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  Father Lavigne Pleads Guilty
Priest Evades Jail Term

By Brian Melley
[Springfield MA] Union-News
June 26, 1992

A chapter in the life of Rev. Richard R. Lavigne ended yesterday when he admitted to fondling two youths, but, while he was forced to surrender his role as parish priest, he will escape jail time and prosecution on other sex charges he faced. With his guilty plea to fondling two parishioners' buttocks as long as eight years ago, 25 years of Lavigne's life ended when Judge Guy Volterra ordered him never to serve as a parish priest as a condition of a 10-year probation sentence.

"By this process today, . . . there has been a danger removed from that community," Northwestern District prosecutor David Angier said. "Father Lavigne won't be able to practice in that community."

Lavigne's change of plea in Essex County Superior Court came as his trial was scheduled to begin on charges of molesting a 12-year-old Greenfield boy twice in 1983 or 1984. He admitted to one count of molesting that boy, now a 20-year-old college student. He also admitted to molesting a 15-year-old altar boy in 1987 or 1988.

The 51-year-old priest's "guilty" utterance broke a silence in the oldest active superior court in the nation - a courtroom said to have echoed with the words of Daniel Webster. Some of Lavigne's 33 supporters began to weep.

The plea came about 45 minutes after Lavigne left the Immaculate Conception Church down the street and marched into the courthouse. Since his arraignment in February on charges of raping and molesting two youths and fondling three others, Lavigne has denied all the allegations.

But as he reached the second floor of the courthouse, and was greeted by hugs from supporters, Lavigne began to cry.

As part of the plea bargain, which did not include an agreement on the sentence, six charges of molesting a child under the age of 14, two charges of molesting a child over 14, and two child rape charges were dropped. He will serve no jail time unless he violates probation.

In denouncing Lavigne's acts, Volterra said, "One offending priest is one too many. As he stands here today he is a priest in the Diocese of Springfield. What is important is that when he committed these offenses he was an authority figure. It is a fact that he used his power as an authority figure in committing the offenses."

Probation, counseling ordered

Volterra imposed stiff terms of probation, which if violated, could result in a 10-year prison sentence. Two concurrent 10-year probation terms were ordered in lieu of a suspended one-year jail sentence and a suspended four- to six-year Cedar Junction prison sentence. Lavigne must spend seven months to one year at St. Luke Institute in Maryland.

The 24-bed facility, operated by the Catholic church, counsels clergy who have drug, alcohol, or sexual abuse problems. The program has a five-year outpatient follow-up program, defense attorney Max D. Stern said. Check-ups twice yearly determine if further hospitalization is necessary. Lavigne will be admitted Monday.

Another probation term requires that Lavigne never work alone with children under the age of 16. And, he can never live in the same house as a child under the age of 16.

Stern had argued in favor of the punishment that the former pastor of St. Joseph's Church, in Shelburne Falls, received. After Stern spoke, Lavigne rose and addressed the boys he violated.

Priest seeks forgiveness

"I am sorry for the harm I have caused (the victims), and I ask for their forgiveness," he said. "As far as other accusers: If I have harmed them in any way I ask for their forgiveness."

One victim had addressed Lavigne earlier and Angier read the statement of the other, who was not present.

"This is a man I didn't have to learn to trust," Angier read. "A man of the cloth is someone you can always depend on. When I was little I thought it was my fault. Not only did he choose to do what he did, he chose to hide it. As a result I have lost all interest in the Catholic Church."

The Most Rev. John A. Marshall, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, issued a statement saying he was upset to hear about Lavigne's guilty plea but would continue to pray for the priest and all the victims and their families.

In dropping the additional charges, Angier said the other alleged victims had agreed with the prosecution recommendation that Lavigne serve six months of an 18-month jail sentence.

Judge lambastes media

In rejecting that recommendation, Volterra blamed the media for giving the case more attention than he thought it deserved - a column on the back page of a local newspaper.

At a time when the state is financially strapped, Volterra said the pretrial publicity had forced the trial to this seacoast community, costing taxpayer dollars. In addition, jury selection had taken three days and jurors were sequestered in a hotel each night as the "guests of the commonwealth," Volterra said earlier in the week.

Volterra also said that he thought Lavigne might have won an appeal of a conviction because the statute of limitations had run out but was extended retroactively by the legislature.

The press heaped attention on the case when Lavigne became the first priest indicted in Western Massachusetts on sexual assault charges. He was followed by Rev. Julian Pagacz, a Polish National Catholic Church priest from Northampton, who was accused of raping one girl and molesting another. Earlier this year, the rape charges against Pagacz were dropped when the girl refused to testify, and his other case will be dropped if he stays out of trouble for a year.

Another Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Gary A. LaMontagne, has pleaded innocent to raping and fondling a woman who works at St. Mary's Church in Westfield. His trial is scheduled in September.

Publicity about Lavigne spread when it was revealed that he was a suspect in the 1972 slaying of 13-year-old Daniel Croteau. Croteau, a former altar boy at St. Catherine of Siena in Springfield, was found floating in the Chicopee River a week after Easter. Lavigne, who had once served at St. Catherine's was a friend of the Croteaus.

Stern denied that Lavigne had anything to do with Croteau's death.

"This man is no murderer - not even close," he said.

The Croteau family still thinks Lavigne killed their son. Bernice Croteau, mother of Danny Croteau, discussed yesterday's conviction, saying, "The decision wasn't as great as I'd like. At least he admitted some guilt."

Altar boy's death probed

The investigation has since been reopened by Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett. He would not comment on it yesterday but said he agreed with the recommendation made by Northwestern District Attorney Judd Carhart's office.

Carhart said his recommendation was based on the likelihood of conviction on each of the five separate trials Lavigne faced.

"It was a good resolution for everybody, especially the victims," said Ariane Vuono, the prosecutor who would have tried the case with Angier.

Stern would not comment on why Lavigne changed his plea. He would not say how trial consultant Andrea Longpre's role during jury selection influenced Lavigne's decision to plead guilty if it did.

"There were many, many factors that went into it," he said.

"I think this is a very sad day in a man's life, a life he's known for 25 years, his undying love for a parish," Stern said. "That life is over."

The sentence, he said, "enables him to walk away with some dignity and start a new page in his life."

Lavigne, originally from Chicopee, was ordained in 1966. He has served in a number of Western Massachusetts parishes, but spent the last 13 years as pastor at St. Joseph's, living at his own home in nearby Ashfield.

Lavigne would not comment on the case yesterday. A crush of TV cameras and reporters surrounded him as he tried to leave the two-story brick courthouse, built in 1809. Stern referred to the press as "vultures" as they chased the priest down the street.

Lavigne was last seen as he darted into a parking lot behind Immaculate Conception Church.

Union-News reporter Tom Shea contributed to this story.

Bishop's Marshall statement

Following is the statement by the Most Rev. John A. Marshall, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

I am saddened to learn that Reverend Richard Lavigne, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Shelburne Falls, has today entered a plea of guilty to some of the charges, which had been brought against him.

This series of events has truly been a tragedy for all concerned.

I ask your continued prayers for the victims and their families, for Father Lavigne and his family, for the people of St. Joseph Parish, and for all who have been troubled by this matter.

As together we strive to move forward from this unfortunate episode in the life of our church and community, I also ask for the prayers of Catholics and all people of good will in Western Massachusetts that we may be able to alleviate to the degree possible the suffering which has burdened our area during these past many months.

May the Lord, in His goodness and mercy, hasten the healing process among us and renew us in fai th, hope and love for God and for one another.

 
 

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