Aid for Former Priest Debated

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
February 17, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - The fund that possibly could provide financial support for a recently defrocked priest in the Springfield Diocese represents incredible acts of charity by donors, diocesan officials said.

But others are raising questions, including why the church hasn't provided the same amount of charity to victims of sexual abuse.

In announcing the laicization of convicted child molester Richard R. Lavigne Jan. 20, officials of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield said he may be eligible for financial help from a fund recently created to financially support priests removed from ministry for sexual abuse.

At least two people who want to remain anonymous have contributed about $100,000 in total for the fund, according to diocesan officials. More than two people, but no more than six or so, may have contributed to the fund, diocesan officials said.

Sandra L. Tessier of Springfield, the mother of an alleged sexual abuse victim of Lavigne, expressed outrage that the diocese would facilitate a fund to support Lavigne - a person accused by about 40 people of sexually abusing them as minors. Lavigne also is the only suspect in the unsolved 1972 murder of 13-year-old Springfield altar boy Daniel Croteau.

"What kind of person wants their money supporting a sexual predator?" Tessier said.

"Aren't there better causes for the church to support, like maybe helping the homeless, the elderly, the ill? Lavigne has a warm house to live in. Not everyone has that. There are hundreds of causes I believe more worthwhile," said Tessier, whose 45-year-old son Andre P. Tessier of West Hartford filed suit against the diocese last year accusing Lavigne of abusing him as a minor.

Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk - who became diocesan administrator last week following the retirement of Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, who now faces his own abuse accusations - said the fund represents Christian charity.

"We are a church that follows the teachings of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ was here he would reach out to Richard Lavigne as he reached out to Judas, as he reached out to Peter after he denied him, and as he reached out to all sinners," Sniezyk said.

"This is a matter of charity, not a matter of justice," said Sniezyk, who spoke on behalf of the diocese at a news conference announcing the defrocking.

Lavigne's current $1,030 monthly stipend and $8,800 in annual health benefits will end May 31. To continue to receive financial help, Lavigne would have to ask for charity from the diocese.

If he does seek help, a lay panel of professionals would determine if Lavigne is indigent. If he were deemed indigent, money would be given to him from the newly created fund. The amount would be decided by the panel. Lavigne would also have to agree to cooperate with the diocese's clergy monitor.

The first gift for this fund was given unsolicited by a donor in recognition that Dupre was coming under criticism for financially supporting Lavigne with diocesan money, according to diocesan officials.

"Since the offer of the first gift, the bishop has received similar other inquiries. The Bishop is thankful for their demonstration of true Christian charity," read a statement released by the diocese at the time.

"Although no support for suspended priests has come from either parish collections or the operating expenses of the Diocese, the Bishop recognizes that in the case of Richard Lavigne even further separation is warranted," the statement read.

Diocesan officials have said that previously, priests removed from ministry for sexual abuse have received stipends from diocesan funds received from donors who wanted gifts used at the diocese's discretion. The new fund comes from money specifically donated to help sexually abusive priests removed from the ministry.

"I can't imagine anyone donating to the diocese thinking their money was to be used for sexual abusers," Tessier said.

The Rev. James J. Scahill, the East Longmeadow pastor whose parish has been protesting the diocese's financial support of Lavigne, questioned if the diocese intends to start a fund for victims.

"A victims' funds should have been with us years ago and certainly prior to a felon's fund. A victims' fund is more in keeping with Christ and gospels that call for care for the least among us. As for violators of children, Jesus suggests a millstone be fastened around their neck and they be thrown in the sea," said Scahill, whose parish has been withholding for a year and a half 6 percent of its weekly collections usually earmarked for the bishop's office.

He suggested that any panel investigating Lavigne's finances should include a victim of clergy sexual abuse or a victim's family member.

"We don't want it to be a closet church committee," Scahill said.

Scahill credited the courage of victims and the resolve of his parishioners for identifying Lavigne's financial support as a diocesan issue worthy of public debate and applying pressure on the diocese to seek Lavigne's defrocking.


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