many churches do. Many don’t.

  • Barton

    Have these pensioners/employees no recourse? A class-action suit? Outright suing the diocese?

  • MrE85

    File Under: Sins of the Fathers

    • Bob Sinclair

      I see what you did there 🙂

  • 212944

    Great question, one which should be in place for any employer. The lack of oversight and responsibility to fulfill obligations is … well, should be … criminal. But in reality has become a business model.

    That we don’t see images on the news of people storming the gates with torches and pitchforks continues to amaze me.

  • Frank

    The diff between a failing private pension and a failing public pension is one cannot simply pick deeper into the public’s pockets to make up for a feckless disregard of fiduciary responsibility.

    There are several state/municipal pensions that are broke right now. Let’s see how they deal with it.

  • Frank

    Well, now you’re changing the issue. You suggested a lack of fiduciary responsibility in your first comment; but OK.

    The Diocese of La Cross financial audit is available here:


    There are also summaries of the various benefit packages they offered.

    Many Catholic diocese are in financial straights because of lawsuit settlements.

    That’s their problem, and I have little sympathy for them; they put the policies in place that allowed a culture of pedorasty to flourish. But that doesn’t mean they’re just out to cheat their employees.

  • JoeInMidwest

    Sounds like the parish was telling the long time employees, that they were in their thoughts and prayers, but no longer in their pension program. I wonder if the priests are affected.

  • AL287

    The millions that was spent by Bishop Raymond Burke (now Cardinal Burke) to build the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe just outside La Crosse would have gone a long way to fund the retirement of diocesan workers who now find themselves facing the poor house.

    Raymond Burke got himself into hot water with Pope Francis and was removed from his job as Prelate of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s version of the U.S. Supreme Court.

    I wonder what Pope Francis would have to say about this development