DISCLAIMER

Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Daniel Croteau Murder, Part 6



1996

Although Richard Lavigne would not be prosecuted after his blood didn’t match blood left at the scene of the murder, no murder investigation is ever closed if it remains unsolved, according to the State Police. But without an active investigation, could the public release of impounded documents prompt a break in a cold case? That question was at the center of a newspaper’s argument for the disclosure of documents—a fight that began in October of 1993.

The Springfield Union-News began the new year by continuing its battle for the public release of a 178-page report by a state trooper that he had filed in his application to take a sample of Lavigne’s blood. The D.A.’s office was against lifting the gag order, saying that releasing the records would have a “chilling effect,” keeping other witnesses from coming forward in future investigations. The newspaper’s bid resulted in an unlikely alliance between the D.A.’s office and Lavigne’s defense team, which wanted to keep the records sealed because Stern felt his client would not get a fair civil trial in Hampden Superior Court if they were viewed by the public.

Judge Moriarty had said in 1993 that the impoundment order protected Lavigne’s right to a fair trial, along with the names of the witnesses in the reports. But he had also stated that the order would be “automatically dissolved” at the close of any criminal proceeding.

Prosecutors insisted, however, that the case remained open, even though there was no indictment.

A skeptical Joseph Pessolano, the Union-News lawyer, asked the judge to take a hard look at the D.A.’s “ongoing investigation” claim to determine if it was being misapplied to protect the reports.

On February 12 Judge Moriarty ruled in favor of the Union-News, saying the notion that the investigation in “is more theoretical than real.” But a last-minute appeal prevented the release.

“There is always the possibility of a deathbed confession,” pointed out Assistant District Attorney Jane Davidson Montori. “If all this is disclosed, there will be no way to corroborate information if such a confession is made.”

Pessolano called the deathbed confession argument weak. “Deathbed confessions happen on TV. It would certainly be a rare event,” he said. “To continue to impound all these materials, even forever, is clearly against the public interest. These are public documents, documents to which the public has a right.”

State Appeals Court Judge Elizabeth Porada saw it the same way. On March 27, she released the documents, which were heavily censored. In them, State Trooper Thomas Daly, who led the investigation, believed Lavigne was a “preferential” child molester who accumulated many victims with elaborate, ritualistic seduction methods that are typically engaged in “even when they are counter-productive to getting away with the criminal activity.” This behavior is in contrast to the more common “situational” molester, who doesn’t necessarily have a preference for children, but abuses them when the opportunity presents itself. Many victims in the files told the story of a priest who walked a thin tightrope, carefully courting boys, abusing them, and then warning them not to tell. Police say he was taking a calculated risk, hoping that no one would ever suspect a priest of molestation. His plotting even went as far as giving one victim a “piggy back” ride up the St. Mary’s rectory stairs at night so the pastor wouldn’t hear two pairs of feet stepping up the stairs.



The St. Mary’s rectory (above)

He would often ask his victims to spend the night, drink alcohol, shower, and then invite them to sleep in his bed, offering them oversized T-shirts to use as pajamas to make it easier to grope them. The witness statements offered account after account of Lavigne’s methods, carefully executed, with most resulting in abuse. They were remarkable in their similarities: beginning with snuggling, back scratching, and tickling—and ending in sex, along with the victims’ confusion, shame, and silence about the incident for years.

That silence was perpetuated by the shadow of the murder, with victims convinced Lavigne could get away with anything.

Lavigne had a tried and true seduction system, according to several complaints. In one, he gave a nine-year-old a bath twice at the rectory—both times after they went fishing. “Father washed my privates front and back with his hands,” read his statement. “He didn't do it the way I wash myself. He was pushing and rubbing hard.”

Charles Shattuck told Daly about the time Lavigne took his son Joseph fishing. “According to my son, Father Lavigne was upset about something and threw a rock at him.” A rock, the murder weapon used on Croteau, also surfaces in another account of Lavigne’s allegedly volatile temper. The incident that took place during his first assignment in Easthampton: returning to the rectory late at night, long after curfew, he picked up a rock and smashed the door window to gain entry after the pastor locked him out. Incredibly, the source of this tale was none other than Lavigne himself: in the late 1960s he laughingly recounted the episode to many parishioners to show them that the pastor couldn’t boss him around.

These last two stories involve Lavigne losing his temper and impulsively picking up a rock and using it violently. What isn’t known is how much weight these assertions would have if the case were ever brought to trial for murder. But that prospect was looking more and remote as the months went by, because the case languished again.

1998

Neither time, money, nor therapy could heal the emotional wounds of Lavigne victim Raymond Chelte Jr., a former member of the Circle Gang. On the morning March 28, 1998, the forty-two-year-old was found dead by his girlfriend, at his kitchen table in Perris, CA, after a night of speedballing—mixing cocaine and heroin. He died while reaching for his cigarette in an ashtray. His arm was still outstretched, but the cigarette was out. His girlfriend touched him. Maybe he had just passed out, she thought. No. He was cold. Dead.

When I talked to the late Raymond Chelte Sr. about his son on August 2, 2003, he was blunt about what he wished for Lavigne. “I hope he goes to prison,” he said. “I hope and I pray that they nail the bastard.” Chelte blamed Lavigne for his son’s fatal overdose four years after the 1994 settlement with the diocese.

“It was a suicide,” said Chelte. “Lavigne ruined his life. He had no confidence in himself at all. He just hated himself. He was an alcoholic and drug addict ever since he was in junior high school, and he got worse as he got older.” 

Chelte helped start the St. Catherine Athletic Association shortly after the church was built in 1964 and said that his son was a talented sandlot and high school pitcher with a lot of promise. “But getting high was more important to him than baseball,” he said. He regretted not recognizing the signs that the boy had been abused, but who would have suspected a priest? “We never realized what was happening at the time,” he said. “We couldn’t pinpoint why he was on drugs and booze, and that was the reason.”


Photo: Raymond Chelte Sr.

Lavigne, he said, fooled everybody, taking advantage of the pride and prestige families felt in hosting a priest for dinner. “We all liked him,” he said. “He used to have dinner with my family every once in a while. He used to take his collar and his shoes off and eat my mother's Lebanese cooking. And the whole time the prick was molesting my kid.”

He began to suspect that Lavigne was a little strange when two of his sons came home from a pool party at the St. Catherine Church one night and were visibly upset. “They told me that Father Lavigne dove into the pool naked, swam up to them, and wanted to hear their confessions,” he said. “I told them, ‘No more pool parties.’”

Chelte also believed Lavigne molested and killed Croteau. “He was always with the Croteau boy,” he said. “I lived near Danny’s school bus stop, and Danny would get off the bus and run right over to the rectory and meet him every day.”

A Korean War veteran, Chelte thought that putting his son in the Navy shortly after he turned eighteen would get him out of the Sixteen Acres partying scene and put him on the right path. “I hoped it would straighten him out,” he said. But he began to use drugs again, was pronounced medically unfit for service, and received a regular discharge after a year. After making made numerous attempts to get off heroin with methadone treatment, his son finally seemed to be on the verge of turning his life around in the 1980s. Chelte Sr. recalled a visit from his boy in 1987, when he was living in Texas. “He was clean and dry for two or three months and was looking for a job,” he said. “We bought him some suits and new eyeglasses, and he went back to Texas, and, the next thing I knew he was off the wagon again, and his wife threw him out.” They were divorced the following year.

Chelte said that he had no idea that his son was one of the seventeen people who sued the Springfield Diocese until he read about the lawsuit in the Union-News in 1993. “That was a shocker,” he said. “I was in a restaurant having coffee with some of my buddies, and one of them says, ‘Ray, do you have a son named Ray? He’s in an article.’ Sure enough, there it was. It knocked my socks off.”

After the 1994 settlement, Chelte Jr. had a chance to confront his demons and get on with his life, but “I couldn’t help him, and neither could the psychiatrists,” said his father. The trauma of being sexually abused as a pre-teen was too much for him. The money he received in the lawsuit “went up his nose and in his arm,” he said. “He was broke a year after the settlement.”

He said that he and Daniel Croteau’s brother Michael talked many times about exacting revenge on Lavigne. “We tried to figure out how to get him without going to jail,” he said.

Chelte said that his son’s revelation helped explain his lengthy bouts with substance abuse, a problem shared by his friends in the Circle gang. He admits that many of the neighborhood parents fretted about their teenage kids drinking alcohol in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and they tried to prevent that much as they could. “But we the drug stuff we couldn’t stop,” he said. “Ray was out of control. I used to take painkillers because I injured my back in the war, and he used to steal them.” He believed that his son even staged a burglary at his house when the family was on vacation so his friends in the Circle could sell the Cheltes’ valuables.

He was sure that Lavigne’s involvement with the Circle was responsible for much of the gang’s drug abuse, alcoholism, and penchant for violence. “Who knows how many kids in the gang he abused—and how many of them will never admit it, as long as they live?” he asked.

* * * * * * * *

On June 18, 2003, I interviewed James Coleman, author of The Circle, at his home. He knew both Daniel Croteau and Lavigne, and he too thought the priest murdered the boy. Coleman, who died three years later at eighty-five, went to his grave believing Danny was killed because he was ready “to spill the beans of the stuff Lavigne was doing.”

Coleman said Danny was “well-adjusted, open, friendly, likable, and was not overly aggressive but he was definitely not the kind of boy that anyone could push around easily.” He remembered that Lavigne “had a good personality” and was providing church outreach with the gang, and it looked like “he was making some inroads.” Danny wasn’t in the Circle, but the last time Coleman saw Danny Croteau was a week before the murder at the group’s hangout, even though Coleman knew that his parents didn’t want him to get involved with the gang. “And I don’t blame them,” he said. “They were rough kids.”

But Danny did make an appearance at the Circle a week before he was killed. “I was a little bit surprised that he showed up, but he was welcome,” he said. The kids were happy to see him. They treated him well. And then a week or so later, Danny was murdered.”

He wondered aloud if Croteau would be alive today if he hung around the Circle more instead of Lavigne. “This is what happened when he went with the priest,” he said. “He was killed. Isn’t that something? He would have been better off if he were with us.”

Like many, he believed that there was enough circumstantial evidence to bring charges against Lavigne. “What are they waiting for?” he asked.


Coleman himself was not without controversy. In 1968, when the Circle Gang found a large set of keys in the House of Television parking lot, he overheard them bragging that they are going to take joy rides with the store’s trucks, so he snatched the keys and brought them back to the store. But when House of Television got burglarized and trucks were broken into, the police theorized that someone had made copies of the keys. They threatened Coleman with a larceny charge unless he named the kids who used the keys, but he called the cops’ bluff and said nothing.

His feud with police continued after the book’s publication, when he alleged that the police department, including Captain Robert Meffen (pictured below), were trying to prohibit sales of The Circle and attempting to get people to sign a complaint against him. In turn, he contacted the ACLU. He also butted heads with D.A. Matty Ryan, who blasted the book after admitting he never read it.






Coleman also clashed with some members of the Circle Gang and their parents when the book came out. Some of their beefs are chronicled here. A former member, who Coleman called Jack Sutton in the book, commented in the post, “As for Coleman, I didn’t trust him. Seemed like a pervert to me. What the hell is a grown man hanging around with young boys? As for wrestling, he sure liked it.” Sutton also said Coleman drove the members to gang fights at such places like the Eastfield Mall. “We fought the Mall Rats, Ludlow, and some we didn’t know who they were,” he wrote. “If he needed to go somewhere, he was right there. I didn’t like the man and he knew it.”

Sutton also wrote that after the book came out, “it took a few months and his reign with the Circle Gang was over.” That statement does have a ring of truth to it, because in an article on November 8, 1970 in The Sunday Republican, Coleman seems to distance himself from the gang, saying, “The newer group which has just taken over The Circle area is older, between 18 and 25, and uses narcotics and drinks pretty heavily. Still, he said he saw Danny Croteau at The Circle a week before he was murdered, so he must have come back into the fold—or at least tried.

Coleman indeed was an interesting man. He was training to be a concert pianist at the Julliard School when World War II broke out, and the government needed physicists, so he joined the Navy. After the war he went to New York University (BA in physics) and Columbia (MA mathematics), then worked on guided missile warheads at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Silver Spring, MD from 1947 to 1950.

His love for the piano was evident when I interviewed him and he introduced his elevated backyard garden terrace as “the largest piano in Sixteen Acres.” Indeed, the wall had that classic Steinway curve shape. This probably explains the dirty look I got from him when I hopped up on his backyard “piano” wall to take a higher-angle photo of him:


However, Sutton’s use of the word “pervert” wasn’t the first time such a pejorative was used to describe Coleman. The sister of The Circle member Mickey Callahan (Coleman’s pseudonym) said she had heard some things. And in my original interview with Carl Croteau in 2003, he said that Lavigne told Carl to be careful of Coleman and his real motives with “all this wrestling stuff”—that there was something wrong with the professor. “He had no kind words for Coleman,” said Carl. “Not in this house. Here he was, planting the bad seed in people’s minds about Coleman, and he was the real molester.” Did Carl believe Lavigne at the time? “No,” he said. “I remember telling Danny to be careful, but James Coleman didn’t strike me as the type.”

“Dad, he’s all right,” Danny told his father.

“I asked my other sons about him,” said Carl. “They said he never laid a hand on them.”

But Raymond Chelte Sr. said Coleman performed oral sex on several Circle Gang members. “He used to give those kids blowjobs,” he said. “Sorry, I can’t think of a politer way of saying it. He was a piece of trash. He wanted information for his book, and the kids wanted money. He said he didn’t have any money, and this is how he paid them. A couple of them told me this. They said, ‘How else do you think he would be getting all the information to write the book? You don’t think we like him, do you?’ They didn’t trust adults. We were the enemies.”

I had a hard time believing this. Coleman didn’t strike me as the type, and this sort of talk sounded like some kids who were pissed off about the book getting back at him. I am not alone. After Sutton wrote his comment in the blog, a commenter wrote, “I spent a lot of time Prof. Coleman’s house—he opened his home to all of us, especially those of us from what they called broken homes. It is where I was first introduced to wrestling. All who wrestled with us at Prof. Colman's home enjoyed wrestling against our own schools’ teams. As far as Coleman and the label “pervert,” that a tough one for me to believe. In the four years I wrestled there I never heard or experienced anything that would even conjure up the “P word.”

However, another commenter wrote that in the mid-1970s, Coleman was hanging around his gang and they had their suspicions. This group used meet at “Elsden’s Field,” a vacant lot diagonally across the street from The Circle, on the corner of Frank Street and Parker Street. “I can say I know Coleman when he was researching for a second book that I heard was never written,” he wrote. “Someone stole his notes though, and he pretty much got dissed from us, possibly on account that we thought he was gay.”

So there are two different schools of thought on Coleman. Was he a “person of interest” in the murder case? The original police report noted that “Danny was taken up with [name redacted] while the [redacted] was getting material for his book. He was supposed to wrestle at the [name redacted] home.” Two pages later, Radwanski noted, “Danny Croteau sometime came to the [name redacted] home on Tuesdays to practice wrestling.” Still, the police were looking at all adult males whom Danny knew. And if the “pervert” label was true, why hasn’t one person come forward with an accusation in all these years?


* * * * * * * *

2002

In February of 2002, when Lavigne was four months away from the end of his ten-year probation, Stern said of his notorious client, “He’s had a perfect and clean record for these ten years. He was and is a very decent man. He was, in fact, a great priest.”

Indeed, despite his notoriety, he still had his supporters. Therein lies the dichotomy of Richard Lavigne. He had been both loved and loathed his entire career as a priest. Even if you look past the molestations—which is nearly impossible to do—was Lavigne, as Stern insisted, a “great” priest? It depends who you ask. Looking back on his career, it isn’t difficult to see how he parishioners had strong—and mixed—feelings about the man. It’s also a textbook study of what some would argue is a narcissistic personality.



Lavigne, who attended Assumption Preparatory School in Worcester, MA, graduated from Assumption College, where he majored in philosophy and the classics. He received his master’s degree in theology at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Albany, N.Y., where members of the faculty were concerned about the man’s emotional stability in 1966, according to records released to the public.

When Lavigne faced charges in 1991, there were accounts in the press of a priest who was “an incredible guy” according to one former altar boy. “He never took advantage of me and he had plenty of opportunity,” he said. “We went away together, to his parents’ house in Chicopee, to Vermont. I saw the good side of Father Lavigne and the good side is very, very good.”

At the time, many Lavigne supporters couldn’t believe the charges because, like that former altar boy, they had been alone with him many times and he never took advantage of them. For example, I talked to another former altar boy at St. Catherine, who I’ll call Bob. He recalled spending a few nights in his bed, and the priest’s hands never strayed. However, Bob’s brother settled a lawsuit with the Springfield diocese after he accused Lavigne of abusing him.

Yes, the police files point to Lavigne as the kind of pedophile that didn’t take advantage of every situation—each one had to be approached guardedly. Investigators point to a procedure, paced with patience. “Lavigne manipulated these boys, developing the relationship slowly and cautiously,” according to State Trooper Thomas Daly. He “developed relationships with these boys through a deliberate, calculating process.”

Even Father Sousa had conflicting feelings about Lavigne when he was first charged. On the one hand, he remembered a priest who could captivate a church—or a room—full of people, a man who he admired so much he eventually joined the priesthood. As an altar boy at St. Mary’s, Father Sousa saw a priest who was “intelligent, artistic, and presented tremendous homilies. He had a great rapport with people. He was the model priest of what I wanted to be.” But he was also the reason Sousa eventually left the priesthood. When he watched Kenneth Chevalier, a cousin of Lavigne, describe on TV the adult oversize T-shirt the priest commanded him to wear to bed, “I was paralyzed. He was telling my story,” said Sousa.

In 1972, when Sousa was in tenth grade, police came to his home to question him about the murder. He answered the questions, but never told them about the abuse. “No one asked about it,” he said.

In the late 1960s, Lavigne had fascinated the younger crowd at St. Catherine by openly feuding with older priests and conservative churchgoers. During a sermon in which he criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam, George Doyle, the lead tenor in the choir shouted, “Are you saying we should have a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam?” Lavigne said he was, prompting a loud argument with the decorated World War II Army Air Corps veteran. “You have no right to say that while our men are fighting over there!” he yelled, according to Carl Croteau Sr.. Later, pastor Thomas Griffin asked the tenor if he would stop speaking out so heatedly in church. "I will if he will,” Doyle answered.

Lavigne didn’t stop. When “the counterculture had reached Sixteen Acres,” according to a St. Catherine parishioner, he was seen as the kind of a priest who could keep kids interested in religion.

Lavigne managed to charm so many teenagers, according to Bob, because “he came to St. Catherine’s at the height of social unrest and spoke out against the Vietnam war and police brutality. All of a sudden, here’s this young, dynamic, charismatic, artistic priest, and he immediately enamors himself with lots of younger people in the parish. In a way he almost created jealousies among the kids. We were all vying for his attention.”

Some of his fellow altar boys, said Bob, were in the Circle Gang, and he provided guidance to the more troubled teens, who were prone to vandalism and violence. “We were altar boys, but we were no angels,” he said.

At St. Catherine he “fancied himself as the Bobby Kennedy of priests,” according to another parishioner. “He used to love the word disenfranchised. I remember that.”

Not surprisingly, at St. Joseph’s in the early 1990s Lavigne railed against the Persian Gulf War. And then, after being charged with molestation, he used his decades-old rebel reputation to explain why he was being persecuted.

In 1992 he wrote a letter to the parents of the boys that would later claim abuse: “I, for one, have given up on trying to convince anyone of my own situation,” he wrote. “People will believe what they will, one way or another…I have suffered, yes, but Gethsemane is at the heart of ministry. Jesus wasn’t killed because He was popular. He was killed because He spoiled the party for some people.”

In a Union-News interview, Martin Pion, then a professor of religious studies at Elms College (and my former theology teacher at Cathedral), said that Lavigne, apparently alleging a conspiracy against him because of his radical beliefs, compares his plight to that of Jesus’. Pion said, “In Gethsemane, Jesus is going through his own process of his ministry, which is preparing for crucifixion. It’s almost as if Lavigne is proclaiming his innocence by saying what happened to Jesus happened to him.”


Photo: Martin Pion

Did Lavigne see himself as a Christ figure? “I have been crucified by the press,” he announced in the summer of 1992.

Of course, the main difference between Christ and Lavigne, aside from their relationship with God, was that Jesus loved children without expressing his affection sexually. Also, Jesus was crucified, while Lavigne was forced to “suffer” through probation and psychiatric “treatment”—not a heavy cross to bear, when compared with his victims’ trauma. And the wounds Lavigne endured on his way to his own Gethsemane were not from lashes, but from the stinging accusations of sexual abuse, and the only blood he shed during his “persecution” was for a DNA test in the Daniel Croteau murder investigation.

However, Lavigne’s letter wasn’t the first time he had used Jesus’ name for an explanation for his misdeeds. According to another accuser, Steven Block, after the priest allegedly sexually him when he was twelve, he said Lavigne he told him, ‘Christ suffered, and so should I.’”

* * * * * * * *

On June 1 and 2, 2002, the Rev. James J. Scahill, pastor of St. Michael’s Parish in East Longmeadow, urged parishioners at each Mass to write to Bishop Dupre to help bring about laicization, or the formal defrocking, of Richard Lavigne. The man had been relieved of his priestly duties in 1992, though he continued to receive a monthly $1,030-a-month subsistence stipend—less than what an active priest received—but he still enjoyed health and insurance benefits. Dupre had stated several times that the diocese hasn’t sought to have Lavigne laicized because an official defrocking was granted only by the Pope in an extensive and cumbersome process.



Photo: Rev. James Scahill

Scahill was also bothered by the fact that six other priests removed from the ministry for sexual abuse were receiving the same stipend.

Then Scahill upped the ante: he began protesting the diocese’s financial support of Lavigne by withholding the six percent of weekly collections in the parish that was supposed to go to the bishop’s office. The idea came from one of his parishioners, Warren Mason, who said, “As long as Richard Lavigne is receiving any sustenance from the diocese, I will not give any money to the church.” He urged Father to “hold back the bishop’s money,” and he did.

Scahill described Mason’s idea to Bishop Dupre. He recalled that his boss was not a happy man. “He said, ‘What?’ I repeated the proposal, and he said, ‘You cannot do that. There’s no conversation relative to this matter. You absolutely cannot do that.’” He threatened to suspend Scahill.

“I know you can suspend me but so convinced am I of the correctness of what I am doing I am risking that suspension if you want to risk suspending me,” said Father Scahill.


Photo: Bishop Thomas Dupre

When Father Scahill told his parish that he would retain six percent from St. Michael’s in a separate account that the diocese wouldn’t have access to, his congregation applauded. “It’s about time someone addressed it,” said parishioner Faith St. Onge. Said another, “He is a strong leader, and other churches should take note of what we’re doing here for justice’s sake.”

The mood of parishioners in the Springfield diocese mirrored that of Catholics in Boston, who were outraged at Cardinal Bernard F. Law and other leaders for reassigning sexually abusive priests to other parishes. State prosecutors convened a grand jury to decide whether Cardinal Law and other church leaders should be held criminally liable for their inaction.

To be sure, the Springfield diocese was having an increasingly difficult time explaining its financial support of Lavigne, especially when the abuse accusations against him continued to pile up. Four new lawsuits against the were filed in July of 2002: Shawn Dobbert, a thirty-four-year-old from North Adams; Francis Babeu (accuser Paul Babeu’s younger brother); a thirty-one-year-old North Adams resident filing a complaint under the pseudonym of John Doe; and Sandra Tessier’s son Andre.

Dobbert said that Lavigne told him that he would “take the air out of my lungs” if he told anyone about the incidents. “He said, ‘I did it before; I can do it again,’” stated Dobbert.

Still, the desire of many Springfield-area Catholics to have their diocese stop giving financial assistance to Lavigne was rebuffed by Bishop Dupre, who issued one-page “Explanation of Laicization” to all diocesan clergy. The document, which was issued in lieu of a statement because the bishop was unavailable for three weeks to respond, explained that even if a priest is laicized, according to canon law a bishop is obligated to support him if necessary.

In September, the lawsuits against Lavigne kept coming in: Greenfield lawyer John Stobierski represented three men, one of whom said following one molestation, the priest drove his car at him, barely missing, on Route 2 in Heath to warn him not to tell anyone. “You have to be careful—accidents happen,” Lavigne reportedly said.

“Accident,” of course, was the term used by the mystery caller to Carl Croteau Jr. on the day of Daniel Croteau’s wake in 1972.

* * * * * * * *

In a Union-News story on November 17, 2002, Retired Chicopee police Detective Capt. Edward Rojowski and retired State Police Lt. Edward Harrington told reporter Bill Zajac that diocesean officials knew in 1972 that Lavigne was the prime suspect in the murder and that he was believed to have abused some of the Croteau boys and others. Their comments contrast the diocesan officials’ claims that they only first received an accusation of abuse until 1986. In addition, retired state trooper Jim Mitchell said the late State Police Lt. James Fitzgibbon, who died in 1982, briefed diocesan officials on their suspicions about the murder and alleged molestations.



Photo: retired State Police Lt.

 Edward Harrington

“We had an obligation to show our cards,” said Mitchell. “Fitzy had a sit-down with them. Everything we knew, we told them.”

Rojowski and Harrington said some records of the suspected abuse should exist, but Bishop Dupre responded that he knew of no records that support the retired officers’ statements. However, he said he was aware of rumors about Lavigne. “It wasn’t the church that knew it. Everybody knew it. The district attorney knew it. The police knew it. Everybody knew that there were rumors about it. But nobody took action,” said Dupre. “I wasn’t around in those days, so I don’t know what happened. I only went into the Chancery in ’77 . . . so, I don’t know what went on. All I know is the rumors I heard.” 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Daniel Croteau Murder, Part 5

Blood Pressure




1993

After his sentencing, Richard Lavigne (pictured above) was at the St. Luke Institute, a Maryland facility known for treating clergy with a predilection for children and teens. He was getting treatment. He was also getting bored. He wrote a letter to two brothers, aged 12 and nine, who later accused him of sexual abuse. “I miss you all very much,” he wrote. “It’s not the same here in Maryland.” He also sketched a flower in the letter, complained about the weather, and likened the Institute to “summer school.” While at the Institute he also phoned 19-year-old Dana Cayo, who was on his way to turning from supporter to accuser. “He wanted to know if I missed him,” said Cayo, who answered “no.” The priest ignored the reply and began talking about getting together when he was released. “He talked about going back to Mount Washington on a camping trip,” Cayo said. “I got scared.”

Lavigne was released on January 28, but his dealings with the legal system were just beginning. A day after he walked out of the Institute, 11 alleged victims, including a cousin of Lavigne, came forward. They said the priest assaulted them between 1967 and 1990.

Among the accusers were former Circle Gang members Brian and Michael McMahon—nephews D.A. Matty Ryan. Thirty-six-year-old Brian McMahon wrote that their mother “would allow him to take us on weekend and overnight field trips. It was one of those field trips to his parents’ house when I awoke to being molested by Father Lavigne. The shock and confusion over this experience caused me to say nothing to anyone. Not my parents. Not my brothers. No one. This recollection was suppressed until the fall of 1991, when I became aware of recent charges of child abuse against Father Lavigne. The suppression of this experience has impacted my life in many ways, from outright rebellion and drug abuse as an adolescent to the inability of maintaining trusting relationships as an adult.”

Michael McMahon wrote from his Los Angeles home about playfully wrestling with Danny Croteau during a camping trip. “At one point I pushed Danny Croteau to the floor of the cabin,” he wrote. “Father Lavigne saw this and struck me in the face so hard it knocked me down. I was shocked, hurt, embarrassed, and confused, for I had never seen him exhibit such behavior. He seemed enraged with me. I went to sleep that night without really saying anything to him. I was awakened in the middle of the night by Father Lavigne, who had gotten into bed with me. He molested me that night.”

The latter McMahon brother kept the secret for more than two decades. “I buried the memory of this humiliating event,” he continued. “At that time in my life I began to look at things much differently. I looked at the church differently. I looked at authority figures differently. I looked at my parents differently and my respect for them changed. I began abusing drugs and alcohol and indulged in violence and vandalism on a weekly basis. I found that I could not trust anyone. I felt that I really wasn't a good person.”

He also told State Trooper John Daly that he remembered something else from that camping trip in Goshen, MA, in 1967 or 1968. He recalled Lavigne joining a group of boys in teasing Danny Croteau. “More than once Danny threatened Lavigne with the words, ‘I’ll tell! I’ll tell,’” he said. “This had an obvious effect on Lavigne. He began to pay more attention to Danny and ordered us to stop the name-calling… I think the change in Lavigne’s behavior on that summer weekend . . . was a direct result of Danny Croteau threatening to tell. At the time, I thought, ‘I wonder what he has on Lavigne.’ That night I was molested by Lavigne, and I then figured that Lavigne must have molested Danny, too.”

Max Stern, Lavigne’s lawyer, pointed out that when Michael McMahon originally gave his statement in 1991, he didn’t mention the “I’ll tell” memory, holding onto it for two more years. An investigator involved in the case countered that molestation victims often remember additional details about the incidents in subsequent interviews.

Is it presumptuous to assume that the “secret” was abuse, rather than something more trivial? Not to McMahon.

If Danny Croteau had begun threatening Lavigne with exposure as early as 1967 or 1968, “who knows how serious these threats became by the time he was murdered in 1972?” Michael McMahon told police. “I believe they became too much for Lavigne to handle. I believe the violence he displayed in striking me in 1968 was displayed again in 1972 when he lost control of it and murdered Danny Croteau. Only God and Richard Lavigne know for sure.”

It seemed that Father Lavigne’s “outreach” to the Circle Gang in the late 1960s extended much further than “moral” and spiritual guidance.


The tree where the Circle Gang hung out is pictured today, minus the earthen mounds, benches, and brick walkway surrounding it.


Another former member of the Circle Gang, 36-year-old Raymond Chelte Jr., met Lavigne as ten-year-old altar boy at St. Catherine. The priest “expressed a lot of interest in me as a person, always asking me to go places,” he wrote from Little Rock, AR, where he lived. “Then the molestations began. It was always in private. It occurred at both the rectory and the church. There was no one I could talk to about it. I felt dirty, used, and damned. Father Lavigne intimidated me by telling me he was God’s worker and if I ever told anyone God would send me to hell.” Chelte wrote that he had been through two marriages “and lost the affection of two children because I could not get close to people. I was scared of affection or letting anyone get close to me. I turned to drugs to hide the hurt and attempted suicide because I did not care to live.”

In an interview with Tom Shea of the Union- News, Danny Croteau’s brother Greg talked about time in the gang—and his experience with Lavigne. “I grew up drinking, fighting, stealing cars—all the crazy things kids did in the Sixties,” he said. “I’m no stranger to violence. My nose has hit everything but the lottery…I’ve done some bad things, but I'm not a bad person. I am grateful I'm not spending my life in jail.”


Greg Croteau (lower left) and members of the Circle Gang sit on a bench at the oak tree behind the Sixteen Acres Library. He is also pictured on the lower left below with fellow Circle members at “Bud Hill” in the woods behind The Circle.


Greg never liked Lavigne. “He never seemed priestly to me,” he said. “I just had a bad feeling about the guy.” That feeling turned to rage after Danny’s murder. He said that in 1988 he told the Most Rev. Leo O’Neil of his obsession with killing Lavigne and of the night in the motel the priest laced his orange juice with vodka and tried to persuade him to sleep in the same bed. He knew O’Neil because the priest had become a curate at St. Catherine in 1968, shortly before Lavigne was transferred to St. Mary’s, and was close to his family. O’Neil, then auxiliary bishop of Springfield, seemed surprised to hear him say that Lavigne was a child molester. “He told me it was the first he’s heard of it,” said Greg. “He said he would look into the matter and looked me in the eye and said if there was any evidence that Lavigne was involved with children, he was going to personally make sure Lavigne would never harm another child in his position as a Catholic priest.” 

This “surprise” seems to contradict the fact that Rev. O’Neil had heard complaints about the molestation of Paul Babeu two years earlier and “the result of that evaluation was that Father Lavigne was not a threat to re-offend and he could, with counseling, continue his duties,” according to a diocesan statement.

In 1993, there were claims that O’Neil even knew about abuse allegations against Lavigne in the late 1960s: Maurice DeMontigny, a longtime lay religious officer at St. Catherine and an uncle of two other accusers, asserted that in 1968 he, St. Catherine pastor Thomas Griffin, and Rev. O’Neil “were disapprovingly talking about Father Lavigne’s close activities with boys. I recall Rev. O’Neil saying, ‘You won't be seeing any boys coming into my room,’ or something to that effect. I had the distinct impression from Father O’Neil that he did not want to come to St. Catherine’s parish because of Father Lavigne.”

But according to the diocese, O’Neil had denied that he ever discussed Lavigne’s activities with boys after he arrived at St. Catherine’s in 1968.


Bishop Leo O’Neil (above and below)


Nonetheless, O’Neil certainly knew of Lavigne’s tendencies by 1972, because Carl told him right after the murder. O’Neil had come to the Croteau house for dinner and was “nervous and trembling” and “white as a sheet” after Carl informed him that Lavigne had molested some of his sons and was the prime suspect in Danny’s murder. “Father O’Neil was sitting in the front room, and I remember how he slumped in a chair when I told him, and he asked me if I thought Father Lavigne was capable of murder,” said Croteau. “At the time, it was all so unbelievable. We lost our son. One of our best friends is accused of his murder. It was just too much.”

O’Neil’s response, a month after Danny’s murder, was to give Carl $700 for the family to visit Bunny’s sister in California. Carl saw it “as a kind gesture.” But a month after O’Neil’s gift, diocesan lawyer James Egan showed up at the Croteau home unannounced. “After identifying himself as an attorney for the diocese, he asked me point-blank, ‘What do you want out of this? Is there anything you want?’ We were stunned by this question and didn’t realize at first what he was talking about,” Carl stated in an affidavit. “I said something like, ‘What do you mean, what do we want?’ There was an awkward silence, and, then he said, “Well, if you ever decide you need something, let us know.’…We never heard from him or the diocese again.”

Carl always felt that the trip to California was a “gift from the heart” from O’Neil and Father Griffin, not a payoff. So did O’Neil’s family (see below). But Carl also asserted that the diocese’s overture through its lawyer was an attempt to settle any wrongdoing by Lavigne with the Croteaus. 


In the years after Danny’s murder, according to Carl, on several occasions O’Neil told him of disturbing reports he had received from the late Annie Sullivan, the housekeeper at St. Catherine. Sullivan had told O’Neil that Lavigne had many times persuaded kids to skip school and to stay with him in his private bedroom. “She told him stories that would raise the hair on your head,” said Carl. “But the Church covered it all up, and passed Lavigne from parish to parish, and he went on to abuse more kids.”


The St. Catherine Rectory on Parker Street

The Croteaus’ relationship with O’Neil was a complicated one. On one hand, he drew Carl and Bunny back to the church after the murder, telling them that no man—meaning Lavigne—should come between them and God. On the other hand, he refused to comment to the press about Carl’s allegations that the diocese knew Lavigne was an abuser at least since 1972.

“I have no idea if Bishop O’Neil told anyone” about being informed in 1972 that Lavigne was suspected of molestation and murder, said Carl in a 1993 newspaper interview. “He’s my friend. I’m sure he tried to do what was right. He was a great comfort to Bun and I back then—a great comfort. We wouldn’t have made it through without him.”

“I’m not going to talk about it,” said O’Neil when approached by a reporter the same year. Shortly afterward, Carl said that he understood O’Neil’s uncomfortable position. “I know Bishop O’Neil is caught in the middle of a really messy situation,” said Carl. “He has to take the Church’s side, but I know he’s praying for us, and I hope he knows we’re praying for him.”

O’Neil’s reluctance to talk wasn’t just limited to the media. In 1991, he had refused to meet with State Police regarding Babeu’s 1986 claim of abuse against Lavigne. The newspaper reported that State Police Lt. Edward Harrington wanted O’Neil subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury, although then-Northwestern District Attorney Judd J. Carhart backed down, saying the move would have been ill-perceived by the grand jury and the public.

The diocese countered that O’Neil did meet with the Northwest Assistant District Attorney and the chief state investigator, agreeing to testify before the grand jury, but that he signed a statement that investigators could use instead of a personal appearance if they so chose.


Bishop Leo O’Neil: what did he know, and when did he know it?


* * * * * * * *

Shortly after Lavigne was released from the Institute he was greeted with the news that blood found at the site where Croteau was killed had been brought to a laboratory in Richmond, CA for testing. And, according to a source in the D.A.’s office, District Attorney Bill Bennett (pictured below) was seeking a court order requiring a blood sample from the priest.


In April of 1993, Lavigne received more bad news: two more men claimed sexual abuse by him when they were children, bringing the total to 13.

Months passed and there seemed to be no progress on the murder investigation. But then, on September 3, 1993, state police took Lavigne from his Ashfield home to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, where they drew a blood sample from him. Judge John F. Moriarty had ordered the sample, but delayed a ruling on whether or not it could be compared to blood found on a piece of rope and a plastic drinking straw at the murder scene.

The judge said he would rule simultaneously on the D.A.’s motion to test the blood and Lavigne’s motion for the return of his sample. Bennett was confident that Judge Moriarty would rule in his favor. “We have the blood of the suspect,” he said. “We want to test it to find out if he was or was not the donor of the blood at the crime scene. It’s a murder and this is very pertinent and highly valuable evidence.”

Carl Croteau Sr. wondered why Lavigne was fighting the DNA test. “If he’s got nothing to hide, why is he hiding?” Croteau asked. “If I knew a blood test could clear me of a murder, I know I would bring a gallon of it in.”

Police had found two types of blood at the scene: Type O, which was Danny’s type, and Type B, which is found in only twelve percent of the population—including Richard Lavigne. When Lavigne was notified that the blood found was his type, he chose to fight having his blood tested. 

Patricia Garin, a Boston lawyer who along with Max Stern represented Lavigne, claimed in Lavigne’s motion to reclaim his blood that not enough blood was taken at the crime scene for a positive test. She argued that previous testing destroyed the sole sample, preventing a future expert for Lavigne from testing the sample. Bennett countered that the sample yielded results that could be compared with a known sample. He said that enough of the sample was left to enable Lavigne’s lawyers to have it independently tested if the samples were to match. 

After 20 days of deliberation, Judge Moriarty rejected Lavigne’s motion, adding that the defense had one week to appeal the ruling to the Court of Appeals in Boston.

“It’s been a tense three weeks,” said Bunny Croteau. “But today it’s worth the wait. We’ve been waiting twenty-one years for the truth. Today we’re a little closer to it.”

Carl said that after more than two decades “of nothing, this is something. “We’re still hopeful that someone out there who may know something will come forward.”

But the Croteaus’ satisfaction was short-lived: less than a week after the ruling, the judge extended his stay order until October 20 at the earliest to allow Lavigne time to appeal.

On November 1, Appeals Court Judge Charlotte Anne Perretta continued the order prohibiting investigators from conducting DNA tests on Lavigne’s blood. Stern, who claimed the search warrant to take his client’s blood was in violation of his rights, would have forty days to file his brief for a hearing before a three-judge panel of the state Appeals Court, or the Judicial Court, which could happen in a week—or in a year. 



So the three vials of blood would sit chilling at Baystate Medical Center because it had not been taken voluntarily, but with a search warrant—an issue not addressed in state statutes or in case law. Stern and Garin insisted that Lavigne should have been allowed a hearing to protect his constitutional rights before his blood was seized because he hadn’t been arrested or charged with the crime.

Meanwhile, another rape charge was leveled at Lavigne—this one from a Pittsfield man. As a result of the mounting court costs, Lavigne claimed indigence, submitting an affidavit to the Public Counsel’s Services. In response, the Public Defender’s Office appointed Stern to defend him. Lavigne remained on the diocesan payroll, but he stated, “I am unable to pay the fees and costs of this proceeding without depriving myself of the necessities of life, including food, shelter, and clothing.” 

Then Daniel Croteau’s brother Joe field suit against Lavigne, charging that the priest molested him when he was thirteen years old. “Joe gave a statement to Chicopee detectives and to the District Attorney's office in August, 1972,” said Carl Croteau. “Nothing ever came of Joe’s statement from what I can see.”

1994

In January of 1994, the church agreed to pay between $1.3 and $1.4 million to seventeen alleged victims of Lavigne. The diocese, in a panic, sent a letter to be read at every Mass stating that the settlement would not be derived from parishioners’ gifts or the upcoming Stewardship Appeal.


* * * * * * * *


In a stunning announcement, on May 3, Patricia Garin said her client may offer his blood for testing if prosecutors would promise to drop him as a suspect in the murder if his DNA didn’t match the blood found at the scene. She insisted that she was sure a blood test would clear Lavigne, and that the only reason he was hesitant to go through with it was because there were no guarantees that the Commonwealth would cease the investigation. “We want this case to be over,” she said.

So did members of the Croteau family. But they had to wait. On September 13, after the Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments for four months, the state’s highest court waived its rule to decide cases in 130 days, meaning there was no deadline for its opinion on whether or not to let investigators try to link Lavigne’s blood to the killing of Danny Croteau.

“It seems like I've spent my life waiting,” commented Bunny Croteau, “and I’m sick of it. I’ve found myself getting moodier, more depressed and I cry more than I used to. It’s like the pressure keeps mounting. I get my hopes up and it’s more waiting. Get my hopes up and wait even more. I’d like some answers. It’s not like I’m being pushy. I’ve waited more than 22 years.”

On November 16, the Croteaus found out that they would have to wait some more. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Lavigne’s blood had been illegally seized by the court order. As a result, the priest would get back the three vials of blood drawn from him in September. It was now up to Hampden County prosecutors to schedule evidence hearings before a blood sample could be ordered. 

This happened because, in a split-decision, a four-judge majority—with two justices writing separate dissents—the court ruled that the state violated Lavigne’s rights because he hadn’t been charged with a crime. Neither side claimed victory. Garin said, “We’re very pleased by the decision.” At the same time, prosecutors were encouraged by the fact that there was still a way for investigators to properly obtain Lavigne’s blood. Bennett, unsure of what type of hearing was necessary in the future, said he would review the decision before figuring out how to proceed. The court required probable cause findings at a future hearing, even though Judge Joseph R. Nolan pointed out in writing that Judge Moriarty had already found probable cause earlier.

However, in a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Paul J. Liacos wrote, “It appears from the record that the Commonwealth does not have the probable cause to arrest or to indict him at this point. Absent a change in circumstances which would support a finding of a probable cause to arrest or indict Lavigne, the Commonwealth should not be permitted to proceed in this matter.”

That meant investigators would have to reapply for a search warrant to get another blood sample, and schedule a court hearing, where Lavigne’s lawyers could challenge any evidence showing probable cause that: the priest murdered Croteau, that blood found at the scene is relevant to the investigation, and that determining the source of the blood would aid the investigation. Prosecutors would have to prove that the importance of the investigation outweighed Lavigne’s constitutional protection from bodily intrusion.

On November 18, the Supreme Judicial Court approved the use of DNA evidence in trials. At the beginning of the battle over Lavigne’s blood, the analysis of genetic material wasn’t admissible in state courts, but Bennett was confident the technique would be used soon because of recent scientific improvements. It turned out that he was right. Still, the judicial roller coaster ride over Lavigne’s blood seemed to have no end in sight—until four days later, when Lavigne offered his blood to be tested!



Stern said the move was to end any speculation that his client was hiding something. “We have decided, having established that his rights were violated, and in order to demonstrate that he has nothing to fear from this test, that we would go forward,” said Stern on November 22. “Father Lavigne is innocent of this crime, and he wants to establish his innocence. Hopefully, this investigation will be at an end in very short order.”

Stern revealed that tests he ordered on the genetic composition of Lavigne’s blood found no link to the sample on the drinking straw recovered at the scene. He said he had it tested before the May 3 hearing in which Garin offered the priest’s blood for testing in exchange for investigators ceasing their scrutiny of him if the test indicated his innocence. Stern, who didn’t reveal where he had the DNA testing performed, said the defense test was possible because the D.A.’s office had provided him with evidence, including the results from the blood testing in a California laboratory.

Bennett said he was happy with the offer and would soon have Lavigne’s blood tested. “We will release the results, and hopefully that will bring the matter to a conclusion for the Croteau family,” said Bennett. “Without evidence from the blood, there is insufficient evidence to proceed with charging anyone in this investigation. That would conclude our investigation.”

There were drops of blood, not Danny’s, on a drinking straw found at the murder scene. They were type O, Richard Lavigne’s type. (From the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office files)

1995

On January 13, 1995, Judge Moriarty signed a new order allowing three vials of Lavigne’s blood to be sent to a lab for DNA testing. The process had been delayed for nearly two months while lawyers from both camps decided the process of handing the blood over to the D.A.’s office. Lavigne finally signed an affidavit releasing the blood on January 10.

The blood would be tested by Dr. Edward Blake, a highly regarded DNA expert best known for being hired by O.J. Simpson’s defense team. He warned that even if there is a match, it could not definitively link the priest to the murder scene. “DNA can only eliminate a suspect to an absolute degree of certainty,” he said.

DNA testing on the straw had isolated a gene that occurs in a range of one in ten and one in 200 people. Combining that with Type-B blood, found in twelve percent of the population, a match would mean that no more than one in 100 people could have the same characteristics.

The waiting game went on for five excruciating months. The stress took its toll on Lavigne, who suffered a heart attack earlier that summer. “He has been hounded from one end of the Commonwealth to the other,” said Stern. Because of the “constant inflammatory media coverage. His health has been destroyed.” 

And then results of the tests came in.

Originally, the tests showed the priest’s blood was consistent with the blood recovered on the straw. A second round of tests was performed showing DNA similar to Lavigne’s, although Bennett called them inconclusive. But when a more advanced form of testing was employed, Lavigne’s blood did not match the blood on the straw. Still, Blake could not rule out that the blood on the rope might be a match.

Type O blood, possibly the murderer’s, was also found on a piece of rope near the bank of the Chicopee River where Danny Croteau was killed. (From the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office Files)


Because of the age of the blood sample, only a small portion of the DNA chain could be identified, so a positive match would have merely meant the priest could have been among eight percent of the population with similar blood profiles.

Stern called the results proof that Lavigne was innocent. The D.A.’s office labeled them inconclusive.

Nonetheless, Bennett officially closed the case. “It’s certainly more frustrating for the family that’s had to live with this uncertainty for twenty-three years,” said Bennett. “We felt the obligation to pursue it. I feel we've kept faith with the family. But there’s nothing more that we can do at this point. The state police did an exhaustive review of the materials that were available from 23 years ago. A lot of people came forward with new information. I'm gratified with the effort everyone put into it.”

Carl Croteau said of Lavigne, “He might have beaten man's law for now, but he hasn't beaten God’s law.”

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Daniel Croteau Murder, Part 4

Judgment Day



Shelburne Falls Priest Held on Rape Charge

The above Springfield Union News headline on Saturday, October 19, 1991 shocked many people who were familiar with Father Lavigne, but not all of them. Some had intimate knowledge of his activities with boys, and many more heard stories through the grapevine. Soon the news spread like wildfire, and more molestation claims would mount, finishing his career as a priest.

Lavigne might have had some inkling the jig was up when State Police Sergeant Susan Harrington, accompanied by Chicopee Police detectives, showed up at his parents’ Chicopee home. They weren’t approaching him in the driveway just to ask him a couple of questions. They were there to arrest him. Alleged victims had given statements to police, and now he would have to face charges.

Did he ponder his fate with trepidation, dreading the possibility of a sex scandal mushrooming into the reopening of a murder investigation? Only Lavigne knows what his state of mind was when he was escorted to the squad car—and whether or not he was thinking about a pair of brothers from the tiny town of Heath in Franklin County. He had gotten to know the boys in the late 1980s, and one of them had promised not to talk to anyone about the sexual abuse, according to the victim. But when the boy finally broke off contact with Lavigne a year earlier, he said he could see fear in the priest’s eyes, as if the man was afraid that the boy might tell. That boy, Joseph Shattuck, did tell. So did others, triggering a series of events that set the priest’s life—and the reputation of the Springfield Diocese—into a tailspin.

Lavigne was in denial mode when he was arrested. After being advised of his rights and acknowledging that he understood them, he was sitting in the cruiser and on his way to the State Police barracks in Shelburne Falls when Harrington informed him of the charges. She identified the boys who made the allegations. “[name deleted]? That’s absurd,” he replied, according to police files.

“We then discussed [name deleted] and his credibility,” wrote Harrington. This officer told Father Lavigne that I personally found [name deleted] to be a very believable and credible kid. Father Lavigne agreed and could offer no explanations as to why he would make it up, but said his father [name deleted] is a chauvinist and a bigot.”

The sergeant then asked him if he ever touched “any kid” in a sexual way, and he denied any inappropriate touching.

Harrington told Lavigne that she was aware that this wasn’t the first time that he had been accused of this type of activity, and asked him what he thought a judge or jury would think, especially because more than one complaint had been made. “Father Lavigne then stated, ‘Can I be honest with you? Can I trust you?’ This officer then reminded Father Lavigne that he’d been advised of his rights, but requested to hear his side of the story,” wrote Harrington. “At this time Father Lavigne stated that he wanted to talk to a lawyer without saying any more.”

It must have been a long ride back to Shelburne Falls for Father Lavigne. Gazing at the road ahead, and at the passing trees and farms off I-91—and mulling over his present situation— if he was thinking about his future, he was undoubtedly going over his past.

The end of the trip: the State Police barracks in Shelburne Falls

October 19, 1991

A short article in the Union News described the charges: two counts of rape of a child. The story also listed Lavigne’s present and past assignments. At the time, the 50-year-old priest was pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Shelburne Falls, of St. John’s Church in Colrain, and St. Christopher’s Church in Charlemont. All three churches were a combined parish that in a year would be “united” in name only as parishioners immediately began to take sides in the matter of Lavigne’s perceived innocence or guilt.

The Sunday newspaper contained little new information, as did Monday’s Union News, except the fact that he was released after posting $10,000 bail, and that he would face arraignment that day. The story also reported on his parishioners’ disbelief and outrage.

That sense of unbelievable astonishment came from a community that was a decade away from the 2002 clergy sex abuse scandal that would rock Boston and reveal a national problem in the Catholic Church. In 1991, such news about a priest was a bolt from the blue. Most of Lavigne’s parishioners just couldn’t fathom anything like this happening. “He's been a mentor to me. He taught me many things about life,” said Peter Kelleher of Shelburne Falls. “I just can't believe any of this that’s going on.”

The news was just the first of a one-two punch combination for Catholics in the Diocese of Springfield. The first blow stunned them. The second one floored them: in Tuesday’s Union News the parents of Danny Croteau revealed that Lavigne was a suspect in the unsolved 1972 murder of their son.

“They are going to look into this case again,” said Danny’s father, Carl. He added that Acting Chicopee Police Chief Joseph Wilk Jr. had sent the records in the homicide case to the district attorney’s office.

On Tuesday, October 22, District Attorney William M. Bennett neither confirmed nor denied that he was reopening of the investigation into Croteau’s murder. But sources confirmed that he began a review of the case file. By Thursday, Bennett still wouldn’t comment on the matter, but sources revealed that at least two state police detectives had been assigned to the case, and were searching for evidence.

And there you have it: a murder investigation that was inactive for 19 years was reopened and continues to this day.

* * * * * * * * *


The spring of 1972 was a more innocent time: very few people could even conceive of a priest molesting a boy, let alone murdering him. But detectives in the investigation came to that conclusion. Their suspicions were raised soon after Danny Croteau was bludgeoned to death with a rock and thrown into the Chicopee River on Friday, April 14, 1972. Investigators both then and now believed that Lavigne had molested Croteau and then killed him during an argument. He still remains the prime suspect.


Fast-forward to the fall of 1991, when sex abuse by priests was still a largely underreported phenomenon. Lavigne’s congregation was incensed and professed his innocence. Still, at the time of his arrest, veteran reporters at the Union News knew that police suspected he killed Danny after an alleged sexual relationship with him. Indeed, managing editor Richard Garvey had gotten wind of the news shortly after the murder and told the late Monsignor David Power about the surprising turn in the investigation.

Although the media didn’t publicly link Lavigne to the Croteau homicide investigation in 1972, many people in greater Springfield were aware of the probe. One priest said, “It was the number one topic of the day.” Indeed, I remember Father Leo Shea, pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, telling parishioners in a homily not to believe or spread false rumors.

In the past 45 years the case undergone surges of publicity followed by long periods of silence. Interestingly, there was very little media attention in 1972. “Back then there was just a four-by-six-inch article on the murder,” said Carl to me on one of his neighborhood walks. He extended his thumb and index finger to indicate the size of the story in the newspaper. The newspaper story was a little larger than that, but not much:



“There two more stories right after Danny was killed, and that was it,” he said. For 19 years—nothing. “But then, in the 1990s there were hundreds of thousands of words written about it in the papers,” said Carl.

What prompted the blizzard of stories in the 1990s, of course, was Lavigne’s 1991 arrest. He was the first priest in the area to be charged with sexual abuse since 1978, when the former Rev. Roy Leo was convicted of morals offenses. Not surprisingly, Lavigne’s connection to Danny Croteau added fuel to the fire. Somehow, Guy Volterra, the judge in the case, thought that the newspapers were giving the Lavigne case undue attention. Lambasting the media at the time, he believed that the story merited only a column in the back page of a local newspaper.

It’s a good thing Volterra wasn’t a newspaper editor, because he evidently didn’t see the newsworthiness of a priest being accused of sexual abuse and at the same time being the chief suspect in a murder nearly two decades before his arrest. Bury the stories on the back pages? I don’t think so. Every unsolved murder has a victim that cries out for justice from beyond—and a family that will not let it rest. So, like it or not, Judge Volterra, it was high time for Danny’s story to be told. “We had suffered in silence for too long,” said Carl.

But this blog entry isn’t so much about the murder of Danny Croteau as it is about the sexual abuse case against Lavigne in 1991 and 1992, because the murder investigation would have never been reopened if it weren’t for a few courageous victims and their parents who were willing to bring him to a criminal court. They were the catalyst for others to come forward, ensuring that Lavigne—whether or not he is guilty of murder—would be punished for his sexual abuse and never be in a position to harm another child.

October 26, 1991

The stage was being set for a confrontation that would threaten to tear the diocese apart. It was Lavigne’s word against the victims’, Lavigne’s supporters vs. his detractors, and the diocese vs. the newspapers and television news outlets. Church lawyers said the case was unfairly being tried in the news media. Lavigne’s backers were adamant that there was a conspiracy to destroy him. “I love the man,” said St. Joseph’s parishioner Frederick Lively. “I don’t recognize the man I know in these stories.” The Diocese of Springfield sprung to his defense. “As Father Lavigne’s bishop, I have offered him my assistance and I support him in his plea of innocence,” said The Rev. Joseph F. Maguire, bishop of Springfield, in a statement.

Then more details on the charges against Lavigne surfaced: the alleged victims at the time of the arrest were nine, 18, and 20 years old, and the incidents took place on or before August 29, 1991.

On October 27, 1991, the priest’s world truly began to cave in. An alleged victim revealed that as a six-year-old he was fondled by Lavigne when the accused was a teenager in 1958. Lavigne, who was 17 years old then, had been working a summer job as an assistant recreation leader for the Chicopee Park Department and was immediately fired, but no charges were filed. The Union-News tried unsuccessfully to get Lavigne’s employment record and the document related to his termination, which was finally released in 2004:


Lavigne’s vocal group of supporters began to solicit parishioners for his legal defense funds, but his indignation at the charges rang hollow for many others when news of decades-old alleged molestations started popping up in the newspapers. Tom Shea of the Union News reported that a 33-year-old police officer had witnessed a molestation while Lavigne was a priest at St. Mary’s. “It’s been going on a long time,” said the patrolman. Two of Lavigne’s cousins also came forward with sexual abuse claims.

December 15, 1991

There were reports that two of the victims in the case against Lavigne were from the Holy Trinity Lay Community, a tiny Catholic group in Heath not recognized by the diocese. Its members, who attended mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Shelburne Falls, had a falling-out with Lavigne in late 1990 or early 1991 because he “wasn’t Catholic enough for Holy Trinity,” said a source.

Lavigne, staying at the Institute of Living (pictured below), a psychiatric abuse hospital in Hartford, had announced on November 8 that he had hired Max D. Stern of Boston, one of the top criminal lawyers in the country. Lavigne and his supporters, not the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, would pay his defense.


On December 18, 1991, a source close to Stern said that the lawyer would argue that the pending charges were the result of Lavigne being set up by a Catholic “cult” made up of about 15 families that owned a former 200-acre dairy farm in Heath.

The Springfield Diocese closed the year by announcing that 72-year-old Bishop Maguire would step down and the Most Rev. John A. Marshall would be installed in the post. Maguire denied that the Lavigne mess had prompted the decision. “I just had the feeling that it was time to step aside,” he said. “When the time comes, you sort of know it.”

February 7, 1992

Lavigne’s woes continued on February 7, when a Greenfield District Court Judge Allan McGuane denied his lawyer’s request to allow part of the case to be tried in a lower court. The ruling meant that the entire case might be tried in Franklin County Superior Court, where the priest would face greater penalties if convicted—up to 10 years in the indecent assault charge, as opposed to no more than two-and-a-half years if convicted by a district court. He also faced the possibility of decades—or even life—in prison with a rape conviction. McGuane ordered attorneys back to court on February 26 for a probable cause hearing. This move was seen as a way to end delays that had resulted in two pre-trial conference dates without any actual movement on the case.

Stern was building a case that the alleged victims from the Holy Trinity Lay Community lacked credibility—that the group was even using a homosexual ritual as part of their worship.

The reality about the Community: it was far from the “homosexual Catholic cult” label that the group’s detractors in Heath had foisted upon it. Truth be told, the Community’s spiritual director—and the accusers’ father—Charles Shattuck, had discovered in 1983 that the founder of the Apostolic Formation Center, the forerunner to the Holy Trinity Lay Community, had years before engaged with the organization’s elders in a homosexual rite called “the divine intimacy of the holy seed.” The rituals took place before Shattuck joined the Somers, CT group in 1980. He had never met the founder, J. Roy Legere (pictured young and old below), who died in 1978.



When Shattuck heard about Legere’s rituals, which were supposed to provide participants with an infusion of Christ, he immediately alerted Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, bishop of Norwich, CT. Reilly, however, had already known about the practice, but he wanted it kept quiet to avoid a scandal.

With Reilly’s backing, Shattuck began to dissolve the Apostolic Formation Center and steered clear from the “false teachings” of Legere’s followers. He reorganized and renamed the group, but a scandal erupted anyway, when the ritual was made public in a scathing series of articles in the Manchester Journal Enquirer in 1985.


Legere, who thought he was Christ’s twin, asserted that God had asked him to share this “holy” act, the homosexual ritual, to prompt the group’s most fervent followers to prove they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Legere said although this appeared to be an abnormal request from above, he explained that the Lord works in mysterious ways—and the act was no stranger than the time God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to demonstrate his faith.

When the scandal broke, Shattuck said Reilly shunned him in a Peter-like betrayal, and banned the organization from the diocese.

But according to those familiar with the group, the true rift between Reilly and Shattuck came when Reilly learned in the spring of 1985 that at least some of Legere’s teachings continued under Shattuck. He then told Shattuck that the collaboration between the Norwich diocese and the group was over.

In 1986, Shattuck, his family, and a handful of friends moved to Heath, although the town was suspicious of the Community at the former farm from the start.

The following year, Lavigne befriended Shattuck and the Community, endorsing both in a letter to then-Bishop Maguire. “I found a group of seven to eight families with great devotion to the mother of God and who, young and old, gather daily for prayer and fellowship,” wrote Lavigne in the letter, dated May 15, 1987. “One aspect of the group which strikes me with such positive sense, is their very evident strong Catholic culture with its attendant traditions, devotions, and family orientation—usually the product of close-knit, parochial education in a very Catholic neighborhood. In some respects, they remind me of what it was like growing up among similar folk as a child. I personally find this a healthy addition to our community where the faith of so many has so often been diluted.”


Lavigne continued, “From what I have gathered in conversations ,these new people have suffered a great deal from ostracization and bad experiences associated with the former ‘Apostolic Center’ in Somers, CT. Through their relocation here in Heath, they seek the peaceful, communal living that was evidently denied them in their former home. Like all of us when we are hurt, they are in need of compassion and healing. I can sympathize with them as I know what it means to be maligned without just cause.”

It’s unclear what Lavigne meant about his familiarity with being “maligned without just cause”—whether it was suffering persecution for his liberal stances on social issues throughout his career, or being suspected of molestation and murder in 1972, or being accused of sexual abuse in 1986, when allegations were brought to then auxiliary bishop the Most Rev. Leo O’Neil by a Northampton priest and a North Adams nun on behalf of alleged victim Paul R. Babeu (pictured below). The result of this accusation: the diocese ordered Lavigne to undergo a mental health evaluation and he was found to be no threat to minors.


In the spring of 1987 Lavigne began spending time with Joseph, Shattuck’s 15-year-old son, seeing the altar boy at least once a week, having him do odd jobs at the church, and offering him gifts, including paying for his orthodontic braces—which cost over $1,300, according to the victim’s police statement. Lavigne invited him several times to a house he built in Ashfield. “Curiously, on those occasions, although Father Lavigne would force me to sleep with him and try to snuggle, he was not aggressive about sexual contact,” he said. “It was at the rectory that he was most aggressive. In addition to the sexual contact at the rectory, Father Lavigne would frequently insist on washing me and cleaning my rectum, claiming that I did not know how to do it.”

Joseph Shattuck also related to police a story of sexual abuse on a trip to Arizona in late June, 1987, as well as during a vacation in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1988. “You’re not going to tell anyone about it, are you?” asked Lavigne at the end of the Arizona trip, according to Shattuck. “I shook my head to indicate no. Father Lavigne said that the ‘problem with the priesthood is that you can never be yourself. I like vacations because I can be myself again for a while. I rarely see anyone I know while I am on vacation.’”

In many respects, Shattuck’s claims are similar to those of many others allegedly molested by Lavigne, but the boy’s stories are by far the most extensive victim accounts in the police files that were unimpounded in 2004. They show a boy at the mercy of a manipulative, sometimes volatile man who constantly making excuses to touch Shattuck’s groin, toying with the boy’s body and with his emotions. When Shattuck resisted, he said Lavigne pouted—or sometimes blew up. “You’re no fun!” Shattuck remembered Lavigne screaming when the boy refused to go skinny dipping. “Friendship is based on trust, and if you don’t trust me, what are you doing here?”

Trust indeed. “Why do you have your hand on my dick?” Shattuck said he asked Lavigne this question one night in Arizona when he awoke next to the priest. He said Lavigne explained that he knew Shattuck was a bed-wetter, and “if you started to go, I was going to squeeze it…Go to the bathroom. I am tired of keeping my hand on you.”

He said Lavigne also insisted on spreading medication on his genitals when he noticed chafe marks from the boy’s wet bathing suit. Shattuck wanted to put the gel on himself, but he said the priest insisted on doing it, saying, “There is a right way and a wrong way to apply it.” He described Lavigne dabbing on a little of the medication, and sitting back and making conversation to prolong the moment, saying, according to Shattuck, “You are so trustful. If anyone knew what I was doing this to you, I would get fired. You’re not going to tell anyone are you?”

When Lavigne groped him, said Shattuck, the priest would defend his actions. “We’re all God’s children,” he remembered Lavigne saying. “We express our love in different ways,” said Lavigne, according to Shattuck. “This is my way. This is how I express it. There is nothing wrong with it.”

By Easter of that year, Shattuck stopped serving as an altar boy on a weekly basis—doing so only during holy weeks—trying to distance himself from Lavigne, but the priest “threatened to expose the fact that I had driven his car illegally and I had been drinking wine at the rectory, which he had freely given me.”

Joseph Shattuck asserted that the sexual assaults continued that fall on a three-day trip to Canada, but after that the youth had succeeded in limiting their contact to once a month. However, he felt obligated to let the relationship continue because Lavigne was still paying for his orthodontia expenses, and so the boy accompanied the priest on a three-day trip to California in the summer of 1989 after he “pressured me by acting as if his vacation would be ruined if I did not go with him.” During the trip, “I consciously tried to make a barrier between me and Father Lavigne with respect to his sexual conduct,” he said.

In turn, Lavigne seemed nervous about the possibility that the relationship had run its course. “I remember him saying at one point, ‘I enjoy your company. You’re the only one who knows how I feel. You’re the only one who knows how I truly feel.’”

But after that trip, Lavigne “knew that I wanted out of the relationship,” wrote Shattuck, and the priest sulked. He balked at continuing to pay for the boy’s braces. “He told me, ‘You call me, I won’t call you.’ However, in spite of saying that, he did call me constantly, and whenever I would answer he would say, ‘What’s the matter? You haven’t called in a while.’”

When the Holy Trinity Lay Community stopped attending services at St. Joseph’s in the fall of 1990 because of a difference of opinion in the way Mass should be conducted, “I used this fact as an excuse to tell Father Lavigne in a phone conversation that we should discontinue any visits,” he said. The priest protested, but then demanded that the boy return all the presents he had given him. When Joseph went to the rectory and gave the items back, Lavigne asked him, “Don’t you want to reconsider?” according to the boy. “He asked me in for a cup of coffee. I said no. I could see in his expression that he appeared to be concerned and fearful.”


When Charles Shattuck told Lavigne why the Community stopped attending Mass at the parish, the priest asked him what his son thought of the situation. “This puzzled my father, since I had nothing to do with the decision,” wrote Joseph. “I suspect that Father Lavigne was trying to discover whether I had told anything about his prior misconduct.”

During Joseph Shattuck’s last year in high school, “I was told by numerous classmates that they thought Father Lavigne was a homosexual and should be avoided.” But he kept all information about his own experience with the priest confidential. “I am emotionally scarred, and it is very hard for me to trust people,” he wrote in his statement on October 9, 1991. “I hate myself for allowing Father Lavigne to abuse me. When I could no longer keep it to myself, I finally told some of these details to my sister.” He didn’t want his sister to tell anyone, but she reminded him that the priest “could be doing this to other boys, or maybe even worse things, and he shouldn’t just let it lie,” she said.

So she told his parents. “I am afraid that this sexual abuse may have happened to other boys and is happening now,” wrote Shattuck. “I believe he abused my brother, who was only eight years old at the time.”

The boy’s account hardly paints a picture of a cult trying to “set up” a fine, upstanding priest. But Lavigne’s supporters sent a letter to parishioners asking them for financial help for Lavigne, with his legal expenses possibly running “to six figures,” according to the letter. “Our good friend, Father Lavigne, is presently suffering the most painful experience of his life,” read the letter in part. “Criminal accusations have left him crushed and deeply hurt. To defend his name and his life, he has retained the services of a prominent Boston attorney. The process of a competent defense requires a great deal of time, labor and money. A priest’s salary is hardly sufficient to defray these costs.”

Meanwhile, the wall of silence that had protected abusive priests for so long continued to crumble: on February 13, 1991, the Rev. Julian Pagacz, pastor of St. Valentine’s Polish National Church in Northampton, was charged with raping a 16-year-old girl from Poland and with indecently assaulting a 17-year-old Hampshire County girl.

February 15, 1992

On February 15, the “body count” in the Lavigne case grew: a Franklin County grand jury indicted Lavigne for allegedly molesting five minors, adding two more youths to the three he was accused of abusing.

That meant that the defense’s tactic of smearing the Holy Trinity Lay Community as a Lavigne-hating renegade Catholic sect would only go so far now.


As more accusations piled up before the trial, Lavigne behaved like a haunted, hunted man, according to 19-year-old Dana Cayo, one of his friends who later accused him of abuse. After he was arrested, Lavigne was a frequent guest of Cayo’s sister in Hawley, MA, and he would visit her in disguise, hide in the bathroom when other visitors came, and peer out the window nervously eyeing cars driving by, according to the youth. “I think he thought he was going to jail and he was scared,” said Cayo.

Like many of Lavigne’s victims, Cayo also spoke of a priest who was generous with gifts, buying him a 150-watt per channel amplifier, a stereo with speakers, and a rowing machine. “He told me once I should come to his defense, but I'd probably make a mistake and say something to really get him in trouble.”

Lavigne was in real trouble anyway, with or without Cayo’s help. He was arraigned on the additional charges on February 25, 1992—two counts of rape of a child under 16, three counts of indecent assault and battery on a child over 14, and seven counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14. The abuse reportedly occurred over a span of 12 years.

The charges that had been brought previously in Greenfield District Court, alleging two counts of rape but only one count of indecent assault and battery, were superseded by the latest indictments.

Among the spectators in at the Hampshire County Superior Court that day was Carl Croteau Sr.

“The people who have leveled charges against me know them to be untrue,” Lavigne read aloud from a prepared statement. “I just hope to one day be vindicated and return to my work at St. Joseph’s, where I belong…As most of you can imagine, this has been a gut-wrenching experience for me. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemies. I wouldn't wish it on my accusers.”



Stern called the case against his client a “witch hunt,” asserting that one alleged victim, as recently as December, “told us categorically that nothing had ever happened between himself and Father Lavigne, but changed his story after being put under known pressure.”

On the same day of Lavigne’s arraignment, the Rev. Gary A. LaMontagne became the third priest in the area within a year to be accused of sexual abuse. The 37-year-old was charged with rape of a woman church worker in the rectory of St. Mary's Church in Westfield. He also was charged with indecent assault and battery, and assault with intent to rape.

The LaMontagne arrest may have hammered another dent in the formerly impenetrable armor of the Springfield Diocese, but Lavigne’s supporters were not fazed. Almost 500 people, many of them parishioners of Lavigne’s 600-member parish, signed onto a legal brief backing his bid for separation of the five indictments he was facing. His lawyers had argued that a jury would tend to convict because it would rely on the fact that there were multiple allegations, rather than weighing the evidence fairly.

April 30, 1992

On April 30, Lavigne and his lawyers won two pre-trial motions. Franklin County Superior Court Judge John Moriarty ruled that the five indictments that Lavigne faced would be tried separately, and that the trials would take place in Newburyport, a small seacoast town on the far northeastern corner of the state.

Lavigne’s lawyers had argued that the media frenzy about the case—combined with coverage of the reopened investigation of the Daniel Croteau murder—would make it impossible to empanel an impartial jury in western Massachusetts or even central Massachusetts, because Springfield television stations are carried on cable systems throughout Worcester County. Stern had even subpoenaed videotapes of news broadcasts on Channels 22 and 40 to prove his point.

Stern had also asserted that because there were so many allegations against Lavigne, jurors would have been swayed against his client if all five cases were combined together. “There’s the ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’ phenomenon,” said Stern. “The jurors have to find fire. They won’t find it, but they’ll say, ‘There’s so much smoke—are so many allegations—this defendant must have done something.’”

Moriarty advised the lawyers involved to prepare for the first of five trials quickly, perhaps as soon as June. This was months earlier than both the prosecution and the defense said they were prepared to go to trial, but Moriarty was fed up with the delays.

May 9, 1992

Moriarty set a tentative date of June 22 for the first of five trials for Lavigne. Assistant District Attorney Ariane Vuono said that papers would be filed with the court soon indicating which indictment would be brought to trial first. Judge Guy Volterra was assigned to the case.

There was more legal maneuvering in the next month, with Volterra denying a prosecution motion to include past accusations against Lavigne in the trial. The prosecution had plenty of ammo: after Lavigne’s arrest, more than 19 people had come forward with sworn statements about being sexually abused by the priest. Volterra also rejected a defense motion to continue the case after Stern argued that the publicity surrounding the high profile James Porter case in eastern and southeastern Massachusetts would prejudice his client’s case. Porter, a former priest from North Attleboro, admitted to molesting dozens of children.

On June 22 the Republican newspaper reported that Lavigne spent the first four months after his arrest in virtual exile in eastern Massachusetts, but then began to visit old friends and parishioners at St. Mary’s parish in East Springfield and at St. Joseph’s in Shelburne Falls. According to his friends, he complained about being bored and missing the church life. They also said he was anxiously awaiting the trial.

June 22, 1992

During jury selection, Lavigne introduced himself to about 140 prospective jurors, 12 of whom were slated to determine whether or not he fondled a 12-year-old Greenfield boy in 1983 or 1984. The 20-year-old accuser filed the charges the previous October, saying that the priest molested him twice.

The jury selection at Essex Superior Court in Lawrence took all day, and lawyers prepared to present opening statements in Newburyport District Court the following day. However, the process went into a second, and then a third day as Andrea Longpre, a jury-selection expert from New York City, meticulously screened potential jurors.


June 26, 1992

Father Lavigne Pleads GuiltySupporters Surprised by Plea

The above June 26, 1992 headline in the Union News came as a surprise to most of the people following this case for the past eight months, especially since the priest had repeatedly voiced his innocence. And the plea, like his arrest on October 18, 1991, certainly shocked his flock.

On June 25, Lavigne supporter Michael Slowinski woke at 4 a.m. to the sound of thunder. “It was God knocking,” he said. After being roused by his heavenly alarm clock, the Colrain resident and his three kids drove 125 miles to Newburyport. Little did they know it was judgment day for their favorite priest, who would plead guilty to indecent assault and battery on a child.

“At first I was surprised, but in retrospect, I shouldn't have been,” said Slowinski, who had organized the petition supporting five separate trials. “I don't believe for one minute Father Lavigne is guilty of anything, but I think he saw the prospect of five trials, the emotional, not to mention the financial expense, and this was a way to put an end to this and to get on with the rest of his life. It makes sense. It’s over.”

Lavigne had called some of his supporters the previous night and informed them of his intention to plead guilty. When he entered the courtroom with his sister, her husband, and his nephew, he hugged several parishioners, and then began to weep.

“Why did Father Lavigne say he was guilty when he wasn’t guilty?” asked Slowinski’s young son.

“I’ll explain it to you on the ride home,” said Slowinski.

In return for Lavigne’s guilty pleas to one count of molesting a boy under the age of 14 and one count of molesting boy over the age of 14, the prosecution agreed to drop two child rape charges, six counts of molesting a child under the age of 14, and two counts of molesting a child over 14.

He received a 10 years of probation for a suspended four- to six-year prison sentence in Cedar Junction in Walpole, and was sentenced to a concurrent 10-year probation sentence in lieu of a one-year jail sentence. Lavigne was also ordered to spend seven months to one year in psychiatric treatment in the Saint Luke Institute in Suitland, MD, as a term of probation. The facility counsels clergy who have drug, alcohol, or sexual abuse problems.



He was informed that he could no longer serve as a parish priest, must stay away from his victims, couldn’t live in a house where there is anyone under the age of 16, or work unsupervised with anyone under 16.

“I am sorry for the harm I have caused, and I ask for their forgiveness,” said Lavigne. “As far as other accusers: If I have harmed them in any way I ask for their forgiveness.” It was hardly a statement that suggested that he was innocent and that he was avoiding the “gut-wrenching” prospect of being falsely accused in five separate trials.

Bunny Croteau, Danny’s mother, said, “The decision wasn't as great as I’d like. At least he admitted some guilt.”

The final time I talked to Carl Croteau on September 25, 2009, I took the picture of him below in front of Gateway Village in Sixteen Acres. I asked him to turn the clock back 12 years and recall what he was thinking right after the sentencing. I expected him to remember some kind of sense of redemption over the guilty plea. But there was none. His smile turned into a frown. He couldn’t believe the sentence. “It was a disappointment,” he said. “A slap in the face. An outrage.”


A woman, interviewed in 1992 by the Springfield Union News outside the courthouse who on the condition her name not be used, echoed Carl’s sentiments. She called Judge Volterra’s suspended sentence “a joke, a farce…If he wasn’t a priest, he’d be going to jail, not some country club.”

Volterra, on the other hand, blasted press coverage of the case, and opined that a conviction might have been overturned on appeal because the statute of limitations on the crimes had run out, but was extended retroactively by the state legislature.

Soon after Lavigne pled guilty, someone set fire to a car owned by a relative with whom he was living. The arson took place a day after a television reporter had told his neighbors about his presence in the eastern Massachusetts town in which he had relocated. “We all felt he was in danger,” said Stern. “He eventually moved.”

Lavigne seemed contrite after the sentencing, but he was much less so a few days later during an interview on Amherst radio station WFCR. Speaking against the advice of his attorney, he said he was writing a book about his legal troubles, blaming his predicament on his lifelong refusal to stick to the status quo. “And now I’m paying the price,” he said. “Very few people know who I am. They know me from working with me, or my sermons, or the jokes I tell. But very few people know and understand me. I’ve got a lot to say. It’s hard for me not to be able to tell my side of the story. But for now, I have to stay quiet. I’m a very, very trusting person, and I know if I go to the press with my story at this point, I could create problems for my defense. Being too trusting has always been one of my problems.”

Lavigne’s 1991-1992 ordeal, however, marked just the beginning of his dealings with the legal system. He was the target of dozens of lawsuits since the early 1990s. The investigation into the Daniel Croteau murder proceeded with starts and stops since 1991, with two rounds of DNA testing on blood found at the murder scene failing to match Lavigne’s DNA.

He still hasn’t told his side of the story, saying only “My silence is my salvation,” when reporters ask.

In February of 2002, when he was four months away from the end of his 10-year probation, Stern said of his notorious client, “He’s had a perfect and clean record for these 10 years. He was and is a very decent man. He was, in fact, a great priest.”

Indeed, Lavigne had found it difficult to pull away from the church life, despite being banned from serving as a parish priest. Five years prior to the end of his probation, the Rev. Bruce Teague (pictured below) noticed him hanging around St. Brigid Church in Amherst, trying to assist another priest who was hearing children’s confessions. Teague informed diocesan officials. When they didn’t respond to his complaint, he reported the situation to the Amherst Police, who issued a trespass order, threatening Lavigne with arrest if he showed up at the church again.


When Teague’s superiors in the Springfield diocese received a copy of the order, he was reprimanded and was eventually forced out of his position as pastor. His parishioners were furious. “Here you have a good priest who blew the whistle on a bad priest and it’s the good priest who gets punished,” said David Keenan, a former Amherst selectman.

Keenan and fellow parishioners were unsuccessful in their attempt to contact Bishop Thomas Dupre and demand Teague’s reinstatement.

“Father Teague was driven out of here because he protected children and dared to challenge the diocese about Lavigne while other priests were still socializing with Lavigne, and yet the diocese continues to coddle Father Lavigne, a convicted pedophile,” said Keenan. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”

At present, Lavigne lives in relative peace in his Chicopee home, his tranquility only occasionally interrupted by an intrepid reporter (at least once from the Boston Globe in 2003) and a police raid on his home in 2004 to search his computer equipment for evidence that he possibly wrote an anonymous letter and mailed it to himself—a letter that Lavigne concluded that it was written by Danny Croteau’s murderer.

In 2004, Lavigne was laicized—officially made a layman—by the Vatican, marking the end of the diocese’s financial assistance to him. The year before, Bishop Dupre (pictured below), who had been criticized for dragging his feet on seeking to defrock Lavigne, submitted his resignation and fled the diocese after allegations that he himself had abused two boys in the 1970s.



The repercussions from the Lavigne case in the early 1990s were particularly difficult on Charles Shattuck. Lavigne’s sympathizers continued to show their contempt for the Holy Trinity Lay Community and the Shattuck family after the priest’s guilty plea. “We were treated as outcasts. We received death threats over the phone. We discovered my wife’s brakes had been cut. My children were mentally and physically abused by some of their classmates at school. It was a nightmare. But we never regretted coming forward,” said Shattuck. A number of Lavigne’s supporters continued to jeer at Shattuck when they saw him in town even a decade later.

Despite what Lavigne did to his sons—including threatening them with a knife if they were to tell (see below), according to their later statements to police—Shattuck continued to pray for him. So did Carl Croteau. Shattuck hasn’t seen Lavigne again. Carl had a couple of chance encounters with the former priest, including sightings in downtown Springfield and at the Holyoke Mall. “He got out of there in a hurry when he saw me,” said Carl.



Lavigne told the Boston Globe in 2003 that he hasn’t contacted the Croteau family because Carl “is so bitter.” This is in direct contrast to the observation of Rev. Charles Gonet, the former St. Catherine pastor who Carl credits with bringing him back to the church. Carl and Bunny Croteau, according to Gonet, are “remarkably devoid of bitterness. The Lord is working in their lives.”

I never got the taste of bitterness when I talked to Carl Croteau. “It’s no use getting angry,” he said. “Hating is not productive.” Over the years, when the negative thoughts did get to him, and he found himself thinking about what he’d do to his son’s murderer, he would put the brakes on the negativity and say a prayer. “Then I’d say, ‘Darn it, now I have to go to confession for even thinking those thoughts,’” he said.

* * * * * * * *

Many wonder how Lavigne’s alleged victims could keep silent about the sordid details of their relationships with the priest—secrets that lasted in some cases for several decades. Why didn’t they just tell their parents—and the police—the minute something improper took place, or when the collective abuse became too much to bear? The answer isn’t a simple one. Generally speaking, for some victims of clergy abuse, the relationship often starts out with a mutual affection. That sentiment can cause mixed feelings when, as the abuse progresses, their emotional attachment conflicts with their realization that the situation is exploitative—and illegal.

For example, rewind to a time before Danny’s murder, to a scene in which Danny was playing street hockey with his friends. “We would be in the middle of a game, well before suppertime,” recalled Stephen Burnett, who served as an altar boy at St. Catherine and was one of Danny’s best buddies. “Everybody would be having a good time, all of a sudden I would see Danny crying and I would look up to Prouty Street, which was about five houses away, and see Father Lavigne parked in the big four-door car, but he wouldn’t come out of his car or park any closer, like he was trying to conceal his identity. Danny would say, ‘I have to go,” and he would run to the car crying with no further explanation. Danny told me that Father Lavigne was his uncle, and that’s why I never thought any more about it…I know that Father Lavigne did not bring Danny home to his (Danny’s) house as he went the opposite direction. They drove down towards Sunrise Terrace down Lumae Street.”


The incident reveals what appeared to be a close and complex relationship between Croteau and Lavigne. Although it was never proven that the priest was sexually abusing Danny, their behavior seems to fit the same pattern as the dynamics of Lavigne’s relationships with many of his alleged victims. Like Shattuck and others, Danny was given alcohol, according to witnesses. Lavigne also showered Danny with attention, and invited him to many overnight stays in which the two were alone.

Here was a kid who was growing up like any boy in Sixteen Acres. Playing street hockey and Wiffle Ball with his friends. Joining the weekly neighborhood volleyball game at the corner of Fenway Drive and Fairlawn Street. Being a typical boy—and then having the fun interrupted because of a seemingly bizarre friendship with a middle-aged man.

And, as Joseph Shattuck discovered, it’s not an easy relationship to get out of. Even when victims know what is occurring is wrong, many of them blame themselves. “There are some things that may seem like a sin, but really are not,” wrote Shattuck. “For instance, being a victim of sexual assault may make a person think they have done something wrong, but in reality they are innocent. I remember when I was 15 years of age, I had a good friend, and of all people, a priest! What a friend—one of the closest people to God. He would take me places like the movies, shopping, etc. Little did I know at the time, but his generosity would be used in such a way to make me feel like I owed him something.”

But by 1991 Joseph Shattuck had certainly gotten over his feeling of indebtedness. He had had enough of Lavigne’s antics, which backfired on the priest in a momentous way. Lavigne’s motives became more and more transparent, and his “affection” had turned into abuse, according to Shattuck’s account, so he was the first to blow the whistle on the priest and bring him to trial. The dirty little secret was exposed, and others came forward with similar stories, triggering the reopening of the Daniel Croteau murder investigation.

Carl Croteau believed that his son was also ready to tell him what was going on between him and his murderer, and that’s why he was killed. Most law enforcement officers involved in the investigation feel this was the scenario as well.

And most of them believe Danny’s killer was Lavigne, but there isn’t physical evidence to convict him. There was enough evidence of sexual abuse in other cases, however, to defrock him, and that was one of the Croteaus’ small victories.

Carl Croteau said that Lavigne’s laicizing was “welcome but long overdue. At least there is some justice. Hopefully there will be more in the future.”

Judgment day. It’s awaiting all of us. But Carl Croteau believed Danny’s murderer should face his accusers in THIS life—in a court of law.

2009

A Springfield Republican editorial, published shortly after former District Attorney Matthew Ryan’s death on August 22, 2009, criticized the former D.A.’s handling of the Croteau murder. But that was of little consolation to Carl Croteau. At the time, he was pressing for an indictment, and he wanted Attorney General Martha Coakley to take over the case and appoint a special prosecutor—even with just circumstantial evidence. “People have gone to jail with much, much less evidence against them,” said Croteau.

And there are witnesses as well, who offered statements in 1991, 1993, and 2000. They told police they saw Lavigne the night of the murder either with Danny or near the murder scene. But why did they wait so long to come forward with their stories? “The D.A. is probably afraid Lavigne’s lawyer would rip them apart," said Croteau. Be that as it may, he thought it was worth a trial—in a criminal court, not a civil one.

Carl wasn’t interested in filing a civil suit, where the burden of proof would be much less. “When it’s a civil suit, it’s about money,” he said. “We don’t want the money. We want justice.”

Read parts 1, 2, and 3.