MassLive.com/The Republican [Springfield MA]
May 26, 2021
By Stephanie Barry
Despite being defrocked by the Vatican nearly 20 years ago, former Catholic priest Richard R. Lavigne clung to his hallowed former profession until his last breath.
According to his death certificate, Lavigne, 80, died of respiratory failure after contracting COVID-19 four days before he perished in a hospital bed at Baystate Franklin Medical Center on May 21. It was a Friday at 5:40 p.m.
His self-reported occupation, the record states: clergy, although, he was barred from public ministry after being convicted of child molestation in 1992. He was a longstanding suspect in the 1972 murder of altar boy Daniel “Danny” Croteau.
Given his rapidly declining health, investigators knew they were racing against time to button up a murder case against Lavigne in connection with 13-year-old Croteau’s death. Croteau was discovered floating facedown in the Chicopee River wearing his parochial school uniform.
Lavigne had proved a most elusive target, despite strong, early suspicions about his relationship with the boy and his culpability in Croteau’s murder.
Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni and his team of investigators knew they were tantalizingly close over the past two months to bringing a case against him. A state trooper worked gingerly to build a rapport with Lavigne over five days in April and May, while the office awaited the results of a forensic linguistic expert’s analysis of a mysterious letter Lavigne purported to receive from the “real killer” in 2004.
Stalwart forensics had failed them, but Lavigne’s conversations with State Trooper Michael McNally were showing cracks in the onetime priest’s veneer. But, the clock was ticking.
“There was a general sense of urgency given the trajectory of the case, the results of the forensic linguistics report combined with what we had just learned about some health setbacks,” said James Leydon, spokesman for Gulluni. “We became aware of his his general decline in health, which went beyond simply his age.”
In death, Lavigne ended up beating the clock. He died less than two hours after Gulluni green-lighted his investigators to pursue an arrest warrant late Friday afternoon. They planned to seek an arrest warrant as early as the following day.
“I think we learned on Thursday that he had really begun failing,” Leydon said.
Despite their best efforts, Lavigne died too soon. Gulluni has closed the case. The former priest admitted he had been the last to see Croteau, physically assaulted him at the riverbank, left him there and returned a short time later to see Croteau floating in the water. By his own admission to McNally, Lavigne made no attempt to rescue the child, call the police or alert Croteau’s parents. An expert determined the mysterious letter by the “real killer” likely was written by Lavigne.
Lavigne’s remains were reduced to ashes at a Maple Street crematorium in Springfield, according to the death certificate. He maintained the same Chicopee address he had for decades and his closest living relative was a younger sister in Florida.
It seemed another chapter closed in the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese’s dark history of clergy abuse and cover-ups. But Gulluni followed up by encouraging other victims who may have yet to come forward despite waves of abused former altar boys who had offered disclosures for more than 30 years.
On Wednesday morning, the district attorney renewed his call to victims to come forward along with the office’s clergy abuse hotline. It can be reached at (413) 800-2958.
“We understand the strength that is required for victims to come forward and speak to their past suffering, but these allegations should be reviewed by law enforcement, no matter their age or status. We want to hear from you and we want to help,” Gulluni said.
Gulluni established the anonymous hotline for anyone wishing to report abuse in early 2019.
“Survivors of clergy abuse, or any survivor of sex abuse, are encouraged to call. No matter the age of the complaint or whether it was previously reported, any victim of clergy sexual abuse is able to, and should, contact law enforcement directly,” he said.
That year, the prosecutor also executed a memorandum of understanding — a contract of sorts — to ensure the diocese was forwarding all allegations of abuse to law enforcement.
The Springfield diocese has settled more than 150 abuse claims and paid out more than $15 million.
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