Springfield, MA

The 50-year Fight for Father Lavigne's Arrest

Terianne Falcone

The Church covered up his crimes over and over again.

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A young boyAndrew Neel - Unsplash

It was April 1972.

Father Robert Lavigne had been a friend to the Croteau family for many years so it was only natural that Father Lavigne would lead the funeral service for a 13-year old altar boy named Danny Croteau from Springfield MA, who had been found dead in the Chicopee River.

Nearly 50 years later, that same priest and "family friend", Father Robert Lavigne, was charged with the altar boy's sexual molestation and murder posthumously as Lavigne died of Covid-19 a few days before.

Fifty years.

50 Christmases, 50 birthdays, 50 Halloweens. The many family holiday dinners where Danny's mom, Bunny, or his dad, Carl, or one of his brothers would break down and cry, looking at the empty chair at the table.

Fifty years of suspecting Lavigne. 50 years of frustration for the Croteaus. Fifty years of the Church's disinterest in investigating Lavigne. And it was not until the 1990's that the District Attorney's office made public that Lavigne was a "person of interest" in the Croteau case.

Both parents, Bunny and Carl, went to their graves, never knowing what had happened to their beloved Danny.

Lavigne had been picking up Danny nearly every Friday night "to spend time together," according to the Croteau family. The family innocently thought Father Lavigne was taking Danny under his wing.

Court documents that were ordered opened decades later gave a robust possible motive for Danny's murder: the 13-year-old altar boy had been threatening to expose the child-molesting Father Lavigne.

In 1972, Lavigne was not defrocked.

That had been the decision of the Springfield Diocese leader, Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, who was later revealed to have also abused children.

In addition, District Attorney Matt Ryan chose not to continue to investigate Lavigne for molestation and murder of the 13-year-old. As a result, Lavigne was at liberty to continue his heinous actions.

Indeed, he did continue his despicable crimes. In 1991, nearly 20 years after Danny's death, Lavigne was arrested for sexually molesting children. The Catholic Church eventually chose to settle the 17 complaints of sexual molestation, paying out $1.4 million in 1994.

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A priest, altar boys, and the EucharistPhoto by Z - on Unsplash

Even after Lavigne arrest for 17 molestations, neither the Church nor the District Attorneys' office was interested in taking another look at the Croteau case.

Lavigne was still not defrocked.

In 1992, Lavigne was convicted of molesting two altar boys and served ten years of probation.

He was not defrocked.

In 1997, three years after the settlement by the Church for Lavigne, the Rev. Bruce Teague, the pastor at St. Brigid's in Amherst, noticed Lavigne hanging around the Church. Teague realized Lavigne was attempting to listen in on the confessions of children. Father Teague immediately notified the Springfield Diocese. They disregarded Teague's warning. (In fact, he was removed as pastor.) Undeterred, Teague went to the police, who now ordered Lavigne to stay away from Teague's Church.

And, he was still not defrocked.

There was another decent priest, the pastor of the East Longmeadow church, Father James Scahill. He was known to use his Sunday sermon to campaign against priests who abused children and the superiors who protected them. He campaigned hard to have Lavigne defrocked.

Father Scahill, some other good priests, and parishioners fought relentlessly against Lavigne and the Church. This tumult went on for years.

Finally, Bishop Dupre, who succeeded Weldon, grudgingly agreed to defrock Lavigne.

In 2004, thirty-two years after Danny's murder, Lavigne was defrocked.

Later that same year, Bishop Dupre was indicted for two counts of child rape. Bishop Weldon and then Bishop Dupre carried out crimes of molestation and protected other priests engaged in similar atrocities.

Unfortunately, the DA's office could not pursue Bishop Dupre's case since the statute of limitations had run out.

Four years later, in 2008, the court ordered the release of thousands of documents from the initial Lavigne investigation. The records included a witness statement who alleged they saw Lavigne with Danny the night he was killed. The statement also said that, back in 1972, then-bishop Weldon and then-District Attorney Matt Ryan threatened the witness not to come forward.

The judge, Berkshire Superior Court Associate Justice John Agosti, said, "This [witness] statement alleges a grave abuse of authority by the district attorney in 1972 and raises concerns about law enforcement authorities' relationships with the Diocese and their handling of evidence incriminating Lavigne,"

Bishop Weldon, Bishop Dupre, and Father Lavigne had all gotten away with child abuse for decades.

In addition, Lavigne escaped a murder rap. So clearly part of the bishops' motive for not investigating Lavigne was the fear of being exposed themselves.

The priest that held the memorial for Danny was, fittingly, Father James Scahill. He was the priest who had consistently railed against clergy child abuse and had ultimately forced Bishop Drupree to defrock Lavigne.

At the end of Danny's memorial just this past June, the remaining members of Danny's immediate family -- only his brothers Carl and Joe-- sang "Danny Boy:"

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer's gone, and all the roses falling,
It's you, It's you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow,
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow,
And I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow,—
Oh, Danny boy, Oh Danny boy, I love you so!

While the event gave closure and peace to many, many priests still need to be defrocked and arrested.

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SorrowPhoto by Brian Matangelo on Unsplash

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I've moved back to this area after living abroad for 15 years. Both the landscape and the people are beautiful. People are kind to each other here in Northampton, MA. Thus, as I get reacquainted and go see all the cool stuff, I shall share with you! And, I have fun stories from abroad!

Northampton, MA
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