Of complicit bishops and compassionate priests

Boston Globe

May 27, 2021

By Kevin Cullen

Richard Lavigne, the pedophile priest who murdered Springfield altar boy Danny Croteau in 1972, was enabled, coddled, and protected by successive bishops, including some who abused children just as he did. Some good priests who stood up to them were punished.

Thanks to the good work of State Police and prosecutors in Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni’s office, defrocked priest Richard Lavigne has been exposed as the murderer of Springfield altar boy Danny Croteau, but it should never be forgotten that Lavigne was enabled, coddled, and protected by a series of Roman Catholic bishops.

Bishops who led the Diocese of Springfield valued their church’s reputation above the life of a 13-year-old boy and the well-being of the dozens of other children who Lavigne sexually abused.

In some cases, those bishops were abusers themselves, engaged in the same abhorrent behavior as Lavigne, who used his collar and the societal deference to the church at that time to rape children, and murder one of them, with impunity.

Meanwhile, two good priests who protected children, blew the whistle on Lavigne, comforted his victims, and pointed out the cynical, immoral conduct of their own bishops were punished and ostracized, whispered about as being haughty and disloyal by others who only wanted the bishop’s approval.

That’s how they rolled in the Diocese of Springfield, where a priest who was removed from ministry for abusing minors was put in charge of the diocese’s records.

Thomas Dupre, the Springfield bishop from 1995 until 2004, boasted that his diocese was exemplary in its handling of sexual abuse by priests. That was rich, considering that Dupre later resigned after being credibly accused of sexually abusing teenage boys.

In 1997, five years after Lavigne was convicted of molesting children, the Rev. Bruce Teague, the pastor at St. Brigid’s in Amherst, noticed him hanging around the church, trying to hear the confessions of children. Father Teague sent urgent word to his superiors in Springfield. They ignored him, so he went to the police, who threatened Lavigne with arrest if he showed up at the church.

You’d think that Dupre would have thanked Teague for protecting children and saving the church from further scandal. Instead, he removed him as pastor.

While some of Dupre’s predecessors looked the other way on Lavigne and other serial abusers, one of them, Christopher Weldon, who led the diocese from 1950 to 1977, and was bishop when Lavigne murdered Danny Croteau, has been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.

Dupre was brought down by a great reporter at The Republican named Bill Zajac, who confronted Dupre with allegations that he abused two boys, and a great priest named Jim Scahill. Father Scahill was so incensed that the diocese refused to defrock Lavigne after he was convicted of sexually abusing children that he refused to turn over the diocese’s portion of the weekly collection at his parish.

Scahill also swore under oath that Dupre disclosed that Bishop Weldon had destroyed records that incriminated diocesan priests in abuse. For trying to hold his bishop to the church’s own moral standards, Scahill was ostracized. It was only after a relentless campaign led by Scahill that Dupre agreed to defrock Lavigne.

“Lavigne wasn’t just protected by bishops,” Father Scahill told me Thursday. “He was protected by district attorneys who, before Gulluni came along, wouldn’t take on Lavigne and the church. It was corruption both within the institutional church and the district attorney’s office.”

Father Scahill, now retired, still counsels some of Lavigne’s victims. He took some satisfaction knowing that the State Police detective who got Lavigne to implicate himself in Croteau’s murder before Lavigne died last week was Mike McNally. The McNally family sometimes attended Mass at churches in Springfield and East Longmeadow where Scahill was pastor.

“I watched Mike grow up,” he said. “Mike had wonderful parents. A wonderful family.”

When Scahill took on and exposed Bishop Dupre for the corrupt charlatan he was, Scahill’s attorney at his courageous deposition was Mary McNally, Mike McNally’s aunt.

Unlike the preening, enabling bishops of Springfield, the McNallys of Springfield heard the Gospel and took to heart Jesus Christ’s admonition that anyone who harms a child would be better off having a great millstone fastened around their neck and drowned in the sea.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.