Files on Ex-Priest Ordered Unsealed
SJC Rules on Records in Altar Boy's 1972 Death
By Kevin Cullen
July 28, 2004
In what some lawyers described as a victory for the media and the public interest, the Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ended a long legal tug of war by ordering the release of documents prosecutors filed in an attempt to link a defrocked priest to the 1972 murder of a Springfield altar boy.
The SJC overruled the state Appeals Court and upheld a decision by Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis, who last October ordered the release of documents filed in the investigation of the former priest, Richard R. Lavigne, in the slaying of 13-year-old Daniel Croteau.
Some lawyers said the SJC ruling sets a precedent that will open sealed files in unsolved murders and other criminal cases that are no longer under active investigation. But others said the ruling was narrow in scope, and they attributed the ruling to the amount of time that has passed since the murder and widespread publicity surrounding Lavigne's 1992 conviction for molesting boys. He was publicly identified in 1991 as a suspect in Croteau's slaying.
"This is a huge victory for the press and the public," said John J. Stobierski, a Greenfield lawyer who represents 24 people who say that Lavigne sexually abused them.
Stobierski, who was joined in his effort to open the files by The Republican newspaper of Springfield, said he hopes the unsealed documents will show that the Catholic Diocese of Springfield kept Lavigne in a position where he could abuse children long after diocesan officials knew he had molested boys, including Croteau and several of his brothers.
Prosecutors say that Croteau was bludgeoned to death, probably with a rock, and that his body was dumped in the Chicopee River. The boy's family thinks he was killed because he had threatened to disclose that Lavigne had abused him. Lavigne was defrocked last year.
Jonathan M. Albano, a lawyer at Bingham McCutchen who represented The Republican, said the ruling marked the first time the SJC has made it clear that the burden of proof for keeping records sealed rested with those who seek impoundment orders.
"The court has clearly said impoundment is always the exception to the rule, including when it comes to search warrant material," said Albano, who in 2001 successfully argued on behalf of The Boston Globe for the release of records concerning sexually abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. "This is a very good ruling for the public interest."
Stobierski said the ruling may lead some of the 46 people he represents to reject a proposed $7 million settlement that the diocese offered last week, because the released documents may put them in a stronger legal position to argue that the diocese was negligent. The 46 alleged victims, including 24 who say Lavigne abused them, have until Aug. 5 to accept the proposed settlement. "The vast majority will accept the settlement because of the pain of this process," Stobierski said. "They want closure."
Officials in the Hampden County Superior Court clerk's office said the impounded materials, which were filed in 1993 by State Police seeking a search warrant to obtain a sample of Lavigne's blood to compare with traces of blood found at the murder scene, probably will not be released before next Wednesday, when Velis is expected to return from vacation.
But in response to the ruling yesterday, Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett released some impounded documents, including an autopsy report, a crime lab report, and records indicating that in 1958, when he was 17, Lavigne was fired as a recreation leader in Chicopee because he was deemed an "undesirable person to be around children."
The most significant finding of the autopsy was that Croteau's blood alcohol level was .18 percent, confirming a Globe report last year that quoted Croteau's father as saying that his son's alcohol level was nearly twice the level that would have rendered him legally intoxicated.
Police who investigated Lavigne say that finding was a crucial piece of circumstantial evidence, because many of his adolescent victims told police he plied them with alcohol before abusing them. "That was Lavigne's pattern," said retired State Police detective lieutenant Edward Harrington.
But Lavigne's lawyer, Max D. Stern, said that nothing in the impounded files will incriminate his client beyond what is already in the public domain.
He said some material will actually be exculpatory. "You'll find, for example, that the police found tire tracks at the scene [of the murder] that they thought were from the perpetrator's car, but that when they compared them to Lavigne's car there was no match," Stern said. "When you get all this material, you will come to the conclusion that there is simply no credible evidence that this guy committed a murder."
Stern opposed the release of the documents, saying it jeopardizes Lavigne's right to a fair trial if he is ever charged with the slaying. Bennett also had opposed releasing the documents, saying it could hurt the ongoing investigation of Croteau's death and hamper future probes.
But yesterday, Bennett said the ruling is helpful. "Everybody's on notice that if you file something with the court, it's most likely going to be disclosed," he said.
Writing for the SJC, Justice Robert J. Cordy, a former federal prosecutor, argued that Appeals Court Judge John H. Mason erred when he overruled Velis and said Stobierski and The Republican had failed to show that circumstances had changed since the impoundment order.
"A party seeking the release of impounded court records does not bear the burden of demonstrating either that there has been a material change in circumstances or that whatever good cause may once have justified their impoundment no longer exists," Cordy wrote. "The burden of demonstrating the existence of good cause always remains with the party urging their continued impoundment."
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