Lavigne Stipend Remains an Issue

By Bill Zajac
The Republican [Springfield MA]
July 6, 2003

Thomas P. Byrne doesn't want one penny of his money used by the Catholic Church to support a priest who is a convicted child molester, especially if the priest is defrocked.

The St. Michael's Church of East Longmeadow parishioner is not alone

Many Catholics across Western Massachusetts believe the correct thing for the church to do is to sever all ties - including financial - with the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne. Accused by more than 30 people of sexually abusing them as children, Lavigne has now been classified by the state as a Level 3 sex offender with a high risk to re-offend.

The Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, and others disagree.

As Dupre pursues Lavigne's defrocking, Lavigne receives a $1,030-a-month stipend and health insurance benefits from the diocese, according to a diocesan spokesman. That means Lavigne has received more than $100,000 and health insurance benefits from the diocese since he was removed from public ministry in 1991.

Even if Lavigne is defrocked, a process which would permanently remove Lavigne from the clerical state, the bishop intends to continue to financially support the 61-year-old priest. Dupre said he is obligated to do so by canon law and his desire to keep Lavigne off public assistance.

Dupre, a canon lawyer himself, cites Canon 1350, which states "... the ordinary (bishop) is to take care to provide for a person dismissed (defrocked) from the clerical state who is truly in need because of the penalty."

In 1993, Lavigne was found to be indigent by a state court and his high-profile lawyer, Max D. Stern, was named by the Committee for Public Counsel Services to continue to defend him at much lower public defender rates.

The Springfield diocese has not contributed to Lavigne's legal defense since 1992, according to diocesan officials.

Lavigne has been directed by the diocese to seek a job, which he claims he cannot do because of his circumstances, a diocesan spokesman said. The media attention Lavigne has received since his arrest has prevented him from maintaining a job and supporting himself, according to Dupre.

While canon law experts say Dupre's plan to pay a laicized, needy priest are consistent with church law, some dioceses in the country have cut off financial support to sex-offender priests even before the clerics have been defrocked.

The various interpretations of Canon 1350 with regard to the current church sex abuse crisis has caused the Vatican enough concern to examine it, according to the Rev. William J. King, a canon law expert and judicial vicar for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa.

Many area Catholics say canon law on this issue is too constricting and should be changed or ignored in deference to hundreds of sexual abuse victims.

Warren E. Mason, a parishioner of St. Michael's Church in East Longmeadow, believes Dupre is misusing canon law. "The only reason Lavigne is indigent is because of the legal bills he has faced to defend himself as a pedophile," said Mason.

He questions Dupre's moral compass. "Lavigne abuses untold numbers of children over 30 years; costs the diocese millions; is a continuing danger to the community, an embarrassment to the diocese, yet the payments go on. What's it going to take for the bishop to do the morally right thing? Is Lavigne going to have to kill someone?" said Mason.

Lavigne is the only publicly identified suspect in the murder of Springfield altar boy Danny Croteau, whose bludgeoned body was found on a bank of the Chicopee River in 1972.

Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett several months ago said the Croteau murder investigation is open and active with further, more sophisticated DNA tests being conducted on evidence.

Mason believes the planned continued support of Lavigne makes the diocese legally liable for him - with or without defrocking. "First of all, it is not the bishop's money to give away. And he is not leaving himself personally liable for Lavigne. It is the people of the diocese that will be held liable for Lavigne's actions," said Mason.

In the 1990s the Springfield diocese settled for $1.4 million the lawsuits of 17 men who accused Lavigne of abusing them as minors. In the past year, 14 additional suits accusing Lavigne of sexual abuse have been filed against the diocese.

Stephen J. Block, a 43-year-old mental health worker who filed suit a year ago accusing Lavigne of sexual abuse, wants the church to continue to support Lavigne. "If he can't support himself, why should he go on welfare and have non-Catholics support him," said Block.

Block was 12 years old when he was abused several times in the rectory of St. Mary's Church in Springfield after serving Masses as an altar boy in 1972, he said.

A bishop like Dupre, who is using a new streamlined administrative process to have Lavigne defrocked, faces a greater responsibility to financially support a dismissed priest, according to the Very Rev. Anthony Bawyn of Seattle, a canon lawyer and a consultant on canon law for the Seattle archdiocese.

"Absolutely, because so much more of the power that goes into the decision to laicize the cleric rests in the hands of the bishop," said Bawyn .

The special bond that exists between a bishop and a priest is difficult for many to understand, Bawyn said. "Unlike secular employers, who may summarily terminate the position of an employee accused or suspected of misconduct, bishops have made a lifelong commitment to provide spiritual, intellectual and financial support to the priest," he said.

Two methods of laicization existed before the Vatican approved the new process. Laicization is the term used by the church for defrocking.

One process involves a priest voluntarily seeking removal from the clerical state. The other is a complex, judicial process similar to a court case in which a priest is given due process and the right to appeal.

A bishop's obligation to a priest ends when a voluntary laicization is granted. That is the situation with Ronald Malboeuf, a Springfield diocesan priest who left the ministry in 1988 and was voluntarily laicized in December 1989. He has received no money from the diocese since his defrocking, according to a diocesan spokesman.

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., supports several priests who have been sexual abusers and have been laicized. The priests live in a church-operated retirement home.

"There is value in keeping a relationship with the person. It protects the community, knowing he is in a more controlled environment," said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Washington archdiocese.

Dupre said there is no double standard when he seeks to follow canon law to support Lavigne and then seeks dismissal of lawsuits against the diocese on grounds the state has no right to interfere with internal operation of the Catholic Church.

Alleged victim Block maintains the First Amendment defense raises questions about the bishop's sincerity to protect children. "In other words, a priest can abuse a child and be protected," Block said.

Also, some former priests say the church is duplicitous when bishops pay defrocked pedophile priests and do not pay retirement benefits to priests who left the church to marry or for other reasons despite years of ministry.

"It's a form of elder abuse. Some of these men put in 25 and 30 years into the church and are now retirement age," said William J. Manseau of Tewksbury, who is part of an effort to have resigned, unlaicized priests receive pension benefits.

James A. Lord, a parishioner of St. Mary's Church in East Longmeadow, has been supportive of his church's effort to protest the Springfield diocese's financial support of Lavigne.

For nine months, his parish has been withholding 6 percent of its weekly collections usually given to the diocese.

However, Lord said he has been struggling to reconcile his parish's position with his Christian belief to be charitable to all. "Molesters are still a part of our church and our community. Do we want to abandon them? I'm not so sure. I can't help but think about it," Lord said.

But fellow parishioner Byrne, a father of four, sees it differently.

"The Catholic Church has been way out of step regarding the whole issue of abusing children. It's so black and white, but the leadership of the Catholic church has tried to make it a gray issue," Byrne said. Bill Zajac can be reached at


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