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Elderly nuns press U.S. for full benefits

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

By Mike Bucsko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A group of 21 elderly Roman Catholic nuns is going to court to force the federal government to explain why they have been denied their full Social Security benefits. The government says the nuns, who took a vow of poverty, aren't entitled to full supplemental benefits because their order should be taking care of them.

Sister Theresa Churilla is helped with her oxygen by Sister Grace Kundukulam at the Marian Hall Home in Bellevue. (Annie O'Neill/Post-Gazette)

The nuns, members of the School Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, paid into Social Security beginning in the early 1970s so they would have money in their old age. But they have been denied full payments under Social Security's Supplemental Security Income program for the elderly and disabled indigent because of a rule that applies only to members of religious orders.

Their lawyers, John Burt and Sister Mary Traupman, have asked Senior U.S. District Judge Donald E. Ziegler to force the Social Security Administration's appeals board to issue a formal ruling in the case.

Burt and Traupman sought relief in federal court after they waited more than six months for the government to issue a formal ruling, which the appeals board still has not done. The lawyers want some kind of a decision because that would then give them the option of filing a federal lawsuit against the Social Security Administration.

Eighteen of the 21 elderly nuns live at Marian Hall Home, a personal care home in Bellevue operated by a separate, nonprofit arm of their religious order. They range in age from 75 to 95 and many are in failing health, said Traupman, who is a member of the Sisters of Divine Providence.

With full supplemental benefits, the nuns' benefits would be increased by $211.66 per month, Traupman said.

A chief concern of the lawyers is the age and health of the nuns. Eight who were part of the group have died since 1995, Traupman said. Once a Social Security recipient dies, any appeals the person had pending are terminated and whatever money was in dispute remains in government coffers.

The nuns have twice received favorable rulings from an administrative law judge, who found they should receive full back benefits to 1995. But the Appeals Council, which rules on all Social Security and Supplemental Security Income appeals, has rejected the judge's recommendations.

In denying the nuns' appeals, the council used a 1978 Social Security regulation that includes as income the support that a religious order is obligated to provide to its members when they take a vow of poverty. In essence, the government claims the vow of poverty requires the nuns to turn over all their assets to their order and, in exchange, the order is required to provide food, shelter and other support.

In documents in the case, Administrative Appeals Judges Paul Dowd and Andrew Wakshul contend the religious order "cannot undo this obligation" by moving the nuns to a personal care home that it owns.

Carolyn Cheezum, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration at its Baltimore headquarters, compared the nuns' situation to that of recipients of Supplemental Security Income who live with someone else who provides room and board. In both cases, the government reduces the allotment because of the other sources of support, she said.

As a result, the government has reduced by one-third the monthly Supplemental Security Income checks received by the nuns.

Though Marian Hall Home is operated by an entity of the nuns' religious order, it is independent and not exclusively for those with religious vocations, Burt said. It has residents who are not members of religious orders and who are not Catholic, he said. The nuns pay for their care there just like other residents. They do so by having their Social Security checks, which include the Supplemental Security Income allotment, deposited directly to the personal care home account, Traupman said.

Even if the nuns were at a personal care home or other facility not connected to their religious order, it's unlikely the Social Security Administration under its current stance would permit full payments to the nuns, Burt said.

"I could see them saying that regardless of whose personal care home it is," he said.

There is a difference of opinion between the government and the nuns' lawyers about what constitutes a vow of poverty.

Traupman and Burt contend the vow of poverty that is part of the nuns' religious order allows them to retain assets, so long as they receive approval from the head of the order before the assets are dispersed. A priest who is an expert in canon law provided testimony to that effect during the appeal hearing before Administrative Law Judge David Hatfield, but the Appeals Council has not considered the testimony, Burt said.

As with most any government claim, the nuns' attempt to remedy the Social Security problem has a few bureaucratic twists and turns.

Traupman first sought relief in the case in 1998 and filed the first appeals in early 1999. The case was not heard until a year later and the first ruling by Hatfield in favor of the nuns was issued in August 2000. Two months later, the Appeals Council rejected Hatfield's recommendation.

In order to appeal the council's ruling to federal court, the lawyers need a transcript of the Hatfield hearing to prepare their case. Burt requested the recording in writing on three separate occasions over four months, only to find out in February 2001 that the Social Security Administration had lost the tape.

So, they had to start again with a new hearing before an administrative law judge. The second hearing took place in May and Hatfield ruled again in the nuns' favor.

Burt and Traupman have been waiting since then for the Appeals Council to issue a ruling so they can appeal to federal court if that ruling goes against the nuns.

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