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  Priest Reportedly Was Suspect in a Slaying
Priest Reportedly Was Suspect in 72 Slaying

By Jack Sullivan
Boston Globe
October 22, 1991

A Roman Catholic priest from Shelburne Falls, who was arraigned yesterday on charges of sexually assaulting minors, was a suspect nearly 20 years ago in the slaying of a 13-year-old Springfield altar boy, according to a Springfield television report.

The parents of the boy and several police sources confirmed last night that the priest had been a suspect and that Hampden District Attorney William Bennett is reopening the investigation into the 1972 murder of Danny Croteau, whose bloodied body was found beneath a bridge on the Chicopee River.

Rev. Richard R. Lavigne, the pastor at St. Joseph's Church in Shelburne Falls for the last 12 years, was arraigned yesterday in Greenfield District Court on two counts of rape of children under the age of 16 and another charge of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14. Father Lavigne, who was arrested by State Police at his parents' home in Chicopee on Friday, had a not guilty plea entered on his behalf. He was released on $ 5,000 bail.

Father Lavigne's arrest came after an investigation by the State Police. While the Hampshire County district attorney's office offered few details about the charges, a police official on Sunday confirmed the charges involved at least two young boys, whose ages and hometowns were not released.

A report last night on WGGB-TV (Ch. 40) in Springfield said Father Lavigne had been a suspect in the 1972 murder but was not charged. No one has ever been charged in the case, which remains unsolved.

Danny Croteau's body was found by a fisherman on the banks of the river on April 15, 1972, under the Governor Robinson Bridge on Route I-291. The teen-ager, the youngest of seven children, had been been beaten in the head and face with a rock that was found nearby. He was buried several days later, with Father Lavigne, a close friend of the Croteau family, concelebrating the funeral Mass.

A former Chicopee police detective, who asked not to be identified, and Carl Croteau, Danny's father, confirmed in telephone interviews last night that Father Lavigne was one of two suspects in the case.

Father Lavigne, who has been a priest for more than 25 years, had served as an assistant pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Springfield, where Danny Croteau and his four brothers were altar boys. According to Carl Croteau, Father Lavigne would often have the boys sleep over at the rectory, even after he was transferred to St. Mary's Church in Springfield.

The former police detective, who was involved in the investigation, said yesterday, "We did consider Father Lavigne a suspect at that time." The detective said Father Lavigne remained a suspect after the other man who was being investigated had been absolved. The detective said no other suspects surfaced during the investigation.

Hampden District Attorney William Bennett, reached at home last night, would not comment on the case.

Carl Croteau said he was contacted by Bennett yesterday and told that the case would be reopened. One law enforcement official confirmed last night that Chicopee police have forwarded the file on the case to Bennett's office.

Croteau said he and his wife were told in 1972 by then-District Attorney Matthew Ryan and members of the Chicopee police that Father Lavigne was the main suspect in Danny's murder. He also said that after the investigation into Danny's death had begun, three of his other sons said they had been sexually molested by Father Lavigne.

Croteau said he signed applications for criminal complaints against Father Lavigne, but nothing ever came of them. Croteau said he was told by Ryan that a conviction of a priest would be impossible.

"We were told by the DA's office, "Where am I going to get 12 jurors to convict a priest?' " said Croteau, who is the chief housing specialist for the Hampden County Housing Court. "I protested the fact to the DA, but nothing came about. God only knows why they didn't go through with it."

Ryan could not be reached last night for comment.

Croteau said prior to Danny's murder, Father Lavigne would often stop by the house and even baby-sat for the children when Croteau's wife, Bernice, had to be hospitalized.

"He used to come over all the time," said Carl Croteau. "He'd even take the kids, one at a time, overnight at the rectory."

The former Chicopee police detective said the Archdiocese of Springfield was informed of the investigation into Father Lavigne at the time.

Attempts to reach Father Lavigne last night were unsuccessful.

Rev. Hugh Crean, a spokesman for the Springfield Diocese, said he was unaware of the past allegation. He said Father Lavigne "is on leave from pastoral duties . . . by mutual agreement."

"We will give him a great deal of moral support," said Father Crean. "He's expected to be innocent until proven guilty. We see him as a brother priest who has served the archdiocese for 25 years."

 
 

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