|Judge: Open Altar Boy Murder File
By Stephanie Barry and Buffy Spencer
January 12, 2008
[See also the Lavigne documents that have already been released.]
SPRINGFIELD - A Superior Court judge has ordered Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett to release more investigative files in the 36-year-old unsolved murder of altar boy Danny Croteau, including a witness' allegations that she was pressured by the then bishop and district attorney about information concerning a priest who was a suspect.
Judge John A. Agostini rejected arguments that the investigation into the 1972 murder is ongoing and that unsealing the materials may discourage new witnesses from coming forward.
The judge issued three orders last week in the context of an ongoing dispute between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield and its insurance carriers. The carriers recently pushed to open investigative files in more than a dozen clergy abuse cases as a means to probe whether the diocese turned a blind eye to allegations of abuse.
The most notorious of these cases in Western Massachusetts focuses on now-defrocked priest Richard R. Lavigne, of Chicopee. He has been sued for abusing dozens of former parishioners, and was the prime suspect in the bludgeoning murder of Croteau, 13. Lavigne was never charged in the killing and has denied any involvement.
Lavigne was the Croteau family's parish priest and had a close, and, some have testified, abusive relationship with Danny Croteau. A lawyer for Lavigne did not return a call for comment on Friday.
The insurance companies' efforts to unseal certain files, including one alleged eyewitness' assertion that she was encouraged 36 years ago by former District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan Jr. and the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon to keep quiet, were opposed by Bennett and the chief state police officer assigned to his office, Capt. Peter J. Higgins.
"One of these eyewitnesses who gave a statement to police in 2004 told how in 1972, the then-bishop and the then-district attorney threatened her if she went public with what she had seen," Agostini wrote, following a reference to a witness who allegedly saw the murder.
"This statement alleges a grave abuse of authority by the district attorney in 1972, and raises concerns about law enforcement authorities' relationship with the Diocese and the handling of evidence incriminating Lavigne," the judge stated.
Lawyer John J. Stobierski, of Greenfield, who represented several of the victims, applauded Agostini's ruling, but had harsh words for investigators.
"The state support of the Diocese of Springfield in concealing the facts have historic implications. All of Western Massachusetts has known the situation stinks - the murder of Danny Croteau and the failure to prosecute the murder. We may finally know where that smell comes from," Stobierski said.
He said he intends to hold a news conference tomorrow with Croteau's parents, reacting to the rulings.
Ryan, who left public office in 1990, has long denied suggestions that he engaged in a cover-up or refused to pursue leads to protect the church. Weldon, according to the testimony of diocesan witnesses, destroyed documents to conceal abuse allegations against parish priests.
A spokesman for the diocese said the organization is not opposing the release of the materials, but they believe allegations of collusion between the diocese and law enforcement at the time has been carefully vetted by investigators more recently, and discounted.
"These contentions were thoroughly investigated by law enforcement officials and, as far as the Diocese is aware, were determined to be without merit or any substantiation," spokesman Mark E. Dupont said in a written statement. "All information known by the Diocese concerning clergy abuse was years ago turned over to the District Attorney by our legal counsel. In all such cases, insofar as we can determine, everything contained within these law enforcement files has been known previously to investigators and has been thoroughly reviewed and investigated."
Lavigne was sentenced to serve 10 years' probation in the early 1990s after pleading guilty to charges for molesting two young boys. It was during that case that his status as a suspect in the Croteau murder became public.
The issue was revived in 2001 when a clergy abuse scandal swept the nation and new lawsuits were filed, including against Lavigne.
The Springfield diocese settled 46 abuse claims against priests for $7.7 million in 2004. The diocese, in turn, sued its insurance carriers, which refused to cover the claims because they contended the diocese was negligent in failing to properly supervise its clergy. There are roughly 40 more claims pending, whose resolution hinges upon this court battle.
Responding to three motions by Bennett and Higgins to restrict access to their files, Agostini ruled in two that information must be provided to the insurance carriers, and in the third that information should be made available for public review.
In that case, Agostini ordered unsealed:
1. A series of witness statements against Lavigne and others, nine of which have never been made public before.
2. A four-page list of documents gathered by State Police in connection with investigations into 15 cases of sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by priests or deacons, including medical and police reports, and diocesan sexual abuse intake.
3. A one-page document entitled "Communications with the Diocese."
4. A two-page document listing seven categories of investigative materials.
The rulings also reference several potentially explosive allegations, including at least four witnesses who told police that they saw Lavigne on the night of the murder "either with Croteau or near the site where Croteau's body was found." These statements were offered in 1991, 1993, 2000 and 2004, according to a footnote in the ruling.
The 2000 statement describes the murder and the disposal of the body, Agostini writes. He does not render any opinion on the merits of statements or the credibility of the witnesses.
An unnamed woman who spoke to police in 2004, said she told investigators 32 years earlier that she told the district attorney in 1972 about seeing Lavigne at the murder site, but that the district attorney "warned her that she could lose her job or have a defamation claim against her if what she claimed she saw 'got out.'"
Agostini did order that any information identifying victims of sexual abuse be redacted in the documents before they are released. He ordered the files be made available within 15 days of the ruling.
His orders also noted that many of the documents in question were made public through a 2003 decision by Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis.
In 2004, the state Supreme Judicial Court restored Velis' decision to make public thousands of pages of investigative files in the Croteau case. The ruling was prompted by a lawsuit filed by The Republican to unseal the files.
The newspaper won the case at the Superior Court level. The decision was reversed on appeal, and then the high court restored Velis' ruling.
In his rulings, Agostini cited The Republican's case as a legal precedent on several points.
"In his decisions, Judge Agostini relies heavily on the often-cited Supreme Judicial Court decision in The Republican Company v. Appeals Court, in which case attorney Jon Albano and I worked hard, at great expense to the newspaper, to establish severe restrictions on impoundment as the law of the commonwealth, articulated by its highest court," Joseph P. Pessolano, a lawyer for the newspaper, said yesterday.
In 2004, The Republican hired retired state police investigator R.C. Stevens, now a private investigator, to pore over the files and launch a fresh investigation.
Stevens met with law enforcement officials, interviewed more than a dozen witnesses and set up a tip hotline. He believes he developed new leads that warranted further investigation. He said the district attorney and some investigators were reluctant to share information then and now.
"If they're withholding detail, there wasn't just an abuse of power back then, there's an abuse of power today," Stevens said.
Agostini argued that, by all accounts, the case is indeed cold, and releasing information would not jeopardize an ongoing investigation.
"Captain Higgins has made no effort to explain specifically how the lists of the remaining as-yet undisclosed materials would have any negative impact on the Croteau murder investigation, in which there have been no signs of activity since 2004," he said.
Agostini also made a point to criticize Higgins' exhibit list.
"Captain Higgins list of those statements in Exhibit A is riddled with errors, which the Court corrects here to ensure the parties are clear about what has been provided," he wrote in a footnote.
It is unknown whether the district attorney or Higgins will appeal the rulings.
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