Wednesday, November 1, 2017
On May 2, 2005, private investigator R.C. Stevens reported in The Republican that he suspected that in 1972, a pedophile ring of around 10 priests, including Lavigne, operated in rectories and private residences. He noted that one of the residences is near the crime scene. His findings also revealed that Danny might have been in contact with several members of the ring, which also involved non-priests. The ring members “formed their own Internet before any Internet existed,” he said. “It allowed them to exchange information and strategies, share children, and rid themselves of them.”
He had interviewed alleged victims, including some who have already made public accusations of some priests. “Some of the priests have escaped scrutiny,” he said. “Some have been accused.” The members conspired to pass around boys, said Stevens. “As one victim would age out and not be acceptable to an age-specific pedophile, he would pass along the victim to another pedophile who had older age-specific tastes,” he said.
In 1972, the notion of a pedophile ring involving priests—or priests sharing their victims with other priests—was virtually unheard of. But, ever since the clergy sex abuse scandals that erupted nationally in 2002, there have been numerous media stories about such groups operating in the 1970s, along with accounts of priests passing victims to one another, including a ring in Boston. In fact, Paul Babeu, one of Lavigne’s alleged victims, accused him of bringing him to northern Vermont to meet another priest, Father George Paulin, who also allegedly molested him. “When Lavigne dropped me off, and I fought off his advances, he said, ‘Apparently Father Lavigne hasn’t broken you in,’” said Babeu.
The belief that abusive priests in the diocese at times acted in concert gained had some traction with a lawsuit in 2003, when four brothers from Greenfield, MA, alleged that they were sexually abused by five priests between 1967 and 1983. Named as defendants were the Revs. Francis Lavelle, Edward Kennedy, Ronald Wamsher, and the Diocese of Springfield. The Revs. Roy Jenness and Thomas O’Connor, now deceased, were also accused, but were not part of the lawsuit. Former Scoutmaster Bruce Mooney of Greenfield was also named as a defendant, as were the Boy Scouts of America and the Great Trails Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Mooney, while not accused of sex abuse, had “actively aided” in it by providing one plaintiff with alcohol and drugs, according to the suit.
One of the plaintiffs said he was abused by all five priests—and was shared by Jenness and O’Connor on some nights at Jenness’ camp in Huntington.
Additionally, in a 2004 interview with The Republican, Monsignor Sniezyk said that after he was first ordained in 1962 he heard rumors of “cliques of priests” who molested children.
Stevens didn’t name any of the members of the sex ring—or say that the Greenfield group or Paulin were part of it. Attorney John Stobierski, who handled many abuse lawsuits against priests in western Massachusetts, later referred to a group of priests from the Springfield Diocese as the “Unholy Eleven” who were “known to be a part of a ring of pedophiles.” He said, “There was a cabal of abusers here. You have to connect the dots.”
Attorney John Stobierski
Stevens said that he and fellow private investigators had collected photos of some of the ring members and hoped to obtain more. “For victims who may not have known the name of their abuser, we may be able to help them identify the perp,” he said. Stevens was especially looking for a man who was a tattooed teenager at the time of Croteau’s murder. The youth, whose first name was Wayne, visited a home in Chicopee’s Eton Street neighborhood at least once in the days before the homicide, he said, and might have critical information. Eton Street is 2,000 feet from the murder scene.
When Stevens contacted more than a dozen priests, asking for information, he received “quite a bit of resistance”—although several of them had been “candid” with him.
“What we have seen in Danny’s attacker is a unique animal who we can describe as a clinical psychopath—someone who can function in everyday society, and who may be responsible for at least 200 victims in his lifetime, and is very dangerous,” said Stevens. “Although Danny was hit with a rock, the true murder weapon we see is blind rage. The attacker is filled with uncontrollable rage and anger.”
Stevens said based on his examination of crime scene photographs, the second, more violent attack at the edge of the river shows “total blind rage. It appears to be all very impulsive, without forethought or plan—because what happened there was not meant to happen. Someone—the attacker—lost control of his emotions, behavior, and life. The attacker is someone who needs to be in control all the time, and he lost it on the night of the murder. Danny Croteau took control of this very weak person, and his only response to losing control was blind rage. Danny reduced him to nothing.”
But Stevens didn’t say who he thought killed Croteau. “In the initial investigation, everything pointed to Richard Lavigne,” he said. “Meanwhile, we have ten arrows, seven of which point to Lavigne, but three that don’t.”
* * * * * * * *
On May 24, 2005, the CBS show 60 Minutes aired a long-awaited segment on the Croteau murder. Dan Rather had been in the Springfield area in June of 2004 for interviews with victims, Danny’s parents, Father Scahill, and Warren Mason, among others.
Rather interviewed State Police Detective Ed Harrington, one of the original investigators, at the murder scene. The segment also included an interview with one of Lavigne’s victims, Tom Martin, who was a friend of Danny. Martin (pictured below) tearfully stated Danny “told me he hated Father Lavigne and he hurt him. I knew exactly what that meant.” With the quote, Martin became the first person to reveal to the media that Danny Croteau was perhaps beginning to shed some light on a dark secret.
Carl and Bunny Croteau had hoped that the publicity from the show would prompt any unknown witness to come forward, but the years 2005 and 2006 came and went without any major development.
R.C. Stevens reported that progress on his investigation had been steady but slow. However, help from the state and Chicopee Police made him optimistic that maybe there would be a break in the case. “Hopefully, we will stimulate development of a quasi-task power force that will bring Danny's murderer to justice,” he said.
The Springfield Diocese, which paid out 46 claims against priests for $7.7 million in 2004, ended up filing suit in 2005 against its several insurance carriers who had refused to pay, including Travelers Property Casualty Company, Centennial Insurance Company, Lloyds of London, and others. In a filing on January 18, 2007, the companies in turn accused the diocese of “negligent supervision” of abusive clerics and destroying records of sexual abuse claims.
The insurers insisted that the diocese showed a pattern of document destruction that began under Bishop Weldon (1950-1977) and continued in the 1980s.
Bishop Christopher J. Weldon
They cited a letter from the diocese’s keeper of records, Father Daniel Liston, to Bishop Thomas Dupre. On July 27, 2003, Liston wrote, “As we have long suspected, Bishop Weldon’s files were all destroyed by Monsignor David Welch since Bishop Weldon unwisely kept those files apart from the vault in the Chancery.” In 2003, Welch, Weldon’s executor, was accused by a 65-year-old former Northampton resident of sexually abusing him as a child.
* * * * * * * *
In February of 2007 I moved with my family from the Boston area to Wilbraham. Talk about déjà vu. This homecoming was disorienting and at the same time strangely comforting: many of my friends were still in the area, so I got together with them often after I returned.
Did the specter of Danny Croteau’s murder really still lurk in the neighborhood? Yes and no. The decades went by, and life went on, but I remembered visiting friends in 2004 and seeing R.C. Stevens’ posters stapled to telephone poles along Wilbraham Road. It was an incredibly strange feeling—as if the homicide had happened yesterday—as if it was only a matter of time before someone dialed the phone number on the bottom of the poster, and the killer would be taken into custody.
Then, in the summer of 2007, Carl Croteau Sr. and I became reacquainted four years we had first met. When I interviewed the Croteaus back in 2003, it really did seem like an indictment was imminent. At the time, Lavigne’s blood was being tested at a lab. Carl and Bunny were big fans of TV shows about forensics technology, including CSI and Cold Case Files, which always ended in arrests. But that was Hollywood. In real life, however, the unrefrigerated and degraded blood samples from the drinking straw and the rope failed to link the main suspect to the crime, and the cold case had grown colder in recent years.
The Daniel Croteau pendant worn by his mother, Bunny
I ran into Carl Croteau more than a dozen times over the following two years and interviewed him about the murder. There were some new developments. He said that an investigator found carpet fibers from a home where one of the alleged pedophile ring members had once lived—fibers that looked similar to material found on Danny’s socks, and he was anxiously waiting for the strands to be tested. Somehow, 40 years later the carpet was still in the house. But there was no miracle development in the investigation—the information never panned out.
Carl talked a lot about his frustrations with the case and the toll it had taken on his family: sometimes lost his temper and snapped at Bunny, and then he would quickly apologize. The month of April is a particularly tough time for the Croteaus. “We have Danny’s Mass every year at St. Catherine, and Bunny feels really down around then,” he said. “The Mass is important to us. During the Eucharist, the priest uses the same chalice that Danny’s classmates bought our family as a gift back in 1972.” Former Bishop Joseph Maguire held Carl and Bunny’s hands during those Masses, and Carl said the man had tears in his eyes throughout the services. Carl felt close to Danny at these Masses, but Bunny’s nightmares, in which Danny was calling for help, but she couldn’t find him, came back with a vengeance every April.
A bas relief on the wall of St. Catherine parish center
Carl also confided that his sons sometimes blamed themselves for Danny’s death. “They say, ‘We should have come to you. Danny would still be alive,’” said Carl. “When Joe talks about it, he starts getting angry. You can see the veins in his neck. But I’ve gotten over blaming myself. I don’t ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I see it?’ anymore.”
He had other interesting bits of information: in 1972, police investigated a family friend who they noticed had scratch marks on his face at Danny’s funeral. Carl had worked at American Bosch with the man, who died in 1988. “He was close to us. He used to go on vacations with us. It didn’t amount to anything, but he didn’t come over our house for quite a while after that. I guess he didn’t appreciate the police knocking on his door, but they had to follow every lead,” he said with a shrug.
As for the mysterious “behind the circle” phone call on the day of Danny’s wake—a call in which his son Carl swore was made by Lavigne—the other Croteau boys knew exactly where the priest was around the time when the call came in: the Eastfield Mall. “Lavigne had taken Joe, Mike, and Greg to the mall, but he wasn’t with them the whole time. He was gone for about half an hour,” said Carl. This, he said, provided Lavigne with the opportunity to make the call and later have an alibi of sorts if suspicious were raised.
The Circle tree in Sixteen Acres
I told Carl that in 2003 I interviewed James Coleman, author of The Circle, and the professor had agreed that the caller was probably Lavigne. Coleman said the caller was obviously “trying to deviate police interest over to the Circle Gang.” Carl reminded me of what he himself said to me later in the summer of 2003—that Lavigne had warned him to “watch out” for Coleman because he “liked wrestling with boys a little too much,” he said. “I didn’t know Coleman, and I asked Lavigne about him, and he said, Oh, no. Keep Danny away from him.” But Carl didn’t believe him.
This talk of the Circle Gang reminded Carl of even more frustration about the case. He said that for decades, two former members of the gang acted strangely when the murder was brought up. He was certain they know something about the homicide that police don’t.
Actually, in the case of one of the men, there is no hope that he’ll ever talk, because he died in 2000 of alcohol- and drug-induced liver failure. He was one of the best friends of Danny’s brother Michael, who died of cancer in 2009.
“I used to hear Steve [name omitted] and Michael get into really violent arguments—I mean to the point where I thought they were going to actually fight,” said Carl. “I asked Michael a few times, ‘What were you two yelling about?’ But he wouldn’t say anything.” Carl is convinced Steve [name omitted] had information that could have been of some use to police, and Michael was trying to pry it from him.
Did Steve take this knowledge to his grave? Not exactly, said Carl, who used to visit Steve’s elderly father at his home in a town near Greenfield, MA. For years, he asked the man, time and time again, what secret his son was hiding—imploring him to shed some light on the murder.
“What were they always arguing about?” asked Carl. “I think it was about Danny’s murder. What did he tell you? Can you tell me anything about it?”
“Carl—no,” he replied to Carl’s request.
“Herb come on. Please. Can you help me out?” Carl would plead.
That is why Carl thought Steve knew something, and that he had confided in his father—because Herb didn’t say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He just said “no.” End of conversation.
“I don’t want to bring it up again, because I don’t want to start fighting with him,” said Carl. “He’s not going to say anything.”
And then Steve’s father presumably took this secret to his grave in 2013.
The other member of the Circle Gang whom Carl talked about lives in neighboring Wilbraham now. He used to see Carl every so often, and he always offered his sympathies—profusely—decades after the murder. Carl wondered why he conveyed such profound grief—enough to make him ponder what weighed so heavily on the man’s conscience.
I told Carl that these excessive condolences weren’t necessarily a reason to be suspicious. After all, the man he was talking about knows what it’s like to lose a young family member: in the early 1970s, his younger teenaged brother was killed in an accident in Sixteen Acres. But Carl wasn’t buying it. He had a gut feeling. “The man has expressed his sorrow to me too many times,” he said. “He knows something.”
To be sure, because James Colemean saw Danny at The Circle a week before, it is not inconceivable that the boy was heading there the night he was murdered. After all, he was walking in that direction that Friday afternoon. The Circle was party central in Sixteen Acres at the time. Did anyone from The Circle see him get into a car?
There also a couple of Danny’s friends, including the boy Carl met up with at Doc Foster’s house, as well as a neighbor—the paperboy who was the last to see him alive. He was the younger brother of the main character in the book The Circle. In 2007, after Carl attended the funeral of the man’s father, the former paperboy—Danny’s childhood friend—walked up to him at Hillcrest Park Cemetery (pictured below). Now living on the west coast, the man approached Carl in the same cemetery where Danny was buried, opened his wallet, showed Carl a photo of Danny, and the man began to weep uncontrollably.
“I don’t know,” said Carl. “I was in the Korean War. Good friends of mine were killed right in front of me, but I didn’t carry photos of them in my wallet years later.”
Again, I played devil’s advocate. I told Carl that having a 13-year-old friend murdered might be a whole different trip than suffering a traumatic war experience, but he just shook his head. “We think he knows something about Danny’s murder, and back then the police thought he knew something. Fitzy thought that that his father shut him up,” said Carl.
Who am I to doubt his intuition? It was Friday afternoon, but there was supposedly no talk of nighttime or weekend plans between two 13-year-old friends before they parted? “We think the [name omitted] boy knew who picked up Danny that day,” said Carl.
He could have been right: one or more of Danny’s friends—or his brothers’ friends—may know something. It’s unlikely they are eyewitnesses to the crime, but it’s possible that a couple of them could steer investigators in the right direction. “Danny didn’t just vaporize,” said R.C. Stevens. “There is somebody out there that can tell us the last time was seen.”
Sunday, October 1, 2017
What the Church Knew
The year began with the another lawsuit against Richard Lavigne—this one from Lawrence Opitz, who said he was sexually assaulted in an incident in 1969 or 1970 when he was about fifteen years old and a parishioner at St. Mary’s.
During a press conference on March 6, 2003, two women filed molestation suits against Lavigne, joining more than 30 men who already had claims against him. Victims, their families, and countless others kept asking why he hadn’t been laicized.
Bishop Thomas Dupre (pictured above), reacting to much public pressure, had finally began taking steps to defrock Lavigne with the help of the Vatican’s recent approval of the U.S. bishops’ policy on sex abuse, which allowed for a more streamlined laicization process. St. Michael’s parishioner Warren Mason said Bishop Dupre’s actions were long overdue. “Until Lavigne is removed from the diocesan payroll, he will be the responsibility of the diocese and the lay people of the diocese,” he said.
But all of this soon took a back seat in the news with D.A. Bennett’s confirmation on March 25 that the murder of Daniel Croteau was once again not only open, but also active, with new DNA testing being done on evidence. Bennett said that advancements in DNA technology in the new millennium made testing methods far superior to those in the 1990s. “Tests can yield more results with less biology,” he said.
“Maybe finally luck will be on our side,” said Carl Croteau Sr. (pictured below), who had gone to Bennett’s office in 2002 to request further DNA testing. “We asked him to go the last mile, and they have been very good to us,” he added. “There are other things in this case, but I think the D.A. would like to have some DNA test results to go along with those things to make a hell of a case.”
* * * * * * * *
Many of the developments in the case during 2002 and 2003 concerned attorney John Stobierski’s attempts to obtain diocesan documents related to Lavigne as the lawyer was preparing ten civil lawsuits against the diocese. “What we are trying to determine is what the diocese knew and when they knew it,” said Stobierski.
Photo: John Stobierski
There was precedent: in 2002, Judge Constance M. Sweeney had ordered the public release of about 11,000 internal Archdiocese of Boston documents related to sixty-five priests accused of abusing children over 30 years. That case, which did not involve files related to the Springfield diocese, revealed an elaborate cover-up and led to the resignation of Cardinal Law—although Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly ultimately declined to file criminal charges against Law or any other official in the Archdiocese of Boston. Unlike Boston, however, there had yet to be a similar paper trail uncovered in Springfield.
Then Father Scahill revealed a jaw-dropper that offered a possible reason for the lack of documentation. On September 16, 2003, he said Bishop Dupre told him and other priests that Springfield diocese documents that might have involved details on clergy sex abuse were destroyed by the late Bishop Christopher Weldon in the mid-1970s.
Bishop Dupre denied making the statement, which Father Scahill said was uttered at a meeting of the Presbyteral Council, an advisory board to the bishop, several months after the national clergy sex abuse crisis began snowballing in early 2002.
“He (Bishop Dupre) announced that fortunately for the church of Springfield, upon his (Weldon’s) retirement, he destroyed many personal and personnel files,” said Scahill. “He said it with glee in his voice and glee in his eye, almost gloating about it.”
Photo: the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon
None of the church officials attending the council backed Father Scahill’s version of what Bishop Dupre said. However, they were bound by an oath to keep meeting business in confidence. Father Scahill said he broke the oath of confidence because the following week Judge Sweeney was scheduled to hear a motion by the diocese to dismiss five clergy abuse lawsuits. “I have to break my silence in light of the diocese’s statement that it had no knowledge until 1986 in regards to the proclivity of a multiple offending pedophile who had already been a priest for twenty years by 1986,” said Father Scahill.
Bishop Dupre replied that he had merely made a comment about Weldon’s executor destroying some personal items, such as prayer books and records, not priests’ personnel records. Diocese spokesman Mark Dupont described Scahill’s account as an “oversimplification” of a complicated conversation. “Father Scahill has exaggerated many facts in Springfield,” said Dupont. “He is prone to wild speculation.” He added that Bishop Weldon would have never destroyed personnel records. “That would be against Church policy,” he said.
Before the Union-News contacted Bishop Dupre, the Rev. Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, vicar general of the diocese, said Bishop Dupre spoke about “personal” files, not “personnel” files. He later amended his statement to say Bishop Dupre’s comment was about Weldon’s executor destroying “personal effects.”
Scahill scoffed at this notion. “He was clearly talking about records,” he said. “Why would he be talking about the bishop’s personal belongings and bric-a-brac twenty years later?” Scahill offered to be deposed and suggested the bishop be questioned under oath as well. “If he denies it, then other members of the council should be asked about it under oath,” said Scahill.
Photo: Father John Scahill
Scahill and Bishop Dupre stuck to their stories when they were deposed two weeks later. “Today, I spoke the truth, and truth always conquers deceit,” said Scahill. He explained that he took no pleasure in making the allegations. “The whole thing is making me ill,” he said. “It is draining my life. I’m not trying to take the church down. I have spent my life in the church and have no intention of leaving ministry, but I can't change the way I was raised by my parents. Telling the truth is the only way I can live with myself peaceably.”
Bishop Dupre, in his testimony, said he never would have made a statement about Weldon destroying personnel records because he never heard about such an occurrence. “I never heard that from Bishop Weldon” or the executor of Weldon’s, estate or the former Bishop Joseph Maguire, who succeeded Bishop Weldon, he said, adding, “I don’t have any knowledge that any church records were destroyed.”
When Bishop Dupre was asked whether he was willing to release the eighteen members of the Presbyteral Council from their oath of privacy, he replied that he would have to discuss it with diocesan legal counsel.
Photo: Bishop Thomas Dupre
Stobierski asked him about assigning Rev. Richard Meehan—a priest who had been previously removed from parish ministry for sexual misconduct— to organize diocesan archives, which included personnel records. Bishop Dupre said Father Meehan wasn’t supposed to have access to the diocese’s “secret” files on sexual abuse that were kept “under lock and key,” but admitted he wasn’t sure how tight security was for the two keys that existed.
Stobierski was following up on an earlier deposition of Rev. Daniel Liston, keeper of records for the diocese, who said that most bishops kept secret files in addition to the files in the diocesan archives. Liston had said that Meehan had destroyed some records, but he didn’t know which ones. He also confirmed that the late executor of Bishop Weldon’s estate, Monsignor David Welch, had thrown out some of Bishop Weldon’s personal papers. Welch, who died in 1986, allegedly abused a Northampton youth in the early 1950s.
Scahill pointed out that the abuse claim against Welch should raise questions about what type of files he was interested in destroying.
In the national clergy abuse scandal, courts had been forcing dioceses across the country, including those in Manchester, NH, Los Angeles, and Bridgeport, CT, to release their “secret” records after having found that they had kept two sets of personnel records: one for the public, and a confidential archive detailing molestations.
What the Springfield diocese knew about clergy sex abuse—and when—was at the heart of an affidavit filed by Maurice DeMontigny on August 15, 2003.
DeMontigny, a longtime lay religious education director at St. Catherine and a confidant of Bishop Weldon, is the uncle of Raymond and Joseph Gouin, two of the 17 Lavigne victims who settled a lawsuit with the diocese in 1994. “I believe, based upon my familiarity with the workings of my parish and of the Diocese of Springfield, that diocesan officials knew, as of the late 1960s, that Lavigne was a child molester,” wrote DeMontigny, who was appointed by Bishop Weldon to religious education boards for the diocese. His affidavit detailed his conversations with priests in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“I specifically recall one Sunday when Richard Lavigne was a curate at our parish,” he wrote. “Father Griffin called to me and asked to speak with me outside. Although I often spoke with Father Griffin, this time was unusual in that I noted urgency in his manner. He told me he needed my help for a serious and grave matter and asked that our conversation be held in the strictest confidence. He told me that ‘someone in the parish had come to him with a complaint on Father Lavigne that involved their sons and they could not press charges with the police.’ He inquired as to whether one of my young nephews who also attended St. Catherine’s was also having a ‘problem.’ He further told me that the family did not want to go to the police and that he wanted to know ‘how widespread the problem was and who and how many of the boys in the parish were involved.’ Father Griffin was very upset and breathing hard. He was being careful with his words. I understood him to be confiding in me that the family had accused Richard Lavigne of molesting their child and he suspected that other boys may have been molested as well.”
DeMontigny also recalled a specific incident in the early 1970s when Lavigne told him that his pastor at St. Mary’s, John Harrington, had admonished him concerning boys being in his bedroom. “Lavigne was contemptuous of the pastor’s attempt to exert his authority over him,” he wrote. “He said something to the effect that ‘they can't do anything to me’ and laughed about it.”
The affidavit also states that in the 1990s, one of the 17 men involved in the 1994 settlement told DeMontigny that he was participating in a sexual act with Lavigne in the St. Catherine rectory kitchen when Father Griffin walked in on them. “I am sure that Father Griffin would have admonished Lavigne and reported this to Bishop Weldon,” he wrote.
During a settlement meeting in the early 1990s, DeMontigny wrote that then-Bishop John Marshall misleadingly stated that neither the priests nor the bishops had any idea of Lavigne’s conduct. “Bishop Marshall’s statement then was less than truthful as the diocese has now publicly admitted they knew in 1986 that Lavigne had molested children,” he wrote. “We were never told at that meeting that the diocese knew in 1986 that Father Lavigne had molested at least one child, and had been sent for an evaluation.”
Photo: the late Bishop John Marshall
* * * * * * * *
In the fall of 2003, I knew I had to make a call to Stobierski: not about the lawsuits, investigation files, or the diocesan documents. I asked him about a statement Carl Croteau had made during my initial interview at the Croteau home that summer. It nagged at me. Carl had said that Stobierski was in contact with an alleged witness to the murder—a woman who had been a sexual abuse victim of Lavigne. She supposedly had claimed to recover the memory of the priest killing Daniel under hypnosis after she had repressed it for years because of the trauma.
“Mr. Stobierski, I’m not sure Carl was even supposed to tell me about this,” I stammered. I proceeded to tell him what I had heard. “Are you aware of this woman?” I asked.
He confirmed that she was a client of his, and that she had indeed undergone hypnotherapy. But for obvious reasons he was unlikely to use her testimony in court. Her statement described the murder and disposal of Croteau’s body. According to legal documents, her account in some respects was corroborated by another witness at the scene: her sister’s childhood friend.
Then I asked Stobierski his opinion on the likelihood of the D.A. bringing an indictment in the murder, even if the new DNA tests ended up amounting to nothing. I thought the chances were pretty remote, unless a new witness came forward. However, he seemed fairly confident that it was still possible, especially considering several abuse victims’ recent statements, in which Lavigne implied that what happened to Danny could happen to them if they thought of telling someone.
Stobierski, who was seeking to unseal more investigation files from the Croteau murder on behalf of his client, “John Doe,” took my contact information because I was living in Boston at the time and he expected petition hearings to come up at the state Supreme Judicial Court in the city. Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis had ordered the case files opened, but State Appeals Court Judge John H. Mason had overturned the order, so Stobierski, along lawyers from The Republican newspaper in Springfield were asking the Supreme Judicial Court to overturn the decision.
The hearings would be open to the public and he thought I would be interested in attending, especially since unimpounded records might shed more light on the murder. Stobiersski was right: I was certainly interested!
* * * * * * * *
On January 20, 2004 the Springfield diocese announced a development that many had thought would come years earlier—but some cynics thought would never happen. Richard Lavigne was defrocked 13 years after sex abuse allegations were first brought to the attention of the courts and the media. The Vatican’s decision was actually made on November 20, 2013, but the diocese didn’t receive the information until January 9.
“Finally, 30 years after clerical and criminal misbehavior, the church has seen fit to laicize Richard Lavigne,” said Scahill. He maintained that his parish would continue to withhold six percent of its weekly collections until a legal arrangement was put into place guaranteeing that he would not receive any contributions from the church.
Lavigne’s monthly stipend and health insurance, totaling more than $20,000 a year, would end on May 31, but under canon law he could still seek charity from the diocese. If he did, a lay panel of legal and financial professionals would determine the extent of his indigency. If he were found truly indigent, he could tap into a newly created $100,000 fund recently established by a half-dozen lay people.
“He still maintains his innocence of all allegations, except the two to which he pled guilty,” said Monsignor Richard Sniezyk.
Bunny Croteau (pictured below) expressed some relief—albeit long-delayed. “Thank God for this,” she said. “I think it is great. And it’s about time—maybe about 31 years too late.”
* * * * * * * *
On January 27, I received a fax from Stobierski announcing that a hearing on the D.A.’s impounded Croteau files was scheduled at the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston the following day. So I took a “long lunch” from work and headed downtown to check it out. There, in the courtroom, were the people I had been reading about for so long: Lavigne’s lawyer Max Stern and Stobierski, as well as attorneys for The Republican Jonathan Albano and Joseph Pessolano.
Justice Robert Cordy questioned whether Appeals Court Judge John Mason had properly applied “change in circumstance” standard when ruling in the fall that the 1996 impoundment order should remain intact. The documents had been ordered sealed in 1996 because it was felt that their release may interfere with the investigation. But Superior Court Judge Peter Velis had ruled on October 30 that the documents should be released because the public had “a right and a compelling interest in accessing the impounded materials,” he wrote. “I find that, in this current climate, disclosure of the records would not detrimentally affect investigators’ ability to obtain any new sources of information…but that it would more likely lend impetus to the investigation by encouraging remaining witnesses to come forward.”
In court that day Stobierski pointed out that the files contained a record of Lavigne being fired from a Chicopee Parks Department job as a teenager for fondling a six-year-old boy. “We would argue that it could be a critical piece of evidence in building a case against the diocese, which should have been aware of his behavior if they had done a background check of him,” said Stobierski.
Stern argued that Stobierski was trying to “stampede the D.A.’s office into an intemperate indictment” against Lavigne.
With his questions, Judge Cordy seemed to put pressure on the attorneys who wanted to keep the gag order intact, especially Assistant Hampden County D.A. Jane Montori, who argued that the release of the files would compromise an active murder investigation. He questioned how “active” it indeed was after 32 years.
At the conclusion of the hearing, I approached Stobierski and introduced myself. How do you think it went?” I asked.
“I think it went well,” he answered with a smile. “What do you think?”
“I think so too.”
* * * * * * * *
Bishop Quits After Abuse Query—
Dupre Abruptly Resigns, Enters Hospital
Most area Catholics thought that the clergy abuse crisis in western Massachusetts couldn’t get any stranger, with new DNA tests being performed on a priest suspected of murder.
But then they woke to the above headline on February 12, 2004.
On February 10, The Republican reporter Bill Zajac, after failed attempts to speak to the bishop regarding allegations that he had sexually abused two boys, emailed a list of questions to diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont. Within hours Dupre checked himself into an undisclosed medical facility for an undisclosed ailment.
At a press conference, the diocese said cited health reasons for Dupre’s departure—that he had requested permission from the Vatican to resign the previous November and hadn’t received the Pope’s decision until February 11.
Helen Deshaies, the mother of alleged victim Thomas Deshaies, had written to Dupre about the allegations in 2003, weeks before he told The Republican that he might take an early retirement because of a heart condition and other health problems. The mother had met with Scahill, who advised her to speak to the diocese’s Misconduct Commission. Instead, she tried, without success, to persuade her son, in his early forties in 2003, to publicly press charges.
Dupre allegedly began abusing the two minors, who were altar boys and best friends in high school, in the 1970s, when he began taking them camping and swimming at lakes in the area. He assured them he had been tested for AIDS. “He showed them pictures of men dying with AIDS to scare them so they wouldn’t have sex with whoever,” said Helen Deshaies. “He would say, ‘This is what could happen to you. Therefore you come to me.’” Deshaies was abused from the age of 15 until he was about 20.
The other alleged victim, 42-year-old Tuan Tran, had been a Vietnamese refugee who came with his family to the United States in 1975. Bishop Dupre, who was at St. Louis de France parish in West Springfield, befriended him and offered to teach him English. “Our client was twelve years old,” said his lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr. “The abuse started when Bishop Dupre took our client’s hand and proceeded to masturbate himself with our client’s hand.” The acts progressed to sodomy, which continued until the boy started dating a girl in when he was about 16.
The bishop allegedly gave the victims alcohol before the abuse, and he showed them pornography he had stashed in his briefcase.
Deshaies and Tran said that Dupre, just before he was named auxiliary bishop in 1990, called them and told them he would decline the appointment unless they remained silent about their relationship. Both reassured him that they would not talk.
But they were talking now, and Bennett was listening. He said he planned to bring the case before a grand jury.
* * * * * * * *
After Dupre resigned in disgrace, Bunny Croteau said, “It’s getting to the point where nothing surprises us any more.”
But there were more surprises to come.
For a short time, Dupre had supplanted Lavigne as the “poster priest” of the western Massachusetts clergy abuse crisis. In retrospect, his actions, as well as his inaction, explained a lot: he had been accused of dragging his feet on the Lavigne defrocking process and of appointing predator priests to oversee files that may have included allegations of priest abuse. In trying to cover all his bases, however, his hypocrisy had backfired: he railed against gay marriage in sermons but he had told his victims that their sexual relationship “was a logical expression of love and that God teaches love.” Tran said the bishop’s very public stance on gay marriage motivated him to come forward with his accusation.
The news spotlight, however, suddenly moved back to Lavigne, and things got downright surreal. On April 8, 2004, police knocked on Lavigne’s door. It was Holy Thursday, a day in which the Catholic church celebrates the priesthood. They told Lavigne they had a search warrant. This was the second raid in his home on three days, and this time it was reported in the news. The search was prompted by what Lavigne claimed was an anonymous letter that had been sent to him. According Lavigne’s lawyer, the author of the letter claimed to know that Lavigne killed Daniel Croteau.
Photo: Richard Lavigne
Police had learned about the existence of the letter during their investigation of sexual abuse claims against Thomas Dupre.
Lavigne told someone in the diocese about the letter, and a diocesan official made a note of the document. This notation was discovered by police in March, when had been going through documents obtained at the Springfield diocesan offices looking for evidence against Dupre.
When State Police Detective Lt. Peter Higgins and other detectives originally showed up at Lavigne’s door on April 6 looking for the letter, the former priest told them that he had sent it to his lawyer in Boston. Higgins and his team stayed put at Lavigne’s home until a State Police officer obtained the letter from Max Stern.
ABC TV-40 reported that the letter contained an alleged “alibi” for the defrocked priest.
Lavigne claimed he had read the letter and concluded that its anonymous author “was the real killer,” said Stern.
Police thought otherwise. They believed that Lavigne had written the letter himself, apparently in a bizarre effort to throw police off his trail.
Two days later, on Holy Thursday, police were back at Lavigne’s house with another search warrant, this time removing computer equipment to see if electronic files contained any remnants of the letter. However, Stern said nothing on the equipment was incriminating, and then police agreed to return it to Lavigne and destroy any copies of files they made. “There’s nothing there,” said Stern.
For police, a potential bombshell in their investigation turned out to be a dud. Nonetheless, the lack of an electronic trail from the letter merely meant that the document wasn’t written on Lavigne’s home computer.
Investigators thought that if they could prove Lavigne authored the letter, such a deceptive deed would fit the profile they had been building of a man who had tried to mislead police and victims’ families from the start of the Croteau murder investigation—starting with him saying that he and Danny were never alone on overnight stays and continuing with the “circle” phone call the day of Danny’s wake, along with his friend flashing a police badge to Sandra Tessier saying he had nothing to do with the homicide.
If the “I know what you did” letter (which is how Stern characterized it) wasn’t authored by Lavigne, why did he merely send the letter to his lawyer—without it undergoing any scientific analysis? Didn’t it occur to him that the DNA of “the real killer” could possibly be on the letter and envelope? After all, in 2002, scientists were able to construct a partial genetic profile of the person who they believed to be the infamous Zodiac serial killer in California by taking dry saliva samples from the stamps and envelope adhesive from his mailings to police. By 2003 DNA testing could yield results from as little as a single skin cell. It’s certainly safe to say that Lavigne would have known full well how far DNA technology had advanced, especially after his blood tests.
Was the letter a foolish caper by a man who thought he was too smart to get caught? The risk-taking behavior pattern was certainly there. He had a history of it: in spite of the sheer number of his crimes (of which we’ll never know), he was always bent on committing more, racking up nearly fifty accusations. His overconfidence had emboldened him to compile victim after victim, becoming ever more brash when the boys kept their incidents secret—and more determined when the church simply transferred him from parish to parish when word got out about his activities.
A perfect example of his audacity was his “warning” Carl Croteau Sr. about the dangers of pedophilia in the neighborhood. In my original interview with Carl in 2003, he said that James Coleman, author of The Circle, gave Danny, along with members of the Circle Gang, wrestling lessons, but Lavigne told Carl to be careful of Coleman and his real motives with “all this wrestling stuff”—that there was something wrong with the professor. “He had no kind words for Coleman,” said Carl. “Not in this house. Here he was, planting the bad seed in people’s minds about Coleman, and he was the real molester.”
* * * * * * * *
In late July, 2004, it was revealed that the more sophisticated DNA testing that Bennett had ordered in March of 2003 had failed to link Lavigne to the crime scene. Stobierski still called the testing “inconclusive.” Patricia Garin, one of Lavigne’s lawyers, argued that it was only inconclusive in theory. “The only way, according to the (Hampden County D.A.’s) office, they could be inconclusive is if there were two contributors, neither of them Danny, to this spot of blood and it was mixed together,” she said.
Now one of the Croteau family’s last hopes that the murder would be solved relied on the potential release of 2,035 pages of investigation documents, which on July 27 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled must be unimpounded. This ended The Republican’s and Stobeirski’s 17-month legal battle with the D.A.’s office.
Much of what was in the files had already been made public, but not the autopsy and lab results, which showed Daniel was legally drunk at the time of his death (below).
Although no physical evidence sexual assault was found, the medical examiner did find several pieces of chewing gum in his stomach and police had found Certs gum wrappers at the scene. According to a statement from fellow altar boy Stephen Burnett, Daniel’s best friend, when Lavigne gave him and Danny wine to drink, “after we finished Father Lavigne would always tell us to chew gum,” he said.
The autopsy revealed that six lacerations to the right side of Danny’s head, including two deep cuts on the side of his right eyebrow. Also, his jaw was fractured a little to the right his chin. The wounds on the right side led police to believe that he had been killed by a left-handed attacker. Lavigne is left-handed.
Stern said there was nothing explosive in the released files. “Look at the documents and you will see there were other suspects, and as far as we can tell, they were never investigated,” he said.
On August 6, in a story on the released files, Matthew Ryan (pictured below) told the Associated Press that he believed Lavigne committed the murder, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it in court. “I was upset about it,” he said. “But I did what I had to do.”
Photo: former District Attorney Matty Ryan
Much of the talk in the weeks following the release of the records was a reference to a witness to the murder in the files. Bennett had written about him in a court brief when his office was trying to obtain a sample of Lavigne’s blood. “In the last week of September 1993, Trooper Thomas Daly received information from a witness who has claimed he was at the crime scene on the night of the victim’s murder at the time a car left at a high rate of speed,” wrote the district attorney. The witness “described the car which left the scene, its driver (the petitioner) and the sounds of what was thought to be an ‘animal’ moaning,” wrote Bennett. Lavigne is listed as the “petitioner” in some of the documents because he had made a motion for the return of his blood.
R.C. Stevens, a former State Police officer whom The Republican hired to review the formerly impounded materials and investigate the murder, said the reference to the witness “really jumps out at you.” He also pointed to the autopsy’s listing of severe injuries to Croteau’s larynx and throat. (below). “But it was like a subparagraph in the report,” he said. “I’m not a pathologist, but I wonder whether there was manual strangulation to begin with…Someone with a good hold on you, and you will pass out in ten seconds.”
Stevens also wondered about other people of interest mentioned in the Chicopee Police Department’s sketchy, eleven-page 1972 report (below). How were they eliminated as suspects? he wondered. “I’m not convinced it was Lavigne,” he said. “Let’s say it isn’t. What else was going on here?” The released documents were just a fraction of the documents the D.A.’s Office possesses on the case. Adding to the public’s curiosity was the revelation that a more detailed version of the 1972 Chicopee Police Department investigation was not released.
Stevens, who operates his own private detective agency, was planning to used some retired police officers as independent contractors to make inquiries into the case. He also planned to interview original 1972 investigators who were still living.
After establishing a tip hotline and placing posters in the neighborhood (pictured below), he learned that Daniel was planning to go to a party in Sixteen Acres on the night he disappeared. “I haven’t established whether or not he made it to the party, but something caused his plans to be interrupted and he ended up in Chicopee,” he said. He said the hotline was providing “plenty of leads and useful information.”
* * * * * * * *
On September 27, 2004, former Bishop Dupre was indicted by a grand jury on child sexual assault charges. But a few hours after the indictments were entered into court records, Bennett announced that Dupre would escape a state criminal trial because the statute of limitations had run out on the crimes.
Warren Mason, the St. Michael’s parishioner who encouraged Father Scahill to withhold from the diocese his church’s traditional six percent cut of the weekly collection, was disappointed in the news. “However, it’s fitting that Thomas Dupre should be the first bishop in this country indicted for the heinous sexual abuse of children,” he said. “This diocese is a rat’s nest of abusers, many of whom have yet to face the music, thanks in great measure to Dupre’s efforts to protect his fellow abusers.”
Friday, September 1, 2017
Although Richard Lavigne would not be prosecuted after his blood didn’t match blood left at the scene of the murder, no murder investigation is ever closed if it remains unsolved, according to the State Police. But without an active investigation, could the public release of impounded documents prompt a break in a cold case? That question was at the center of a newspaper’s argument for the disclosure of documents—a fight that began in October of 1993.
The Springfield Union-News began the new year by continuing its battle for the public release of a 178-page report by a state trooper that he had filed in his application to take a sample of Lavigne’s blood. The D.A.’s office was against lifting the gag order, saying that releasing the records would have a “chilling effect,” keeping other witnesses from coming forward in future investigations. The newspaper’s bid resulted in an unlikely alliance between the D.A.’s office and Lavigne’s defense team, which wanted to keep the records sealed because Stern felt his client would not get a fair civil trial in Hampden Superior Court if they were viewed by the public.
Judge Moriarty had said in 1993 that the impoundment order protected Lavigne’s right to a fair trial, along with the names of the witnesses in the reports. But he had also stated that the order would be “automatically dissolved” at the close of any criminal proceeding.
Prosecutors insisted, however, that the case remained open, even though there was no indictment.
A skeptical Joseph Pessolano, the Union-News lawyer, asked the judge to take a hard look at the D.A.’s “ongoing investigation” claim to determine if it was being misapplied to protect the reports.
On February 12 Judge Moriarty ruled in favor of the Union-News, saying the notion that the investigation in “is more theoretical than real.” But a last-minute appeal prevented the release.
“There is always the possibility of a deathbed confession,” pointed out Assistant District Attorney Jane Davidson Montori. “If all this is disclosed, there will be no way to corroborate information if such a confession is made.”
Pessolano called the deathbed confession argument weak. “Deathbed confessions happen on TV. It would certainly be a rare event,” he said. “To continue to impound all these materials, even forever, is clearly against the public interest. These are public documents, documents to which the public has a right.”
State Appeals Court Judge Elizabeth Porada saw it the same way. On March 27, she released the documents, which were heavily censored. In them, State Trooper Thomas Daly, who led the investigation, believed Lavigne was a “preferential” child molester who accumulated many victims with elaborate, ritualistic seduction methods that are typically engaged in “even when they are counter-productive to getting away with the criminal activity.” This behavior is in contrast to the more common “situational” molester, who doesn’t necessarily have a preference for children, but abuses them when the opportunity presents itself. Many victims in the files told the story of a priest who walked a thin tightrope, carefully courting boys, abusing them, and then warning them not to tell. Police say he was taking a calculated risk, hoping that no one would ever suspect a priest of molestation. His plotting even went as far as giving one victim a “piggy back” ride up the St. Mary’s rectory stairs at night so the pastor wouldn’t hear two pairs of feet stepping up the stairs.
The St. Mary’s rectory (above)
He would often ask his victims to spend the night, drink alcohol, shower, and then invite them to sleep in his bed, offering them oversized T-shirts to use as pajamas to make it easier to grope them. The witness statements offered account after account of Lavigne’s methods, carefully executed, with most resulting in abuse. They were remarkable in their similarities: beginning with snuggling, back scratching, and tickling—and ending in sex, along with the victims’ confusion, shame, and silence about the incident for years.
That silence was perpetuated by the shadow of the murder, with victims convinced Lavigne could get away with anything.
Lavigne had a tried and true seduction system, according to several complaints. In one, he gave a nine-year-old a bath twice at the rectory—both times after they went fishing. “Father washed my privates front and back with his hands,” read his statement. “He didn't do it the way I wash myself. He was pushing and rubbing hard.”
Charles Shattuck told Daly about the time Lavigne took his son Joseph fishing. “According to my son, Father Lavigne was upset about something and threw a rock at him.” A rock, the murder weapon used on Croteau, also surfaces in another account of Lavigne’s allegedly volatile temper. The incident that took place during his first assignment in Easthampton: returning to the rectory late at night, long after curfew, he picked up a rock and smashed the door window to gain entry after the pastor locked him out. Incredibly, the source of this tale was none other than Lavigne himself: in the late 1960s he laughingly recounted the episode to many parishioners to show them that the pastor couldn’t boss him around.
These last two stories involve Lavigne losing his temper and impulsively picking up a rock and using it violently. What isn’t known is how much weight these assertions would have if the case were ever brought to trial for murder. But that prospect was looking more and remote as the months went by, because the case languished again.
Neither time, money, nor therapy could heal the emotional wounds of Lavigne victim Raymond Chelte Jr., a former member of the Circle Gang. On the morning March 28, 1998, the forty-two-year-old was found dead by his girlfriend, at his kitchen table in Perris, CA, after a night of speedballing—mixing cocaine and heroin. He died while reaching for his cigarette in an ashtray. His arm was still outstretched, but the cigarette was out. His girlfriend touched him. Maybe he had just passed out, she thought. No. He was cold. Dead.
When I talked to the late Raymond Chelte Sr. about his son on August 2, 2003, he was blunt about what he wished for Lavigne. “I hope he goes to prison,” he said. “I hope and I pray that they nail the bastard.” Chelte blamed Lavigne for his son’s fatal overdose four years after the 1994 settlement with the diocese.
“It was a suicide,” said Chelte. “Lavigne ruined his life. He had no confidence in himself at all. He just hated himself. He was an alcoholic and drug addict ever since he was in junior high school, and he got worse as he got older.”
Chelte helped start the St. Catherine Athletic Association shortly after the church was built in 1964 and said that his son was a talented sandlot and high school pitcher with a lot of promise. “But getting high was more important to him than baseball,” he said. He regretted not recognizing the signs that the boy had been abused, but who would have suspected a priest? “We never realized what was happening at the time,” he said. “We couldn’t pinpoint why he was on drugs and booze, and that was the reason.”
Photo: Raymond Chelte Sr.
Lavigne, he said, fooled everybody, taking advantage of the pride and prestige families felt in hosting a priest for dinner. “We all liked him,” he said. “He used to have dinner with my family every once in a while. He used to take his collar and his shoes off and eat my mother's Lebanese cooking. And the whole time the prick was molesting my kid.”
He began to suspect that Lavigne was a little strange when two of his sons came home from a pool party at the St. Catherine Church one night and were visibly upset. “They told me that Father Lavigne dove into the pool naked, swam up to them, and wanted to hear their confessions,” he said. “I told them, ‘No more pool parties.’”
Chelte also believed Lavigne molested and killed Croteau. “He was always with the Croteau boy,” he said. “I lived near Danny’s school bus stop, and Danny would get off the bus and run right over to the rectory and meet him every day.”
A Korean War veteran, Chelte thought that putting his son in the Navy shortly after he turned eighteen would get him out of the Sixteen Acres partying scene and put him on the right path. “I hoped it would straighten him out,” he said. But he began to use drugs again, was pronounced medically unfit for service, and received a regular discharge after a year. After making made numerous attempts to get off heroin with methadone treatment, his son finally seemed to be on the verge of turning his life around in the 1980s. Chelte Sr. recalled a visit from his boy in 1987, when he was living in Texas. “He was clean and dry for two or three months and was looking for a job,” he said. “We bought him some suits and new eyeglasses, and he went back to Texas, and, the next thing I knew he was off the wagon again, and his wife threw him out.” They were divorced the following year.
Chelte said that he had no idea that his son was one of the 17 people who sued the Springfield Diocese until he read about the lawsuit in the Union-News in 1993. “That was a shocker,” he said. “I was in a restaurant having coffee with some of my buddies, and one of them says, ‘Ray, do you have a son named Ray? He’s in an article.’ Sure enough, there it was. It knocked my socks off.”
After the 1994 settlement, Chelte Jr. had a chance to confront his demons and get on with his life, but “I couldn’t help him, and neither could the psychiatrists,” said his father. The trauma of being sexually abused as a pre-teen was too much for him. The money he received in the lawsuit “went up his nose and in his arm,” he said. “He was broke a year after the settlement.”
He said that he and Daniel Croteau’s brother Michael talked many times about exacting revenge on Lavigne. “We tried to figure out how to get him without going to jail,” he said.
Chelte said that his son’s revelation helped explain his lengthy bouts with substance abuse, a problem shared by his friends in the Circle gang. He admits that many of the neighborhood parents fretted about their teenage kids drinking alcohol in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and they tried to prevent that much as they could. “But we the drug stuff we couldn’t stop,” he said. “Ray was out of control. I used to take painkillers because I injured my back in the war, and he used to steal them.” He believed that his son even staged a burglary at his house when the family was on vacation so his friends in the Circle could sell the Cheltes’ valuables.
He was sure that Lavigne’s involvement with the Circle was responsible for much of the gang’s drug abuse, alcoholism, and penchant for violence. “Who knows how many kids in the gang he abused—and how many of them will never admit it, as long as they live?” he asked.
* * * * * * * *
On June 18, 2003, I interviewed James Coleman, author of The Circle, at his home. He knew both Daniel Croteau and Lavigne, and he too thought the priest murdered the boy. Coleman, who died three years later at eighty-five, went to his grave believing Danny was killed because he was ready “to spill the beans of the stuff Lavigne was doing.”
Coleman said Danny was “well-adjusted, open, friendly, likable, and was not overly aggressive but he was definitely not the kind of boy that anyone could push around easily.” He remembered that Lavigne “had a good personality” and was providing church outreach with the gang, and it looked like “he was making some inroads.” Danny wasn’t in the Circle, but the last time Coleman saw Danny Croteau was a week before the murder at the group’s hangout, even though Coleman knew that his parents didn’t want him to get involved with the gang. “And I don’t blame them,” he said. “They were rough kids.”
But Danny did make an appearance at the Circle a week before he was killed. “I was a little bit surprised that he showed up, but he was welcome,” he said. The kids were happy to see him. They treated him well. And then a week or so later, Danny was murdered.”
He wondered aloud if Croteau would be alive today if he hung around the Circle more instead of Lavigne. “This is what happened when he went with the priest,” he said. “He was killed. Isn’t that something? He would have been better off if he were with us.”
Like many, he believed that there was enough circumstantial evidence to bring charges against Lavigne. “What are they waiting for?” he asked.
Coleman himself was not without controversy. In 1968, when the Circle Gang found a large set of keys in the House of Television parking lot, he overheard them bragging that they are going to take joy rides with the store’s trucks, so he snatched the keys and brought them back to the store. But when House of Television got burglarized and trucks were broken into, the police theorized that someone had made copies of the keys. They threatened Coleman with a larceny charge unless he named the kids who used the keys, but he called the cops’ bluff and said nothing.
His feud with police continued after the book’s publication, when he alleged that the police department, including Captain Robert Meffen (pictured below), were trying to prohibit sales of The Circle and attempting to get people to sign a complaint against him. In turn, he contacted the ACLU. He also butted heads with D.A. Matty Ryan, who blasted the book after admitting he never read it.
Coleman also clashed with some members of the Circle Gang and their parents when the book came out. Some of their beefs are chronicled here. A former member, who Coleman called Jack Sutton in the book, commented in the post, “As for Coleman, I didn’t trust him. Seemed like a pervert to me. What the hell is a grown man hanging around with young boys? As for wrestling, he sure liked it.” Sutton also said Coleman drove the members to gang fights at such places like the Eastfield Mall. “We fought the Mall Rats, Ludlow, and some we didn’t know who they were,” he wrote. “If he needed to go somewhere, he was right there. I didn’t like the man and he knew it.”
Sutton also wrote that after the book came out, “it took a few months and his reign with the Circle Gang was over.” That statement does have a ring of truth to it, because in an article on November 8, 1970 in The Sunday Republican, Coleman seems to distance himself from the gang, saying, “The newer group which has just taken over The Circle area is older, between 18 and 25, and uses narcotics and drinks pretty heavily. Still, he said he saw Danny Croteau at The Circle a week before he was murdered, so he must have come back into the fold—or at least tried.
Coleman indeed was an interesting man. He was training to be a concert pianist at the Julliard School when World War II broke out, and the government needed physicists, so he joined the Navy. After the war he went to New York University (BA in physics) and Columbia (MA mathematics), then worked on guided missile warheads at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Silver Spring, MD from 1947 to 1950.
His love for the piano was evident when I interviewed him and he introduced his elevated backyard garden terrace as “the largest piano in Sixteen Acres.” Indeed, the wall had that classic Steinway curve shape. This probably explains the dirty look I got from him when I hopped up on his backyard “piano” wall to take a higher-angle photo of him:
However, Sutton’s use of the word “pervert” wasn’t the first time such a pejorative was used to describe Coleman. The sister of The Circle member Mickey Callahan (Coleman’s pseudonym) said she had heard some things. And in my original interview with Carl Croteau in 2003, he said that Lavigne told Carl to be careful of Coleman and his real motives with “all this wrestling stuff”—that there was something wrong with the professor. “He had no kind words for Coleman,” said Carl. “Not in this house. Here he was, planting the bad seed in people’s minds about Coleman, and he was the real molester.” Did Carl believe Lavigne at the time? “No,” he said. “I remember telling Danny to be careful, but James Coleman didn’t strike me as the type.”
“Dad, he’s all right,” Danny told his father.
“I asked my other sons about him,” said Carl. “They said he never laid a hand on them.”
But Raymond Chelte Sr. said Coleman performed oral sex on several Circle Gang members. “He used to give those kids blowjobs,” he said. “Sorry, I can’t think of a politer way of saying it. He was a piece of trash. He wanted information for his book, and the kids wanted money. He said he didn’t have any money, and this is how he paid them. A couple of them told me this. They said, ‘How else do you think he would be getting all the information to write the book? You don’t think we like him, do you?’ They didn’t trust adults. We were the enemies.”
I had a hard time believing this. Coleman didn’t strike me as the type, and this sort of talk sounded like some kids who were pissed off about the book getting back at him. I am not alone. After Sutton wrote his comment in the blog, a commenter wrote, “I spent a lot of time Prof. Coleman’s house—he opened his home to all of us, especially those of us from what they called broken homes. It is where I was first introduced to wrestling. All who wrestled with us at Prof. Colman's home enjoyed wrestling against our own schools’ teams. As far as Coleman and the label “pervert,” that a tough one for me to believe. In the four years I wrestled there I never heard or experienced anything that would even conjure up the “P word.”
However, another commenter wrote that in the mid-1970s, Coleman was hanging around his gang and they had their suspicions. This group used to meet at “Elsden’s Field,” a vacant lot diagonally across the street from The Circle, on the corner of Frank Street and Parker Street. “I can say I know Coleman when he was researching for a second book that I heard was never written,” he wrote. “Someone stole his notes though, and he pretty much got dissed from us, possibly on account that we thought he was gay.”
So there are two different schools of thought on Coleman. Was he a “person of interest” in the murder case? The original police report noted that “Danny was taken up with [name redacted] while the [redacted] was getting material for his book. He was supposed to wrestle at the [name redacted] home.” Two pages later, Radwanski noted, “Danny Croteau sometime came to the [name redacted] home on Tuesdays to practice wrestling.” Still, the police were looking at all adult males whom Danny knew. And if the “pervert” label was true, why hasn’t one person come forward with an accusation in all these years?
* * * * * * * *
In February of 2002, when Lavigne was four months away from the end of his ten-year probation, Stern said of his notorious client, “He’s had a perfect and clean record for these ten years. He was and is a very decent man. He was, in fact, a great priest.”
Indeed, despite his notoriety, he still had his supporters. Therein lies the dichotomy of Richard Lavigne. He had been both loved and loathed his entire career as a priest. Even if you look past the molestations—which is nearly impossible to do—was Lavigne, as Stern insisted, a “great” priest? It depends who you ask. Looking back on his career, it isn’t difficult to see how he parishioners had strong—and mixed—feelings about the man. It’s also a textbook study of what some would argue is a narcissistic personality.
Lavigne, who attended Assumption Preparatory School in Worcester, MA, graduated from Assumption College, where he majored in philosophy and the classics. He received his master’s degree in theology at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Albany, N.Y., where members of the faculty were concerned about the man’s emotional stability in 1966, according to records released to the public.
When Lavigne faced charges in 1991, there were accounts in the press of a priest who was “an incredible guy” according to one former altar boy. “He never took advantage of me and he had plenty of opportunity,” he said. “We went away together, to his parents’ house in Chicopee, to Vermont. I saw the good side of Father Lavigne and the good side is very, very good.”
At the time, many Lavigne supporters couldn’t believe the charges because, like that former altar boy, they had been alone with him many times and he never took advantage of them. For example, I talked to another former altar boy at St. Catherine, who I’ll call Bob. He recalled spending a few nights in his bed, and the priest’s hands never strayed. However, Bob’s brother settled a lawsuit with the Springfield diocese after he accused Lavigne of abusing him.
Yes, the police files point to Lavigne as the kind of pedophile that didn’t take advantage of every situation—each one had to be approached guardedly. Investigators point to a procedure, paced with patience. “Lavigne manipulated these boys, developing the relationship slowly and cautiously,” according to State Trooper Thomas Daly. He “developed relationships with these boys through a deliberate, calculating process.”
Father Kevin Sousa, who left the ministry in the early 1990s when he tried to come to terms with being abused by Lavigne from sixth grade through high school, had conflicting feelings about Lavigne when he was first charged. On the one hand, he remembered a priest who could captivate a church—or a room—full of people, a man who he admired so much he eventually joined the priesthood. As an altar boy at St. Mary’s, Father Sousa saw a priest who was “intelligent, artistic, and presented tremendous homilies. He had a great rapport with people. He was the model priest of what I wanted to be.” But he was also the reason Sousa eventually left the priesthood. When he watched Kenneth Chevalier, a cousin of Lavigne, describe on TV the adult oversize T-shirt the priest commanded him to wear to bed, “I was paralyzed. He was telling my story,” said Sousa.
In 1972, when Sousa was in tenth grade, police came to his home to question him about the murder. He answered the questions, but never told them about the abuse. “No one asked about it,” he said.
In the late 1960s, Lavigne had fascinated the younger crowd at St. Catherine by openly feuding with older priests and conservative churchgoers. During a sermon in which he criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam, George Doyle, the lead tenor in the choir shouted, “Are you saying we should have a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam?” Lavigne said he was, prompting a loud argument with the decorated World War II Army Air Corps veteran. “You have no right to say that while our men are fighting over there!” he yelled, according to Carl Croteau Sr.. Later, pastor Thomas Griffin asked the tenor if he would stop speaking out so heatedly in church. "I will if he will,” Doyle answered.
Lavigne didn’t stop. When “the counterculture had reached Sixteen Acres,” according to a St. Catherine parishioner, he was seen as the kind of a priest who could keep kids interested in religion.
Lavigne managed to charm so many teenagers, according to Bob, because “he came to St. Catherine’s at the height of social unrest and spoke out against the Vietnam War and police brutality. All of a sudden, here’s this young, dynamic, charismatic, artistic priest, and he immediately enamors himself with lots of younger people in the parish. In a way he almost created jealousies among the kids. We were all vying for his attention.”
Some of his fellow altar boys, said Bob, were in the Circle Gang, and he provided guidance to the more troubled teens, who were prone to vandalism and violence. “We were altar boys, but we were no angels,” he said.
At St. Catherine he “fancied himself as the Bobby Kennedy of priests,” according to another parishioner. “He used to love the word disenfranchised. I remember that.”
Not surprisingly, at St. Joseph’s in the early 1990s Lavigne railed against the Persian Gulf War. And then, after being charged with molestation, he used his decades-old rebel reputation to explain why he was being persecuted.
In 1992 he wrote a letter to the parents of the boys that would later claim abuse: “I, for one, have given up on trying to convince anyone of my own situation,” he wrote. “People will believe what they will, one way or another…I have suffered, yes, but Gethsemane is at the heart of ministry. Jesus wasn’t killed because He was popular. He was killed because He spoiled the party for some people.”
In a Union-News interview, Martin Pion, then a professor of religious studies at Elms College (and my former theology teacher at Cathedral), said that Lavigne, apparently alleging a conspiracy against him because of his radical beliefs, compares his plight to that of Jesus’. Pion said, “In Gethsemane, Jesus is going through his own process of his ministry, which is preparing for crucifixion. It’s almost as if Lavigne is proclaiming his innocence by saying what happened to Jesus happened to him.”
Photo: Martin Pion
Did Lavigne see himself as a Christ figure? “I have been crucified by the press,” he announced in the summer of 1992.
Of course, the main difference between Christ and Lavigne, aside from their relationship with God, was that Jesus loved children without expressing his affection sexually. Also, Jesus was crucified, while Lavigne was forced to “suffer” through probation and psychiatric “treatment”—not a heavy cross to bear, when compared with his victims’ trauma. And the wounds Lavigne endured on his way to his own Gethsemane were not from lashes, but from the stinging accusations of sexual abuse, and the only blood he shed during his “persecution” was for a DNA test in the Daniel Croteau murder investigation.
However, Lavigne’s letter wasn’t the first time he had used Jesus’ name for an explanation for his misdeeds. According to another accuser, Steven Block, after the priest allegedly sexually him when he was twelve, he said Lavigne he told him, ‘Christ suffered, and so should I.’”
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On June 1 and 2, 2002, the Rev. James J. Scahill, pastor of St. Michael’s Parish in East Longmeadow, urged parishioners at each Mass to write to Bishop Dupre to help bring about laicization, or the formal defrocking, of Richard Lavigne. The man had been relieved of his priestly duties in 1992, though he continued to receive a monthly $1,030-a-month subsistence stipend—less than what an active priest received—but he still enjoyed health and insurance benefits. Dupre had stated several times that the diocese hasn’t sought to have Lavigne laicized because an official defrocking was granted only by the Pope in an extensive and cumbersome process.
Photo: Rev. James Scahill
Scahill was also bothered by the fact that six other priests removed from the ministry for sexual abuse were receiving the same stipend.
Then Scahill upped the ante: he began protesting the diocese’s financial support of Lavigne by withholding the six percent of weekly collections in the parish that was supposed to go to the bishop’s office. The idea came from one of his parishioners, Warren Mason, who said, “As long as Richard Lavigne is receiving any sustenance from the diocese, I will not give any money to the church.” He urged Father to “hold back the bishop’s money,” and he did.
Scahill described Mason’s idea to Bishop Dupre. He recalled that his boss was not a happy man. “He said, ‘What?’ I repeated the proposal, and he said, ‘You cannot do that. There’s no conversation relative to this matter. You absolutely cannot do that.’” He threatened to suspend Scahill.
“I know you can suspend me but so convinced am I of the correctness of what I am doing I am risking that suspension if you want to risk suspending me,” said Father Scahill.
Photo: Bishop Thomas Dupre
When Father Scahill told his parish that he would retain six percent from St. Michael’s in a separate account that the diocese wouldn’t have access to, his congregation applauded. “It’s about time someone addressed it,” said parishioner Faith St. Onge. Said another, “He is a strong leader, and other churches should take note of what we’re doing here for justice’s sake.”
The mood of parishioners in the Springfield diocese mirrored that of Catholics in Boston, who were outraged at Cardinal Bernard F. Law and other leaders for reassigning sexually abusive priests to other parishes. State prosecutors convened a grand jury to decide whether Cardinal Law and other church leaders should be held criminally liable for their inaction.
To be sure, the Springfield diocese was having an increasingly difficult time explaining its financial support of Lavigne, especially when the abuse accusations against him continued to pile up. Four new lawsuits against the were filed in July of 2002: Shawn Dobbert, a thirty-four-year-old from North Adams; Francis Babeu (accuser Paul Babeu’s younger brother); a thirty-one-year-old North Adams resident filing a complaint under the pseudonym of John Doe; and Sandra Tessier’s son Andre.
Dobbert said that Lavigne told him that he would “take the air out of my lungs” if he told anyone about the incidents. “He said, ‘I did it before; I can do it again,’” stated Dobbert.
Still, the desire of many Springfield-area Catholics to have their diocese stop giving financial assistance to Lavigne was rebuffed by Bishop Dupre, who issued one-page “Explanation of Laicization” to all diocesan clergy. The document, which was issued in lieu of a statement because the bishop was unavailable for three weeks to respond, explained that even if a priest is laicized, according to canon law a bishop is obligated to support him if necessary.
In September, the lawsuits against Lavigne kept coming in: Greenfield lawyer John Stobierski represented three men, one of whom said following one molestation, the priest drove his car at him, barely missing, on Route 2 in Heath to warn him not to tell anyone. “You have to be careful—accidents happen,” Lavigne reportedly said.
“Accident,” of course, was the term used by the mystery caller to Carl Croteau Jr. on the day of Daniel Croteau’s wake in 1972.
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In a Union-News story on November 17, 2002, Retired Chicopee police Detective Capt. Edward Rojowski and retired State Police Lt. Edward Harrington told reporter Bill Zajac that diocesean officials knew in 1972 that Lavigne was the prime suspect in the murder and that he was believed to have abused some of the Croteau boys and others. Their comments contrast the diocesan officials’ claims that they only first received an accusation of abuse until 1986. In addition, retired state trooper Jim Mitchell said the late State Police Lt. James Fitzgibbon, who died in 1982, briefed diocesan officials on their suspicions about the murder and alleged molestations.
Photo: retired State Police Lt.
“We had an obligation to show our cards,” said Mitchell. “Fitzy had a sit-down with them. Everything we knew, we told them.”
Rojowski and Harrington said some records of the suspected abuse should exist, but Bishop Dupre responded that he knew of no records that support the retired officers’ statements. However, he said he was aware of rumors about Lavigne. “It wasn’t the church that knew it. Everybody knew it. The district attorney knew it. The police knew it. Everybody knew that there were rumors about it. But nobody took action,” said Dupre. “I wasn’t around in those days, so I don’t know what happened. I only went into the Chancery in ’77 . . . so, I don’t know what went on. All I know is the rumors I heard.”