Bishop Urged to Deny Lavigne

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
May 1, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - If the new Catholic bishop offers charity to defrocked priest and convicted child molester Richard R. Lavigne, it will undo the goodwill the bishop has built in the diocese, said alleged victims of clergy sex abuse.

"After everything (Lavigne) has done to so many children and all the shame he has brought to the Springfield Diocese, this should be an open-and-shut case of no charity," said alleged victim Andre P. Tessier, 45, of West Hartford.

The Rev. James J. Scahill said yesterday that charity to Lavigne will mean his parish, St. Michael's in East Longmeadow, will continue to withhold money from the bishop's office in protest.

Their concerns were expressed after the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, said Lavigne recently called him and asked him for financial help.

McDonnell said he is weighing his decision, but seeking an "outside opinion" first.

Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski, who represents about 40 people who have filed suit against the diocese or are considering it, said McDonnell's decision could go a long way in defining the bishop's work in the diocese.

"I think his decision will give an indication of what direction the sexual abuse crisis is going to go in this diocese with the new bishop," Stobierski said.

An upset Tessier said, "What's to think about? I thought the bishop said the victims were his No. 1 priority."

Tessier filed suit against Lavigne almost two years ago.

McDonnell said he didn't want to rush into a decision.

"I am not going to decide in 30 days what took 32 years to create," said McDonnell, who was installed as the bishop exactly 30 days ago today.

Scahill said Lavigne deserves no help.

"I am not suggesting we fasten a millstone around his neck and throw him in the Chicopee River, but extending help makes us liable for him," Scahill said.

The remark refers to both the Gospel of Matthew and the 1972 unsolved murder of 13-year-old altar boy Daniel Croteau of Springfield.

A verse in Matthew reads, "But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck."

Lavigne is the only publicly identified suspect in the murder of Croteau, whose body was found in the Chicopee River. He has been accused by at least 40 people of abusing them as minors. Last year he was classified by the state as a sex offender most likely to offend again.

The $1,030 monthly stipend and $8,800 in annual health and dental benefits that Lavigne has been receiving from the diocese since he was removed from ministry more than a decade ago has received much criticism and dissent in the diocese.

The criticism continued when the former bishop, the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre, announced Lavigne's defrocking in January and stated the stipend and health benefits would continue to May 31 and that Lavigne may be eligible for charity beyond that date.

Dupre, who resigned in February amid allegations he sexually abused two minors more than 20 years ago, previously helped facilitate the establishment of a fund to financially help sexually abusive priests.

Dupre continually stated, as has his successor, McDonnell, that a bishop is obliged under canon law to provide charity to all priests.

Canon 1350 states "the ordinary (bishop) is to take care to provide for a person dismissed (defrocked) from the clerical state who is truly in need because of the penalty."

Scahill said the same charity hasn't ever been extended to priests who left ministry to marry or pursue other careers.

"Nothing was ever offered to them to help them in their transition to new lives," Scahill said.

Scahill's parish has flourished since it decided in June 2002 to withhold 6 percent of its weekly collections earmarked for the bishop's office.

The average weekly collection has increased from about $6,000 to $9,000 in the past two years, when the number of families enrolled in the parish rose from 1,700 to 2,100, Scahill said.

"Those numbers not only reflect concerns for the way the church has misbehaved, but families recognize they have ownership in this parish. It is their parish - not mine," Scahill said.

More than $50,000 has been withheld.

"Bishop McDonnell has done a marvelous job inviting victims to his installation and meeting with them to show his concern. This is an opportunity to show he truly stands beside them," said Scahill, who called the bishop yesterday urging him the end financial help to Lavigne.

Thomas Martin of Springfield, another alleged victim of Lavigne, was surprised McDonnell is considering helping Lavigne. "Let Lavigne get a job bagging groceries or doing something else. Let him help himself," said Martin.

McDonnell has said he hopes to dissociate the diocese from the fund Dupre helped establish for abusive priests. About $100,000 was donated by people for the specific intent of helping them. The diocese would not release the names of the donors.

Scahill said donors' money should be returned. "This felons' fund was raised under the umbrella of the diocese and will remain tied to the diocese even if it is transferred now to a non-diocesan account," Scahill said.

Tessier, who wrote a letter yesterday urging McDonnell to stop benefits to Lavigne, said he would like the $100,000 returned to donors or given to the poor.

"There are needier people in this world than this man," Tessier said.


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