MassLive.com/The Republican [Springfield MA]
June 28, 2021
By Stephanie Barry
[Photo above: Joe Croteau, left, hugs Retired priest Rev. James Scahill after Scahill spoke at held a graveside memorial service for Joe’s little brother Danny, the 13-year-old altar boy authorities determined was killed by his parish priest in 1972. (Don Treeger / The Republican) 6/28/2021]
Forty-nine years after his violent death at the hands of his parish priest, more than 100 gathered at the Croteau family gravesite on Monday for a memorial service that shone a bright light on a boy’s life cut short.
Daniel Croteau’s older brother, Joseph Croteau, asked mourners to replace their memories of the melancholy portrait of their late parents holding a painting of their dead son that featured so frequently in media coverage over the years.
“I want you to instead imagine a happy mother with a little boy’s feet on hers while she taught him to dance,” said Joseph Croteau, while playing “Danny Boy” from an app on his iPhone.
Neither Croteau nor the Rev. James Scahill, who presided over the graveside service, uttered the name of the boy’s presumed killer: defrocked Catholic priest Richard R. Lavigne, who died late last month as a Massachusetts State Trooper prepared to arrest him and prosecutors readied to charge him with murder.
Detective Michael T. McNally, who coaxed what amounted to almost a deathbed confession out of Lavigne as the 80-year-old disgraced cleric lie in a hospital bed near the end of his life, attended the service along with Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni and members of his staff. Gulluni closed the case after Lavigne died of COVID-19 on May 21, armed with hours of incriminating admissions Lavigne made on recordings.
Investigators believe Lavigne told Danny Croteau down to the Chicopee River, bludgeoned him with a rock and pushed him into the water. The boy was found floating facedown on April 15, 1972. Lavigne was always the prime suspect — the only suspect — but physical evidence proved difficult to come by.
“I think we finally lifted the cloud that’s been hanging over this site for a long, long time,” Joseph Croteau told mourners who braved the sweltering heat to come to Hillcrest Cemetery, where his little brother had been laid to rest — followed by two of his older brothers and his parents, Bernice “Bunny” Croteau and Carl Croteau.
Joseph Croteau opened the service with memories of his younger brother, whom he recalled as clever and mischievous. He was the boy who became so excited when he got a bike for Christmas one year, he rode it up the stairs to show his parents as they slept. He was the boy who figured out how to drive his mother’s stick shift car as a child.
“My mother and I were coming back from the store and the van went by. My mother said: ‘Hey that looked like Danny.’ He was 11,” Croteau told the crowd, drawing laughter.
Scahill, a retired priest from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, delivered an impassioned sermon. A fitting speaker for the occasion, Scahill drew international attention as he challenged the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield’s initial response to the trail of abuse Lavigne left in his path and became something of a folk hero for survivors of clergy abuse.
“They correctly thought a priest could be evil and a murderer,” Scahill said of Danny’s parents. “Sadly, there are still people who believe that the church and its ministers are somehow above us and can do no wrong. Such people are to be pitied, for this is the disturbed mentality of the Jonestown disciples, who drank the juice.”
“When his treacherous evil was at last exposed and the complete charade and fraud of his total life made clear — humanly there was the longing for human justice and punishment,” Scahill said of Lavigne. “Strangely, at the very instant of exposure, it was not to be. Death intervened. Was that strange or providential?”
Scahill said Lavigne’s exposure in death should serve as a reckoning of sorts for millions of victims of clergy abuse across the globe, and the “enablers,” or church leaders who attempted to coverup the abuse and protect the predators among them.
The service drew at least one survivor who was no relation to the Croteau family who came to show his respect and support. Raymond Gouin Jr., of Ware, said he was among the first flood of Lavigne victims to come forward in the early 1990s. He recalled sitting in a conference room with more than a dozen other men at a Holiday Inn, telling his story to a state trooper.
He too, had been an altar boy at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Springfield, where the Croteau brothers also served.
“There were 17 of us. I remember like it was yesterday,” said Gouin, adding that Lavigne would often sneak him into hotel rooms through a window. “It’s like Father Scahill just said, it eats away your insides an inch at a time.”
Gouin, now 67, said he would occasionally attend court appearances when Lavigne was required to appear. Lavigne pleaded guilty to molesting two boys from his parish in Shelburne Falls — one of many reassignments in the former priest’s career before he was removed from public ministry in 1992.
“I would just stare at him and think: ‘You took away my faith.’ I still have a hard time going to weddings. I still have a hard time going to funerals. I look at these priests and their altar boys and I can’t help but worry,” Gouin said, his voice trailing off.
After the service, Joseph Croteau stood with clergy abuse victims attorney John J. Stobierski of Greenfield and recalled going with his father to then-Hampden District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan shortly after his brother’s murder to report that Lavigne had been sexually abusing him.
He said Ryan sloughed him off, saying he’d be hard pressed to find 12 jurors who would convict a priest. Lavigne wasn’t prosecuted over the allegations. But, Joseph Croteau remembered Lavigne as a violent man, prone to twisting boys’ arms so hard they feared they would break. And, the stinging slaps.
“Whatever there is to suffer, he will,” he said.
The only thing his parents received from the diocese was cash to pay for airfare to California to visit a relative after Danny’s death, Joseph Croteau said.
Stobierski said he believes Lavigne’s victims may number somewhere in the hundreds, even though the official tally rests at 43.
He also noted that two bishops who held collective control over the diocese for 40 years were exposed as predators: the late Thomas L. Dupre, who abruptly retired amid allegations by two young men and the late Christopher J. Weldon, who died decades before a man credibly accused him and two other priests of rape.
“I’m no mathematician, but what are the odds? The Catholic church has lost all its moral authority,” Joseph Croteau said.