Croteau Files to Be Opened

By Bill Zajac
Springfield [MA] Republican
July 28, 2004

Lifting a veil of secrecy that spans three decades, the state's highest court yesterday ruled that investigative files in the 1972 murder of 13-year-old Springfield altar boy Daniel Croteau must be opened to the public.

With a 5-0 vote, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld an October 2003 ruling by Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis to terminate a 1996 impoundment order that has kept portions of the murder files off limits to public inspection.

Velis ordered all impounded documents to be released upon the removal of names and addresses of witnesses.

The decision concludes a 17-month legal battle in which The Republican and a Greenfield lawyer representing more than 46 alleged clergy sexual abuse victims fought Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett's office and the only suspect in the murder to open the files.

Richard R. Lavigne of Chicopee, a defrocked priest, has been the only publicly identified suspect in the killing.

Bernice B. Croteau, mother of the slain boy, said she hopes the released files will help clergy sexual abuse victims.

"It is going to be hard to see some of this (case files), but it has been hard living with this for 32 years," said Croteau, who, along with her husband, Carl, filed an affidavit in support of the release of the impounded documents.

She expressed gratitude to the media for its efforts to get the documents released and its interest in the story.

"If anyone has done anything, it has been the media," said Croteau.

She said she has never seen any of the files, including her son's autopsy.

Larry A. McDermott, publisher of The Republican, said the ruling is a victory for the public.

"We consider our role in protecting the public's right to know the most vital one we play in the community," McDermott said. "It is unfortunate that some public officials lose sight of the fact that they are there to serve the public. We're elated that the SJC justices were there to shine a light into this corner of darkness."

Executive Editor Wayne E. Phaneuf agreed.

"This is really a victory for our readers and their right to know. We're happy that the foresight shown by Judge Velis was upheld by the high court," said Phaneuf.

Bennett released some documents to The Republican yesterday and more documents are expected to be released soon.

The Republican, formerly called the Union-News, has fought for nearly a decade in the courts for the release of documents in the Croteau case, including a case that went to the Appeals Court in 1996. Under that ruling some documents were released but many remained impounded.

Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski initiated the recent effort to terminate the 1996 impoundment order and The Republican intervened in support of his effort. Stobierski was seeking to obtain evidence of a possible cover-up by local church officials.

"Many of my clients were contemporaries of Danny Croteau. One of the purposes in coming forward as victims was to aid in the pursuit of justice for whom there will never be justice - Danny Croteau," said Stobierski.

"Even if there are no blockbuster disclosures, I believe even small bits of information will help my clients in their journey to understand what happened to them and why it happened," Stobierski said.

The decision comes five days after a $7 million agreement to settle clergy abuse cases was reached between Stobierski's clients and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

"This doesn't affect the agreement, but it may influence my clients who are considering whether to opt in or out of the settlement," Stobierski said.

Justices affirmed Velis' reasoning in terminating the impoundment.

In an opinion written by Justice Robert J. Cordy, a former federal prosecutor, the court cited Velis's "meticulous" inspection of documents and his conclusion that arguments for impoundment had weakened over time.

"Balancing this weakened interest in impoundment against John Doe's and the public's interests in learning of Lavigne's alleged patterns of sexual abuse, of Lavigne's superiors' knowledge of and actions with regard to Lavigne's abuse, and of the government's thus-far unsuccessful efforts into the circumstances of Croteau's death, the judge then concluded that good cause sufficient to justify further impoundment no longer existed," the court said.

"We cannot say the judge erred in any respect," the opinion stated.

Velis is on vacation and was unavailable for comment.

The Republican's lawyer, Jonathan M. Albano, said the ruling found that sealing judicial records should be an "exception to the rule."

"Second, when the press or any member of the public asks to release documents that were sealed by prior order, then the burden to show why documents should remain sealed falls upon the parties seeking to keep them sealed," Albano said.

Bennett said he didn't expect any major revelations to emerge.

Stobierski said the decision challenges the increasing number of government officials who feel they can operate in secrecy.

"This court said that is wrong and that the public has a right to scrutinize how these officials do their job," Stobierski said.

Max D. Stern of Boston, Lavigne's lawyer, said the files will show a weak case against his client.

"When you strip away the hype and speculation, you are going to see just how thin the evidence was against Mr. Lavigne," Stern said.

Justices John M. Greaney of Westfield and Roderick L. Ireland, who grew up in Springfield, recused themselves from the case.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.