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CROWN POINT — Nearly 2,000 current and former employees of a Northwest Indiana hospital have been awarded $4 million in a settlement over allegedly unpaid pensions.

Lemont, Illinois-based Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, which owned then-St. Anthony Medical Center in Crown Point, recently agreed to settle with its former staffers while not admitting to any wrongdoing. The case was heard in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The hospital on South Main Street, now called Franciscan Health Crown Point, since has been sold to the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, a separate order of nuns located in Mishawaka, also known as Franciscan Alliance.

"We are very pleased that the court finally approved the settlement, which provided for a significant monetary recovery for our clients and the class," Michelle Yau, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "The settlement came after a long fight in court and will increase pension benefits for class members."

The plaintiffs had alleged that the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago had underfunded the pension plan by more than $32 million before ultimately terminating it, causing employees to lose as much as 40% of their expected retirement benefits. The former owners claimed that it was a "church plan" and thus exempt from federal pension regulations.

The suit was brought by current and former employees Lenore Owens, Jean Jewett, Lori Buksar and Julia Snyder, who are each to receive $15,000. The plaintiffs' attorneys at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and Keller Rohrback LLP will get $1 million, while the rest of the money was to be divided among the 1,736 members of the settlement class.

The agreement affects employees who were eligible for pensions between 1975 and 1999, when the hospital was sold.

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Tom Hawes, who worked at the hospital from 1981 to 2016, claims to have lost about a third of his pension. He calls the money he expects to get from the settlement "a drop in the bucket" compared to what he was owed.

"It's better than nothing," said Hawes, 72, of Crown Point. "Being a religious institution and a religious order, and having been preached at so many years about things, and to turn around have them kick you in the teeth and hide behind their order, it's just not morally or ethically right. And this order does not live in poverty."

The Franciscan Sisters of Chicago declined to comment on the settlement.

Jill Andrews, who was employed at the hospital from 1974 until January, said she figures she got about half of her promised pension. But she said she is fortunate that she wasn't drawing on her retirement when it was cut.

"I worked with people in dietary back in the day who were single mothers or widowed and were living on this money and all of a sudden you get it cut in half," said Andrews, 61, of Crown Point. "My heart went out to these people."

She referred to the "piddly bit" she's getting from the settlement as "a little vacation, a nice surprise."

"I wouldn't expect Sisters to do that, a Catholic organization to do it, to its employees," she said.

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.