In yesterday's story about retirement problems of Roman Catholic nuns, the figure for annual benefits for nuns in the Washington archdiocese should have been $2,000.
Roman Catholic nuns, who built and staffed the church's parochial school system, are more than $2 billion short of the funds needed to care for their increasing number of retired members, according to a church-sponsored study to be released today.
The nationwide survey by Arthur Andersen & Co. detailed a serious problem that has been quietly growing within the church's religious orders for women, with a less severe situation among men's religious orders.
The study found that 47 percent of nuns today are age 65 or over and 38.5 percent are 70 or over, with the median age for all nuns between 62 and 63 and "increasing one year with each calendar year," according to Msgr. Charles J. Fahey, director of Fordham University's Third Age Center in New York City.
"The bottom line is that today we have large numbers of people who are retired, for whom no program of benefits was in place when they were in ministry, who will have to be supported by operating funds" of the religious orders, said Sister Lora Ann Quinonez, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Church leaders familiar with the problem said that some smaller orders are facing a lack of cash flow for their retired members and others are not far from bankruptcy.
Several factors have contributed to the situation: the exodus of younger women from convents in the 1960s, the scarcity of entering novices, the low salaries paid teaching nuns, the increase in life expectancy in the population as a whole and the fact that "nuns tend to live longer" than women in society at large, said Quinonez.
Because most women's religious orders became part of the Social Security system only about 13 years ago, retired nuns who engaged in teaching, medical or charitable works during their working years now average only $2,557 in annual Social Security benefits. It costs the religious orders of women an average of $8,556 annually to care for members over 70, the survey found.
The report was jointly sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the leadership organizations of both men's and women's religious orders. The groups will unveil a two-year program today to address the problem.
To ease the problem, church leaders have discussed proposals ranging from annual collections for retired church workers to financial reorganization and possible mergers of the orders.
The more than 360 orders of nuns in this country, each individually chartered by the Vatican and relatively autonomous, have been particularly vulnerable to social change in both church and society in the past 20 years.
Traditionally, money earned by an individual nun has gone into a common pot to be used for all the needs of her order, from educating newcomers to care of retired members. And though individual earnings were small, the simple life style combined with the constant influx of young members historically made the system work, without formal pension plans or even Social Security.
But all that changed in the 1960s as larger numbers of women, particularly younger women, began leaving the orders, and few newcomers replaced them. The total number of women religious, as nuns are formally called, has dropped from an all-time high of 179,954 in 1965 to the current 113,658.
The church's traditional low pay scale for teaching nuns, the nuns' primary occupation, also contributed to the pension deficit. "The Catholic mind-set is: Nuns are cheaper," said Sister Margaret Cafferty, a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
"No matter what the job, the thought is that if we hire a nun, it should not cost as much as hiring a lay person," Cafferty told a 1984 conference of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities Inc., a Washington-based group that is trying to raise Catholic consciousness about the retirement problem.
Quinonez recalled that when she began as a parochial school teacher in Tulsa in the 1950s, "we were paid $50 a month -- no health care, no retirement. The diocese provided housing and utilities and an automobile, but we paid our own board and other expenses."
On $50 a month, she mused, "there's not heaps left over to take care of our retired people."
Beginning July 1, the pay for nuns teaching in the Washington archdiocese will be $585 a month, plus $1,020 for housing, health insurance, Social Security and retirement.
The burden of caring for elderly nuns may be discouraging young women from entering religious orders, according to some church officials. "I don't see how it can help but have an effect for a younger woman looking into the prospects of joining a [religious] community," said Fahey.
In addition, some nuns are leaving low-salaried jobs that involve working with the poor. Quinonez said that although "we don't want to have to look for jobs where we get paid fat," some women are being encouraged to take a better-paying job "for a period of years" to help their order.
Some have suggested asking alumni of Catholic schools to contribute to the women who taught them. But when 3,500 graduates of Immaculata Preparatory School here were asked two years ago for contributions to a nursing home that would serve the Sisters of Providence nuns who taught them, fewer than 100 responded.
Six months later, when the order announced plans to sell their valuable Northwest Washington property to help provide for the 30 percent of their order who are over 70, affluent patents of Immaculata students went to court to block the sale, charging that the nuns wanted to enrion themselves.
That hurt, said Immaculata teacher Sister Eleanor McAuliffe, 72, who is semiretired. "We didn't serve to be served. We served out of our calling."