Judge Velis Appointment Another Chapter in Diocesan History Surrounding Clergy Sex Abuse
By Anne-Gerard Flynn
July 23, 2019
|The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has its own history in the global Church’s clergy sex abuse crisis dating back decades, and that history continues in its recent announcement that retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis will investigate allegations of sexual misconduct made against the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon dating back to the early 1960s.|
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has its own history in the global Church’s clergy sex abuse crisis dating back decades. And that history continues with its recent announcement that retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis will investigate allegations of sexual misconduct involving the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon.
The concern of lawyers defending the Springfield Diocese over time, as one put it back in 2003, has been showing that “the diocese didn’t have knowledge of any abuse that may or may not have been committed." While this defense has largely succeeded, the allegations against Weldon and appointment of Velis open the door once again to questions of what diocesan hierarchy knew about the abuse of minors as far back as the 1950s when Weldon became bishop.
Many of the subsequently reported allegations of sexual abuse of minors occurred during Weldon’s 27 years as bishop, and the murder of an altar boy in which a former priest remains the only publicly identified suspect also occurred during his tenure.
In 2003, it was Judge Velis who ordered the release of documents filed in the investigation of former priest Richard R. Lavigne in the brutal 1972 killing of 13-year-old Daniel Croteau of Chicopee. The state Appeals Court overturned Velis’ ruling only to have the Supreme Judicial Court uphold it in 2004.
There have been allegations in such publications as E.J. Fleming’s 2018 book, “Death of an Altar Boy: The Unsolved Murder of Danny Croteau and the Culture of Abuse in the Catholic Church,” that Weldon obstructed justice in the police investigation.
History shows two of the five consecutive rectors of St. Michael’s Cathedral who had allegations of sexual abuse of a minor made against them dating to the 1960s served under Weldon and a third was his personal secretary.
Thomas Dupre, priest who would go onto become bishop in the 1990s and resign in 2004 when faced with allegations of sexual abuse of minor, was ordained and became a canon lawyer under Weldon.
Earlier this year, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield issued a report that showed that since 1992 it has paid out 147 abuse claims totaling nearly $15 million and paid $2.25 million in counseling for the alleged victims.
A 2012 settlement for $500,000 was significant on a number of levels as it stemmed from a civil suit in which the diocese was not named, but two of its former bishops were, one of whom was serving under Weldon at the time.
The settlement was reached during a civil trial in which Bishop Joseph Maguire had been expected to testify as a defendant with his own lawyer that he was aware in the reassignment of a priest in 1976 and that priest’s history of sexual abuse of another minor. Both sides involved in the 2012 trial agreed that the priest abused the plaintiff in the early 1980s.
After the settlement, Maguire issued a statement that he said mirrored what he would have testified about his actions — and regrets.
Maguire — who was said to have documented his meetings with the priest, as well as with the parents — came to Springfield in April 1976 as coadjutor bishop from the Boston Archdiocese, where he had been an auxiliary bishop since 1971. Maquire was not installed as bishop of the Springfield diocerse until Weldon retired on Oct. 15, 1977.
Weldon, who died in 1982, was not named in the suit filed in 2009,but Bishop Dupre, who became a canon lawyer under Weldon and diocesan chancellor in 1977, was.
Dupre was deposed in 2003 regarding statements he allegedly made around records kept by Weldon and resigned suddenly in February 2004 when The Republican approached him about accusations that he abused two minors during the 1980s. He was removed from public ministry by the Vatican in 2004.
He asserted his right to not self-incriminate under the Fifth Amendment in his 2010 deposition that included questions about his access to personnel records and clergy assignments and knowledge in becoming a canon lawyer for the diocese in the 1960s about the handling of clergy sex abuse cases.
Allegations that Weldon was part of a group of clergy who abused minors dating back to the 1950s raise any number of implications around diocesan negligence over time.
The 1991 arrest of Lavigne on sexual assault charges of a child led then Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett to reopen the investigation into the April 15, 1972 unsolved murder of Croteau with police publicly disclosing for the first time that Lavigne was an early suspect.
The bludgeoned-to-death victim, found floating face down in the river beneath the Interstate 291 bridge, had been with Lavigne earlier that evening and an autopsy report in the documents released by Velis was later reported to show the body of the boy tested at twice the legal limit for alcohol at the time of his death.
A blood sample taken from Lavigne in 1993 and analyzed in 1995 proved not to be a match as prosecutors had hoped to blood on a straw found at the murder scene.
Lavigne had served as an assistant pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in 1967, where Croteau and his four brothers were altar boys, and had remained close to the family when he was assigned to St. Mary’s Parish a year later.
Between 1966 and 1991, he was moved by the diocese to seven different parishes in the four counties it covers.
He was pastor at St. Joseph’s Church in Shelburne Falls when he was arrested on sexual misconduct charges and he was expected to face five separate trials involving as many alleged victims.
However, shortly before one trial was set to begin June 25, 1992, Lavigne, who had denied all allegations, pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault and battery on a child that were said to date to the 1980s and thus within the statue of limitations at the time.
“I am sorry for the harm I have caused (the victims), and I ask for their forgiveness,” he is reported as saying to two boys in the case he violated.
“As far as other accusers: If I have harmed them in any way I ask for their forgiveness.”
The judge sentenced him to 10 years’ probation and seven months in a church-run treatment facility with no jail time unless he violated probation and said he was not to serve as a parish priest as part of his probation that ended in 2002.
The diocese had removed Lavigne from ministry at the time of his arrest.
As part of the arrangement struck in the judge’s chamber that did not include sentencing the prosecutors agreed to drop two child-rape charges and eight charges of molestation and not to probe any other cases they knew about at the time.
In 1993, a day after Lavigne was released from St. Luke’s Institute in Maryland, 11 alleged victims, including two nephews of the late District Attorney Matthew Ryan Jr. who had handled the investigation into the Croteau murder, and a cousin of the priest, came forward to claim the priest molested them.
The alleged molestations were said to have taken place between 1967 and 1990 and to have occurred in a Canadian motel, a Goshen camp, in Arizona, in the Chicopee home of Lavigne’s parents, at rectories in Springfield and in the Shelburne Falls section of Shelburne and inside St. Catherine of Siena Church.
In 1994, the diocese paid $1.4 million in the settlement of suits with 17 of Lavigne’s alleged victims.
In 2003, the state Sex Offender Registry Board classified Lavigne as a sex offender with a high risk to offend again.
In May 2004, the diocese reported that it was ending financial support to Lavigne who had been removed from the clerical state by the Vatican five months earlier.