Examining priest abuse after closure of Croteau case

WGGB - WesternMassNews [Springfield MA]

July 12, 2021

By Audrey Russo and Amanda Callahan

[Includes videos]

Now for a Western Mass News exclusive.

New details Monday night surrounding a defrocked priest who authorities said was responsible for the murder of altar boy Danny Croteau nearly 50 years ago.

Western Mass News learned of new allegations against former priest Richard Lavigne, who died days before the Hampden DA could bring murder charges against him.

Danny Croteau is one of those names that never left the heart of the western Mass. community.

The 13-year-old’s murder went unsolved by the law for nearly 50 years.

In the eyes of some in the community, however, Priest Richard Lavigne was always seen as guilty.

“They all would think that he did it. That was always the rumor.”

The priest was convicted of child sex abuse involving different children in 1992, defrocked in the early 2000s, and died in May of 2021, just as the Hampden District Attorney planned to get an arrest warrant for the 1972 Croteau murder.

Lavigne had even recently admitted to assaulting Croteau the last time he saw him alive.

“I don’t remember hitting him down by the river bank but giving him a good shove,” Lavigne said.

But the news from the DA was poor consolation to those who believed Lavigne got away not only with murder but with years of sexually abusing other children as well.

“Very late May, early June, a new victim of Father Lavigne contacted me, who was sexually abused at Saint Mary’s, and he wanted to file a claim,” Sexual Abuse Victim Attorney Mitchell Garabedian said.

Garabedian is an attorney who represents victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests. He said this new allegation shows just how many victims Lavigne left behind before getting defrocked.

“They feel as though Richard Lavigne got out the easy way. He should have spent some time in prison,” Garabedian said.

Western Mass News spoke with this man, who we’re not identifying because he said he was a victim of sex abuse by a different priest within the Springfield Diocese.

He said he went to the same school as Croteau and his abuse started, shortly after Croteau died.

“I had no self-esteem left or confidence, you know, in those days,” the unnamed man said.

This man said the priest who abused him was eventually defrocked like Lavigne but still is living free.

“Never spent a day in jail, right,” the unnamed man said.

[Reporter: How does that make you feel?]

“Oh, it’s terrible. All of them have escaped justice.”

One person who publicly stood up against Lavigne and the Springfield Diocese was James Scahill.

In the early 2000s, he was a priest at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in East Longmeadow.

He and the parishioners held back the six percent of weekly collections that were normally turned over to the Diocese, vowing to do so until Lavigne was no longer on the church payroll and the defrocking process began.

The gesture making as many symbolic waves as financial ones.

“We would certainly do it all over again,” Scahill said. “Because honestly when I listened to the people and knew they were right, a better priest, I suppose would’ve gone over to the church and prayed. I just looked at the church, and I said ‘God help me, god give me strength,” Scahill said.

Scahill said that wasn’t popular with leaders in the Diocese.

The bishop at the time, Thomas Dupre, would later be accused of child sex abuse himself, one of two Springfield bishops to face allegations to this day.

Scahill said the death of Lavigne only furthers the call for stricter punishments but not just for abusers.

“….but their criminal enablers. Those are the ones that should be in jail, and not on some regal thrones of episcopacies,” Scahill explained.

A push for accountability that Danny Croteau’s own brother Joseph told Western Mass News in a recent interview needs to be continued.

“We need 1000 more Jim Scahills because that’s what’s going to keep our society safe,” Joseph Croteau said.