October 28, 2021
By Kevin Cullen
Pope Francis has indicated a willingness to meet with Indigenous leaders in Canada who hold the Catholic Church responsible for decades of abuse of Indigenous children. The Croteau family in Springfield would appreciate a visit from the pontiff, too.
It is welcome news that Pope Francis will visit Canada as part of a reconciliation process for the Catholic Church’s role in the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools run by the church.
The pope’s willingness to visit Canada comes months after hundreds of remains of Indigenous children were found on the sites of residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, and six years after the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada found that Indigenous children forced to live in residential homes were subjected to sexual and physical abuse that amounted to “cultural genocide.”
But as long as he is coming to North America, Francis ought to consider another stop on his penitence tour: Springfield.
Certainly, Joe Croteau feels that way. He is glad the pontiff will meet with the Indigenous people, but also thinks it’s high time the pope made his way to Springfield to explain to the Croteau family, and the wider community, why the Catholic Church protected a priest named Richard Lavigne after Lavigne emerged as the prime suspect in the murder of Croteau’s 13-year-old brother, Danny.
In May, Lavigne, a convicted sex offender, admitted to a State Police detective that he killed Danny by smashing his skull with a rock and dumping his body into the Chicopee River in 1972. But Lavigne died before Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni could formally charge him with murder.
“While the murder of my brother was bad enough, the atrocities committed against my parents after his death were equally bad,” Joe Croteau told me. “The church and its leaders, including the pope, have never answered for that.”
Within hours of Danny’s body being discovered, Lavigne showed up at the Croteau family home, pretending to be a caring priest instead of the murderous predator he really was.
He comforted Danny’s parents, Carl and Bunny Croteau, offering to spare them the trauma of identifying Danny’s body. Lavigne then went to the funeral director and told him Danny’s parents didn’t want an open casket at the wake.
“It wasn’t about sparing my parents the pain of seeing their youngest son lying in a casket,” Joe Croteau said. “It was because Lavigne couldn’t bear to see the face of the boy he had just murdered.”
At no point did the then-bishop of Springfield, Christopher Weldon, assist police in their investigation of Danny Croteau’s murder, even after police questioned Lavigne. Instead, Joe Croteau said, Weldon dispatched a lawyer to the Croteaus’ home, where the lawyer asked his parents, “What do you want?”
“They didn’t know what he was talking about,” Joe Croteau said.
Only later, after Carl and Bunny Croteau learned Lavigne was the prime suspect in their son’s murder, did they interpret the lawyer’s question as an attempt to buy their silence.
Joe Croteau was not surprised to later learn that Weldon had been credibly accused of sexually abusing an altar boy.
“They were protecting each other,” Joe Croteau said of abusive priests and bishops in Springfield. “It was a conspiracy.”
One of Weldon’s successors, Bishop Thomas Dupre, led the Springfield diocese from 1995 until 2004, when he was also credibly accused of sexually abusing teenage boys. Through most of his tenure, Dupre resisted defrocking Lavigne, despite Lavigne being convicted of molesting children in 1992. The diocese shelled out more than $9 million to dozens of Lavigne’s victims but he wasn’t defrocked by the Vatican until 2003, after years of public pressure.
“You had a priest who was the prime suspect in the murder of one boy and convicted of molesting other kids, and the church continued to protect him,” Joe Croteau said. “The church has never answered the question: why?”
Joe Croteau wants to hear from the pope. An apology would be a nice start. But he’d rather the pope use his power to open diocesan files, including its legal files, to answer his family’s questions.
“If the pope wants reconciliation,” Joe Croteau said, “he needs to authorize the opening of all these files, without exception.”
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.