The Rev. James J. Scahill, right, a priest retired from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, speaks during June 28 graveside memorial service for Danny Croteau, the 13-year-old altar boy who authorities determined was killed by his parish priest, Richard Lavigne, in 1972. The service was held at the boy's grave in Hillcrest Cemetery in Springfield. Scahill, for the past 20 years, had been sounding the alarm about Lavigne and the questioning the diocese's handling of clergy sex abuse cases. (Don Treeger / The Republican File Photo)

Rev. James Scahill reflects on 20 years of bucking the Roman Catholic church over clergy abuse

SPRINGFIELD (MA) Republican [Springfield MA]

December 13, 2021

By Stephanie Barry

[Photo above: The Rev. James J. Scahill, right, a priest retired from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, speaks during June 28 graveside memorial service for Danny Croteau, the 13-year-old altar boy who authorities determined was killed by his parish priest, Richard Lavigne, in 1972. The service was held at the boy’s grave in Hillcrest Cemetery in Springfield. Scahill, for the past 20 years, had been sounding the alarm about Lavigne and the questioning the diocese’s handling of clergy sex abuse cases. (Don Treeger / The Republican File Photo)]

James J. Scahill has been a Roman Catholic priest for nearly 50 years, and he’s loathed the church’s hierarchy for about half of that time.

In 1974, the Irish-Catholic boy from Springfield was ordained. His mother was thrilled, while his father was less so, he remembers.

“My mother said, ‘Aren’t you happy? Tomorrow you’ll be a priest of God.’ She was glowing. But my father said, ‘For Christ’s sake, Kay, he’s got himself involved in the most corrupt organization in the world,” the now 75-year-old Scahill recalled during a series of recent interviews.

In retrospect, the parents’ exchange carried a whiff of foreshadowing. Over the past two decades, Scahill has had a profound impact on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield — not for embracing the church, but for rejecting it.

Almost 20 years ago, Scahill withheld a portion of the donations made by his thriving East Longmeadow parish in protest over the diocese’s financial support of the late Rev. Richard Lavigne, who pleaded guilty to child molestation in 1992.

Scahill was transferred to St. Michael’s Parish after having served as parish priest at St. Mary’s Church in East Springfield, where Lavigne did a lot of damage. Lavigne wasn’t a celebrant, as Scahill tells it. Rather, he was a “star,” ginning up his parishioners by denouncing the Vietnam War in the 1970s, all the while raping their sons.

“He was quite the liberal crusader even as he was destroying lives,” Scahill recalled.

Scahill recalled fielding complaints in the early 1990s from St. Mary’s parishioners about Lavigne mistreating their sons, but didn’t gain the traction he hoped to achievefrom parishioners or fellow clerics.

“There was no wellspring. There was no uprising from the pews,” Scahill said.

Civil and criminal court proceedings in the ensuing years revealed Lavigne — who died in May as Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni prepared to arrest him for the killing of altar boy Daniel Croteau in 1972 — had sexually molested scores of altar boys. Although he was stripped of a parish and banned from public ministry, Lavigne still received a $1,000 monthly stipend from the diocese, along with covering the costs of an $8,000-a-year medical and dental package.

The diocese’s handling of Lavigne didn’t sit well with Scahill. That’s when his about-face with the church began.

From the pulpit, as the clergy sex abuse unfolded, he would tell members of his flock that the Roman Catholic Church is “laden like a boil that needs to be lanced.” Accused by one bishop of being disobedient for his actions, Scahill once told a reporter, “The kind of obedience he’s looking for is the obedience of the soldiers of Hitler – a blind, myopic obedience. So I’ve stepped outside of that. It’s been horrific clerically – I’ve lost friends, but that’s a minor cost.”

He circulated a petition among his parishioners at St. Michael’s Church, requesting their approval to withhold 6% of the parish collections to protest the financial support for Lavigne. Over years, that figure amounted to around $60,000, according to Scahill.

For a small diocese that covers Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, it was a big number. It made waves. And, it made news.

Victim advocacy groups portrayed Scahill as “the bravest priest.” A college newspaper called him a “hero.” He also received an “integrity award” in Worcester, and his story was featured on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” and in newspapers and magazines across the country.

From the diocesan chancery in Springfield, though, the bishop at the time, Thomas L. Dupre, said “Scahill was more dangerous than Richard Lavigne.”

Dupre eventually became the first Roman Catholic bishop to be criminally indicted for sexual abuse in the U.S. He abruptly retired in 2004 after two men leveled allegations against him. The statute of limitations prohibited full prosecution of Dupre, however.

Scahill proceeded to withhold a small percentage of his parish’s funds in protest over support for Dupre, too, just as he was doing for Lavigne. Scahill’s stock rose among the public and his parishioners, but not among his professional church colleagues.

To this day, Scahill maintains an informal inventory of snubs by various bishops.

Dupre, for instance, Scahill says, tried but failed to keep him off a diocesan advisory council in 2001. At the first council meeting in 2002, Scahill said Dupre announced to its members that another late bishop, Christopher J. Weldon, destroyed damaging personnel records that chronicled abuse by various clerics. Other priests present at the same meeting disputed this. Scahill countered that those who agreed with Dupre proved to be his “minions.”

“One of the priests present at that meeting told me after, ‘I don’t have your courage,’” Scahill recalls. “A lot of people like to build snowballs if someone else throws them.”

The Most Rev. Joseph F. Maguire, who had served as bishop from 1977 to 1991, presided over Lavigne’s mother’s funeral Mass in 2005. Scahill protested.

“I asked him to tell me about another funeral Mass he presided over for a victim or a family member. He went almost catatonic,” Scahill recalled. Maguire, who never faced allegations of abuse or wrongdoing, died in 2014.

Another former bishop, the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, who left last year to become archbishop in St. Louis, is remembered by Scahill for a meeting at which he pulled his hand back as if he had been burned when Scahill introduced himself and went to shake hands at another funeral. It infuriates Scahill that Rozanski was promoted lead the St. Louis archdiocese.

“What did he actually do to get promoted,” Scahill asks rhetorically, likening Rozanski to the late Cardinal Bernard F. Law, archbishop of Boston, who was elevated to the Vatican in 2002 after being largely held responsible for covering up priest abuse in Boston, ground zero as the clergy abuse crisis became public knowledge in the early 2000s.

Rozanski was the bishop who, in 2019, hired retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis to investigate rape allegations against Bishop Weldon and two other priests. The Velis probe greenlighted creation of a task force to determine how better to handle the delicate and damaging issue of clergy abuse in the Springfield diocese.

As small as the Western Massachusetts diocese is, it publicly lists the names of 62 clerics and lay personnel who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. The list grew by one late last month when the late Rev. Joseph P. Quinlan, a respected teacher and administrator at the former Cathedral High School, was added.

Scahill, who is retired, now lives on Marco Island, Florida, with a man he calls his “soul mate,” the Rev. Joseph Serrano, who had also served as a parish priest in Western Massachusetts. “We’re not married,” Scahill says, before being asked.

The clergy abuse saga took its toll on Scahill. He is quick to concede that he was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol in 2012.That case was continued without a find when Scahill later in the same year admitted to the charge in District Court. Today, along with marking 20 years of bucking the system in his professional life, Scahill will soon celebrate a decade of sobriety.

Still, though, the church abuse crisis continues to take a toll.

Lavigne died in May of COVID-19 as state police detective Michael McNally was traveling to the hospital to put the defrocked priest in handcuffs. McNally had spent many hours with the former cleric as he lay ill in a hospital bed and drew out previously untold details regarding Croteau’s murder. Lavigne admitted bludgeoning the boy with a rock and shoving his body into the Chicopee River, but never acknowledged he was responsible for the boy’s death.

On a scorching day in late June, Scahill addressed Croteau family members — including two of the dead boy’s now adult brothers who had also been abused by Lavigne — family friends and members of the public at Croteau’s gravesite in Springfield. Scahill refused to utter Lavigne’s name during the service. He referred to Danny’s late parents, who had felt abandoned by the church in which they had put so much faith.

“They correctly thought a priest could be evil and a murderer,” Scahill said of Bernice B. “Bunny” and Carl Croteau during the memorial. “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.”

The diocese sent no one to attend the service, including a new hire, Jeffrey Trant, who succeeded longtime abuse victim advocate Patricia McManamy. She was removed over complaints by victims that she had been “dismissive,” officials said.

“It was clear this church was in crisis,” Trant said. “During listening sessions, there was evidence that victims and survivors had been trying to be heard for decades, or I would say generations. The church’s outreach, I would say, in many cases, had failed.”

After the Weldon matter came to light, retired state police detective Kevin Murphy, who assisted McManamy in investigations, was also bounced from his per diem position with the diocese. A retired Springfield Police Department homicide detective, Dennis O’Connor, joined Velis as an investigator.

He and Velis interviewed dozens of witnesses, including Scahill, and concluded a Chicopee man’s allegations that he had been repeatedly raped by Weldon and two other priests during the 1960s were “unequivocally credible.”

The Velis report, made public last year, sent shockwaves through the diocese and painted a wholly unflattering picture of a religious organization that had vowed to brush away the secrets plaguing the church for nearly a century. The specific conclusions included clerics protecting their own, covering up abuse allegations and shuffling sexual predators from parish to parish.

The man at the center of the Velis report had first taken his allegations to the diocese in 2014. It didn’t come to light for five years. Explanations for that vary widely among the players, who included: diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont; former members of the review board tasked with vetting abuse allegations; church higher-ups; and the diocese’s longtime attorney, John “Jack” Egan. Egan is now a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by the victim, and he also represents other defendants named in the complaint.

It was an inquiry from the Berkshire Eagle that apparently pushed the hand of the diocesan team. Murphy produced not one, but four reports chronicling the victim’s allegations. Some included Weldon’s alleged abuse and some did not, Velis said. One of the reports that references Weldon also appears to have been edited, according to the judge.

Velis said he believed the Springfield diocese was more willing to accept the abuse victim’s stories about the two subordinate priests than the claims made about Bishop Weldon.

“He wasn’t just respected as a bishop, he was revered,” Velis said, adding that as he began his investigation, it became clear to him that the church was “in crisis” and that efforts to address sexual abuse allegations had fallen woefully short.

Velis said he remembers being taken aback during his investigation as he learned the diocese was fighting tooth-and-nail against the Chicopee “John Doe” who had accused Weldon. The judge noted that the diocese’s action came even though Rozanski had sent the man a letter of apology, had stripped Weldon’s name and image from buildings throughout the diocese and despite exhuming the dead bishop’s body from a prominent place in Springfield’s Gate of Heaven Cemetery for burial elsewhere.

“If they didn’t believe these acts occurred, why did they do all that right after my report came out,” Velis remarked. “It flies in the face of logic and defies credulity.”

While still on the bench, Velis in 2000 forced the Hampden district attorney’s office to unseal files related to the Croteau case to be made public at the request of The Republican in its investigation of the boy’s killing and involvement by the diocese. Velis is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and diocesan officials believed he would be more independent than a fellow Catholic, he said.

Carolee McGrath, communications officer for the diocese, said she cannot address specific cases involving ongoing litigation but said the man’s attorney has refused to come to the table to negotiate a settlement.

“The goal of the diocese is to always try to settle these matters in a pastoral and trauma-informed manner, and it attempted to do so in this case. The counsel for John Doe declined the mediation process,” she said. “The diocese remains open to settling and hopes that can be accomplished for the sake of the survivor who has already suffered so much.”

“In addition, individuals have been named in this case and have the right to defend themselves under protections provided by law,” McGrath added, also referring to a newly-formed task force assembled to improve the diocese’s handling of sexual abuse allegations. “Abuse at the hands of someone who represents the church is not only reprehensible, but contrary to everything the Catholic church stands for and we condemn such behavior in the strongest terms.”

The attorney for Doe, however, said the representation that she or her client rejected an overture for settlement from the diocese is patently false.

“I attempted to present this case for settlement from the very beginning. They have not even made an offer,” said attorney Nancy Frankel Pelletier. “They’re creating a task force and this, that and the other thing, but in the meantime they are constantly revictimizing him. He got to the point when he’s finally believed — he thought — and they continue to do this. It is utterly irrational.”

Doe’s accounting of his abuse in the 1960s, according to the Velis report, includes: “I was raped. I don’t like that word, rape. Weldon touched me down there and I fought. I started to cry and Weldon kicked me out of bed stating, ‘You’re not supposed to cry.’

For his part, Scahill said his relationship with the church has become more personal, an individually tailored spirituality. Twenty years since he first waged his fight, he is unimpressed with the church’s efforts, despite the task forces, despite the “verbiage,” as he calls it. He mocks a section in the task force report which noted that priests who met with the panel described having post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the clergy abuse scandals.

“Coddled little clerics,” Scahill said. “It’s easy to judge the sick perverts, but what about the bishops, and the archbishops and the cardinals? They’re enablers, and they should be in prison.”

The current bishop of the Springfield diocese, the Most Rev. William D. Byrne, says that over the past year as a result of the Velis report he believes the diocese has “made real strong strides in terms of our victim assistance.” He added, during an editorial board meeting with The Republican, “Are we anywhere near where we should be. No, we’re in the process. It’s a long journey and the wounds are deep and need much healing.”

“I don’t know Father Scahill. I haven’t met him,” Byrne said. “I just want to say, as I’ve said before, (about) those who challenge us, those who bring information, it’s painful. But, I welcome any opportunity to grow, to learn, to become a better church or shepherd. I don’t run from that or fear it. It is part of being better.”