Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Daniel Croteau Murder, Part 4

Judgment Day

Shelburne Falls Priest Held on Rape Charge

The above Springfield Union News headline on Saturday, October 19, 1991 shocked many people who were familiar with Father Lavigne, but not all of them. Some had intimate knowledge of his activities with boys, and many more heard stories through the grapevine. Soon the news spread like wildfire, and more molestation claims would mount, finishing his career as a priest.

Lavigne might have had some inkling the jig was up when State Police Sergeant Susan Harrington, accompanied by Chicopee Police detectives, showed up at his parents’ Chicopee home. They weren’t approaching him in the driveway just to ask him a couple of questions. They were there to arrest him. Alleged victims had given statements to police, and now he would have to face charges.

Did he ponder his fate with trepidation, dreading the possibility of a sex scandal mushrooming into the reopening of a murder investigation? Only Lavigne knows what his state of mind was when he was escorted to the squad car—and whether or not he was thinking about a pair of brothers from the tiny town of Heath in Franklin County. He had gotten to know the boys in the late 1980s, and one of them had promised not to talk to anyone about the sexual abuse, according to the victim. But when the boy finally broke off contact with Lavigne a year earlier, he said he could see fear in the priest’s eyes, as if the man was afraid that the boy might tell. That boy, Joseph Shattuck, did tell. So did others, triggering a series of events that set the priest’s life—and the reputation of the Springfield Diocese—into a tailspin.

Lavigne was in denial mode when he was arrested. After being advised of his rights and acknowledging that he understood them, he was sitting in the cruiser and on his way to the State Police barracks in Shelburne Falls when Harrington informed him of the charges. She identified the boys who made the allegations. “[name deleted]? That’s absurd,” he replied, according to police files.

“We then discussed [name deleted] and his credibility,” wrote Harrington. This officer told Father Lavigne that I personally found [name deleted] to be a very believable and credible kid. Father Lavigne agreed and could offer no explanations as to why he would make it up, but said his father [name deleted] is a chauvinist and a bigot.”

The sergeant then asked him if he ever touched “any kid” in a sexual way, and he denied any inappropriate touching.

Harrington told Lavigne that she was aware that this wasn’t the first time that he had been accused of this type of activity, and asked him what he thought a judge or jury would think, especially because more than one complaint had been made. “Father Lavigne then stated, ‘Can I be honest with you? Can I trust you?’ This officer then reminded Father Lavigne that he’d been advised of his rights, but requested to hear his side of the story,” wrote Harrington. “At this time Father Lavigne stated that he wanted to talk to a lawyer without saying any more.”

It must have been a long ride back to Shelburne Falls for Father Lavigne. Gazing at the road ahead, and at the passing trees and farms off I-91—and mulling over his present situation— if he was thinking about his future, he was undoubtedly going over his past.

The end of the trip: the State Police barracks in Shelburne Falls

October 19, 1991

A short article in the Union News described the charges: two counts of rape of a child. The story also listed Lavigne’s present and past assignments. At the time, the 50-year-old priest was pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Shelburne Falls, of St. John’s Church in Colrain, and St. Christopher’s Church in Charlemont. All three churches were a combined parish that in a year would be “united” in name only as parishioners immediately began to take sides in the matter of Lavigne’s perceived innocence or guilt.

The Sunday newspaper contained little new information, as did Monday’s Union News, except the fact that he was released after posting $10,000 bail, and that he would face arraignment that day. The story also reported on his parishioners’ disbelief and outrage.

That sense of unbelievable astonishment came from a community that was a decade away from the 2002 clergy sex abuse scandal that would rock Boston and reveal a national problem in the Catholic Church. In 1991, such news about a priest was a bolt from the blue. Most of Lavigne’s parishioners just couldn’t fathom anything like this happening. “He's been a mentor to me. He taught me many things about life,” said Peter Kelleher of Shelburne Falls. “I just can't believe any of this that’s going on.”

The news was just the first of a one-two punch combination for Catholics in the Diocese of Springfield. The first blow stunned them. The second one floored them: in Tuesday’s Union News the parents of Danny Croteau revealed that Lavigne was a suspect in the unsolved 1972 murder of their son.

“They are going to look into this case again,” said Danny’s father, Carl. He added that Acting Chicopee Police Chief Joseph Wilk Jr. had sent the records in the homicide case to the district attorney’s office.

On Tuesday, October 22, District Attorney William M. Bennett neither confirmed nor denied that he was reopening of the investigation into Croteau’s murder. But sources confirmed that he began a review of the case file. By Thursday, Bennett still wouldn’t comment on the matter, but sources revealed that at least two state police detectives had been assigned to the case, and were searching for evidence.

And there you have it: a murder investigation that was inactive for 19 years was reopened and continues to this day.

* * * * * * * * *

The spring of 1972 was a more innocent time: very few people could even conceive of a priest molesting a boy, let alone murdering him. But detectives in the investigation came to that conclusion. Their suspicions were raised soon after Danny Croteau was bludgeoned to death with a rock and thrown into the Chicopee River on Friday, April 14, 1972. Investigators both then and now believed that Lavigne had molested Croteau and then killed him during an argument. He still remains the prime suspect.

Fast-forward to the fall of 1991, when sex abuse by priests was still a largely underreported phenomenon. Lavigne’s congregation was incensed and professed his innocence. Still, at the time of his arrest, veteran reporters at the Union News knew that police suspected he killed Danny after an alleged sexual relationship with him. Indeed, managing editor Richard Garvey had gotten wind of the news shortly after the murder and told the late Monsignor David Power about the surprising turn in the investigation.

Although the media didn’t publicly link Lavigne to the Croteau homicide investigation in 1972, many people in greater Springfield were aware of the probe. One priest said, “It was the number one topic of the day.” Indeed, I remember Father Leo Shea, pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, telling parishioners in a homily not to believe or spread false rumors.

In the past 45 years the case has undergone surges of publicity followed by long periods of silence. Interestingly, there was very little media attention in 1972. “Back then there was just a four-by-six-inch article on the murder,” said Carl to me on one of his neighborhood walks. He extended his thumb and index finger to indicate the size of the story in the newspaper. The newspaper story was a little larger than that, but not much:

“There two more stories right after Danny was killed, and that was it,” he said. For 19 years—nothing. “But then, in the 1990s there were hundreds of thousands of words written about it in the papers,” said Carl.

What prompted the blizzard of stories in the 1990s, of course, was Lavigne’s 1991 arrest. He was the first priest in the area to be charged with sexual abuse since 1978, when the former Rev. Roy Leo was convicted of morals offenses. Not surprisingly, Lavigne’s connection to Danny Croteau added fuel to the fire. Somehow, Guy Volterra, the judge in the case, thought that the newspapers were giving the Lavigne case undue attention. Lambasting the media at the time, he believed that the story merited only a column in the back page of a local newspaper.

It’s a good thing Volterra wasn’t a newspaper editor, because he evidently didn’t see the newsworthiness of a priest being accused of sexual abuse and at the same time being the chief suspect in a murder nearly two decades before his arrest. Bury the stories on the back pages? I don’t think so. Every unsolved murder has a victim that cries out for justice from beyond—and a family that will not let it rest. So, like it or not, Judge Volterra, it was high time for Danny’s story to be told. “We had suffered in silence for too long,” said Carl.

But this blog entry isn’t so much about the murder of Danny Croteau as it is about the sexual abuse case against Lavigne in 1991 and 1992, because the murder investigation would have never been reopened if it weren’t for a few courageous victims and their parents who were willing to bring him to a criminal court. They were the catalyst for others to come forward, ensuring that Lavigne—whether or not he is guilty of murder—would be punished for his sexual abuse and never be in a position to harm another child.

October 26, 1991

The stage was being set for a confrontation that would threaten to tear the diocese apart. It was Lavigne’s word against the victims’, Lavigne’s supporters vs. his detractors, and the diocese vs. the newspapers and television news outlets. Church lawyers said the case was unfairly being tried in the news media. Lavigne’s backers were adamant that there was a conspiracy to destroy him. “I love the man,” said St. Joseph’s parishioner Frederick Lively. “I don’t recognize the man I know in these stories.” The Diocese of Springfield sprung to his defense. “As Father Lavigne’s bishop, I have offered him my assistance and I support him in his plea of innocence,” said The Rev. Joseph F. Maguire, bishop of Springfield, in a statement.

Then more details on the charges against Lavigne surfaced: the alleged victims at the time of the arrest were nine, 18, and 20 years old, and the incidents took place on or before August 29, 1991.

On October 27, 1991, the priest’s world truly began to cave in. An alleged victim revealed that as a six-year-old he was fondled by Lavigne when the accused was a teenager in 1958. Lavigne, who was 17 years old then, had been working a summer job as an assistant recreation leader for the Chicopee Park Department and was immediately fired, but no charges were filed. The Union-News tried unsuccessfully to get Lavigne’s employment record and the document related to his termination, which was finally released in 2004:

Lavigne’s vocal group of supporters began to solicit parishioners for his legal defense funds, but his indignation at the charges rang hollow for many others when news of decades-old alleged molestations started popping up in the newspapers. Tom Shea of the Union News reported that a 33-year-old police officer had witnessed a molestation while Lavigne was a priest at St. Mary’s. “It’s been going on a long time,” said the patrolman. Two of Lavigne’s cousins also came forward with sexual abuse claims.

December 15, 1991

There were reports that two of the victims in the case against Lavigne were from the Holy Trinity Lay Community, a tiny Catholic group in Heath not recognized by the diocese. Its members, who attended mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Shelburne Falls, had a falling-out with Lavigne in late 1990 or early 1991 because he “wasn’t Catholic enough for Holy Trinity,” said a source.

Lavigne, staying at the Institute of Living (pictured below), a psychiatric abuse hospital in Hartford, had announced on November 8 that he had hired Max D. Stern of Boston, one of the top criminal lawyers in the country. Lavigne and his supporters, not the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, would pay his defense.

On December 18, 1991, a source close to Stern said that the lawyer would argue that the pending charges were the result of Lavigne being set up by a Catholic “cult” made up of about 15 families that owned a former 200-acre dairy farm in Heath.

The Springfield Diocese closed the year by announcing that 72-year-old Bishop Maguire would step down and the Most Rev. John A. Marshall would be installed in the post. Maguire denied that the Lavigne mess had prompted the decision. “I just had the feeling that it was time to step aside,” he said. “When the time comes, you sort of know it.”

February 7, 1992

Lavigne’s woes continued on February 7, when a Greenfield District Court Judge Allan McGuane denied his lawyer’s request to allow part of the case to be tried in a lower court. The ruling meant that the entire case might be tried in Franklin County Superior Court, where the priest would face greater penalties if convicted—up to 10 years in the indecent assault charge, as opposed to no more than two-and-a-half years if convicted by a district court. He also faced the possibility of decades—or even life—in prison with a rape conviction. McGuane ordered attorneys back to court on February 26 for a probable cause hearing. This move was seen as a way to end delays that had resulted in two pre-trial conference dates without any actual movement on the case.

Stern was building a case that the alleged victims from the Holy Trinity Lay Community lacked credibility—that the group was even using a homosexual ritual as part of their worship.

The reality about the Community: it was far from the “homosexual Catholic cult” label that the group’s detractors in Heath had foisted upon it. Truth be told, the Community’s spiritual director—and the accusers’ father—Charles Shattuck, had discovered in 1983 that the founder of the Apostolic Formation Center, the forerunner to the Holy Trinity Lay Community, had years before engaged with the organization’s elders in a homosexual rite called “the divine intimacy of the holy seed.” The rituals took place before Shattuck joined the Somers, CT group in 1980. He had never met the founder, J. Roy Legere (pictured young and old below), who died in 1978.

When Shattuck heard about Legere’s rituals, which were supposed to provide participants with an infusion of Christ, he immediately alerted Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, bishop of Norwich, CT. Reilly, however, had already known about the practice, but he wanted it kept quiet to avoid a scandal.

With Reilly’s backing, Shattuck began to dissolve the Apostolic Formation Center and steered clear from the “false teachings” of Legere’s followers. He reorganized and renamed the group, but a scandal erupted anyway, when the ritual was made public in a scathing series of articles in the Manchester Journal Enquirer in 1985.

Legere, who thought he was Christ’s twin, asserted that God had asked him to share this “holy” act, the homosexual ritual, to prompt the group’s most fervent followers to prove they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Legere said although this appeared to be an abnormal request from above, he explained that the Lord works in mysterious ways—and the act was no stranger than the time God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to demonstrate his faith.

When the scandal broke, Shattuck said Reilly shunned him in a Peter-like betrayal, and banned the organization from the diocese.

But according to those familiar with the group, the true rift between Reilly and Shattuck came when Reilly learned in the spring of 1985 that at least some of Legere’s teachings continued under Shattuck. He then told Shattuck that the collaboration between the Norwich diocese and the group was over.

In 1986, Shattuck, his family, and a handful of friends moved to Heath, although the town was suspicious of the Community at the former farm from the start.

The following year, Lavigne befriended Shattuck and the Community, endorsing both in a letter to then-Bishop Maguire. “I found a group of seven to eight families with great devotion to the mother of God and who, young and old, gather daily for prayer and fellowship,” wrote Lavigne in the letter, dated May 15, 1987. “One aspect of the group which strikes me with such positive sense, is their very evident strong Catholic culture with its attendant traditions, devotions, and family orientation—usually the product of close-knit, parochial education in a very Catholic neighborhood. In some respects, they remind me of what it was like growing up among similar folk as a child. I personally find this a healthy addition to our community where the faith of so many has so often been diluted.”

Lavigne continued, “From what I have gathered in conversations ,these new people have suffered a great deal from ostracization and bad experiences associated with the former ‘Apostolic Center’ in Somers, CT. Through their relocation here in Heath, they seek the peaceful, communal living that was evidently denied them in their former home. Like all of us when we are hurt, they are in need of compassion and healing. I can sympathize with them as I know what it means to be maligned without just cause.”

It’s unclear what Lavigne meant about his familiarity with being “maligned without just cause”—whether it was suffering persecution for his liberal stances on social issues throughout his career, or being suspected of molestation and murder in 1972, or being accused of sexual abuse in 1986, when allegations were brought to then auxiliary bishop the Most Rev. Leo O’Neil by a Northampton priest and a North Adams nun on behalf of alleged victim Paul R. Babeu (pictured below). The result of this accusation: the diocese ordered Lavigne to undergo a mental health evaluation and he was found to be no threat to minors.

In the spring of 1987 Lavigne began spending time with Joseph, Shattuck’s 15-year-old son, seeing the altar boy at least once a week, having him do odd jobs at the church, and offering him gifts, including paying for his orthodontic braces—which cost over $1,300, according to the victim’s police statement. Lavigne invited him several times to a house he built in Ashfield. “Curiously, on those occasions, although Father Lavigne would force me to sleep with him and try to snuggle, he was not aggressive about sexual contact,” he said. “It was at the rectory that he was most aggressive. In addition to the sexual contact at the rectory, Father Lavigne would frequently insist on washing me and cleaning my rectum, claiming that I did not know how to do it.”

Joseph Shattuck also related to police a story of sexual abuse on a trip to Arizona in late June, 1987, as well as during a vacation in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1988. “You’re not going to tell anyone about it, are you?” asked Lavigne at the end of the Arizona trip, according to Shattuck. “I shook my head to indicate no. Father Lavigne said that the ‘problem with the priesthood is that you can never be yourself. I like vacations because I can be myself again for a while. I rarely see anyone I know while I am on vacation.’”

In many respects, Shattuck’s claims are similar to those of many others allegedly molested by Lavigne, but the boy’s stories are by far the most extensive victim accounts in the police files that were unimpounded in 2004. They show a boy at the mercy of a manipulative, sometimes volatile man who constantly making excuses to touch Shattuck’s groin, toying with the boy’s body and with his emotions. When Shattuck resisted, he said Lavigne pouted—or sometimes blew up. “You’re no fun!” Shattuck remembered Lavigne screaming when the boy refused to go skinny dipping. “Friendship is based on trust, and if you don’t trust me, what are you doing here?”

Trust indeed. “Why do you have your hand on my dick?” Shattuck said he asked Lavigne this question one night in Arizona when he awoke next to the priest. He said Lavigne explained that he knew Shattuck was a bed-wetter, and “if you started to go, I was going to squeeze it…Go to the bathroom. I am tired of keeping my hand on you.”

He said Lavigne also insisted on spreading medication on his genitals when he noticed chafe marks from the boy’s wet bathing suit. Shattuck wanted to put the gel on himself, but he said the priest insisted on doing it, saying, “There is a right way and a wrong way to apply it.” He described Lavigne dabbing on a little of the medication, and sitting back and making conversation to prolong the moment, saying, according to Shattuck, “You are so trustful. If anyone knew what I was doing this to you, I would get fired. You’re not going to tell anyone are you?”

When Lavigne groped him, said Shattuck, the priest would defend his actions. “We’re all God’s children,” he remembered Lavigne saying. “We express our love in different ways,” said Lavigne, according to Shattuck. “This is my way. This is how I express it. There is nothing wrong with it.”

By Easter of that year, Shattuck stopped serving as an altar boy on a weekly basis—doing so only during holy weeks—trying to distance himself from Lavigne, but the priest “threatened to expose the fact that I had driven his car illegally and I had been drinking wine at the rectory, which he had freely given me.”

Joseph Shattuck asserted that the sexual assaults continued that fall on a three-day trip to Canada, but after that the youth had succeeded in limiting their contact to once a month. However, he felt obligated to let the relationship continue because Lavigne was still paying for his orthodontia expenses, and so the boy accompanied the priest on a three-day trip to California in the summer of 1989 after he “pressured me by acting as if his vacation would be ruined if I did not go with him.” During the trip, “I consciously tried to make a barrier between me and Father Lavigne with respect to his sexual conduct,” he said.

In turn, Lavigne seemed nervous about the possibility that the relationship had run its course. “I remember him saying at one point, ‘I enjoy your company. You’re the only one who knows how I feel. You’re the only one who knows how I truly feel.’”

But after that trip, Lavigne “knew that I wanted out of the relationship,” wrote Shattuck, and the priest sulked. He balked at continuing to pay for the boy’s braces. “He told me, ‘You call me, I won’t call you.’ However, in spite of saying that, he did call me constantly, and whenever I would answer he would say, ‘What’s the matter? You haven’t called in a while.’”

When the Holy Trinity Lay Community stopped attending services at St. Joseph’s in the fall of 1990 because of a difference of opinion in the way Mass should be conducted, “I used this fact as an excuse to tell Father Lavigne in a phone conversation that we should discontinue any visits,” he said. The priest protested, but then demanded that the boy return all the presents he had given him. When Joseph went to the rectory and gave the items back, Lavigne asked him, “Don’t you want to reconsider?” according to the boy. “He asked me in for a cup of coffee. I said no. I could see in his expression that he appeared to be concerned and fearful.”

When Charles Shattuck told Lavigne why the Community stopped attending Mass at the parish, the priest asked him what his son thought of the situation. “This puzzled my father, since I had nothing to do with the decision,” wrote Joseph. “I suspect that Father Lavigne was trying to discover whether I had told anything about his prior misconduct.”

During Joseph Shattuck’s last year in high school, “I was told by numerous classmates that they thought Father Lavigne was a homosexual and should be avoided.” But he kept all information about his own experience with the priest confidential. “I am emotionally scarred, and it is very hard for me to trust people,” he wrote in his statement on October 9, 1991. “I hate myself for allowing Father Lavigne to abuse me. When I could no longer keep it to myself, I finally told some of these details to my sister.” He didn’t want his sister to tell anyone, but she reminded him that the priest “could be doing this to other boys, or maybe even worse things, and he shouldn’t just let it lie,” she said.

So she told his parents. “I am afraid that this sexual abuse may have happened to other boys and is happening now,” wrote Shattuck. “I believe he abused my brother, who was only eight years old at the time.”

The boy’s account hardly paints a picture of a cult trying to “set up” a fine, upstanding priest. But Lavigne’s supporters sent a letter to parishioners asking them for financial help for Lavigne, with his legal expenses possibly running “to six figures,” according to the letter. “Our good friend, Father Lavigne, is presently suffering the most painful experience of his life,” read the letter in part. “Criminal accusations have left him crushed and deeply hurt. To defend his name and his life, he has retained the services of a prominent Boston attorney. The process of a competent defense requires a great deal of time, labor and money. A priest’s salary is hardly sufficient to defray these costs.”

Meanwhile, the wall of silence that had protected abusive priests for so long continued to crumble: on February 13, 1991, the Rev. Julian Pagacz, pastor of St. Valentine’s Polish National Church in Northampton, was charged with raping a 16-year-old girl from Poland and with indecently assaulting a 17-year-old Hampshire County girl.

February 15, 1992

On February 15, the “body count” in the Lavigne case grew: a Franklin County grand jury indicted Lavigne for allegedly molesting five minors, adding two more youths to the three he was accused of abusing.

That meant that the defense’s tactic of smearing the Holy Trinity Lay Community as a Lavigne-hating renegade Catholic sect would only go so far now.

As more accusations piled up before the trial, Lavigne behaved like a haunted, hunted man, according to 19-year-old Dana Cayo, one of his friends who later accused him of abuse. After he was arrested, Lavigne was a frequent guest of Cayo’s sister in Hawley, MA, and he would visit her in disguise, hide in the bathroom when other visitors came, and peer out the window nervously eyeing cars driving by, according to the youth. “I think he thought he was going to jail and he was scared,” said Cayo.

Like many of Lavigne’s victims, Cayo also spoke of a priest who was generous with gifts, buying him a 150-watt per channel amplifier, a stereo with speakers, and a rowing machine. “He told me once I should come to his defense, but I'd probably make a mistake and say something to really get him in trouble.”

Lavigne was in real trouble anyway, with or without Cayo’s help. He was arraigned on the additional charges on February 25, 1992—two counts of rape of a child under 16, three counts of indecent assault and battery on a child over 14, and seven counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14. The abuse reportedly occurred over a span of 12 years.

The charges that had been brought previously in Greenfield District Court, alleging two counts of rape but only one count of indecent assault and battery, were superseded by the latest indictments.

Among the spectators in at the Hampshire County Superior Court that day was Carl Croteau Sr.

“The people who have leveled charges against me know them to be untrue,” Lavigne read aloud from a prepared statement. “I just hope to one day be vindicated and return to my work at St. Joseph’s, where I belong…As most of you can imagine, this has been a gut-wrenching experience for me. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemies. I wouldn't wish it on my accusers.”

Stern called the case against his client a “witch hunt,” asserting that one alleged victim, as recently as December, “told us categorically that nothing had ever happened between himself and Father Lavigne, but changed his story after being put under known pressure.”

On the same day of Lavigne’s arraignment, the Rev. Gary A. LaMontagne became the third priest in the area within a year to be accused of sexual abuse. The 37-year-old was charged with rape of a woman church worker in the rectory of St. Mary's Church in Westfield. He also was charged with indecent assault and battery, and assault with intent to rape.

The LaMontagne arrest may have hammered another dent in the formerly impenetrable armor of the Springfield Diocese, but Lavigne’s supporters were not fazed. Almost 500 people, many of them parishioners of Lavigne’s 600-member parish, signed onto a legal brief backing his bid for separation of the five indictments he was facing. His lawyers had argued that a jury would tend to convict because it would rely on the fact that there were multiple allegations, rather than weighing the evidence fairly.

April 30, 1992

On April 30, Lavigne and his lawyers won two pre-trial motions. Franklin County Superior Court Judge John Moriarty ruled that the five indictments that Lavigne faced would be tried separately, and that the trials would take place in Newburyport, a small seacoast town on the far northeastern corner of the state.

Lavigne’s lawyers had argued that the media frenzy about the case—combined with coverage of the reopened investigation of the Daniel Croteau murder—would make it impossible to empanel an impartial jury in western Massachusetts or even central Massachusetts, because Springfield television stations are carried on cable systems throughout Worcester County. Stern had even subpoenaed videotapes of news broadcasts on Channels 22 and 40 to prove his point.

Stern had also asserted that because there were so many allegations against Lavigne, jurors would have been swayed against his client if all five cases were combined together. “There’s the ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’ phenomenon,” said Stern. “The jurors have to find fire. They won’t find it, but they’ll say, ‘There’s so much smoke—are so many allegations—this defendant must have done something.’”

Moriarty advised the lawyers involved to prepare for the first of five trials quickly, perhaps as soon as June. This was months earlier than both the prosecution and the defense said they were prepared to go to trial, but Moriarty was fed up with the delays.

May 9, 1992

Moriarty set a tentative date of June 22 for the first of five trials for Lavigne. Assistant District Attorney Ariane Vuono said that papers would be filed with the court soon indicating which indictment would be brought to trial first. Judge Guy Volterra was assigned to the case.

There was more legal maneuvering in the next month, with Volterra denying a prosecution motion to include past accusations against Lavigne in the trial. The prosecution had plenty of ammo: after Lavigne’s arrest, more than 19 people had come forward with sworn statements about being sexually abused by the priest. Volterra also rejected a defense motion to continue the case after Stern argued that the publicity surrounding the high profile James Porter case in eastern and southeastern Massachusetts would prejudice his client’s case. Porter, a former priest from North Attleboro, admitted to molesting dozens of children.

On June 22 the Republican newspaper reported that Lavigne spent the first four months after his arrest in virtual exile in eastern Massachusetts, but then began to visit old friends and parishioners at St. Mary’s parish in East Springfield and at St. Joseph’s in Shelburne Falls. According to his friends, he complained about being bored and missing the church life. They also said he was anxiously awaiting the trial.

June 22, 1992

During jury selection, Lavigne introduced himself to about 140 prospective jurors, 12 of whom were slated to determine whether or not he fondled a 12-year-old Greenfield boy in 1983 or 1984. The 20-year-old accuser filed the charges the previous October, saying that the priest molested him twice.

The jury selection at Essex Superior Court in Lawrence took all day, and lawyers prepared to present opening statements in Newburyport District Court the following day. However, the process went into a second, and then a third day as Andrea Longpre, a jury-selection expert from New York City, meticulously screened potential jurors.

June 26, 1992

Father Lavigne Pleads GuiltySupporters Surprised by Plea

The above June 26, 1992 headline in the Union News came as a surprise to most of the people following this case for the past eight months, especially since the priest had repeatedly voiced his innocence. And the plea, like his arrest on October 18, 1991, certainly shocked his flock.

On June 25, Lavigne supporter Michael Slowinski woke at 4 a.m. to the sound of thunder. “It was God knocking,” he said. After being roused by his heavenly alarm clock, the Colrain resident and his three kids drove 125 miles to Newburyport. Little did they know it was judgment day for their favorite priest, who would plead guilty to indecent assault and battery on a child.

“At first I was surprised, but in retrospect, I shouldn't have been,” said Slowinski, who had organized the petition supporting five separate trials. “I don't believe for one minute Father Lavigne is guilty of anything, but I think he saw the prospect of five trials, the emotional, not to mention the financial expense, and this was a way to put an end to this and to get on with the rest of his life. It makes sense. It’s over.”

Lavigne had called some of his supporters the previous night and informed them of his intention to plead guilty. When he entered the courtroom with his sister, her husband, and his nephew, he hugged several parishioners, and then began to weep.

“Why did Father Lavigne say he was guilty when he wasn’t guilty?” asked Slowinski’s young son.

“I’ll explain it to you on the ride home,” said Slowinski.

In return for Lavigne’s guilty pleas to one count of molesting a boy under the age of 14 and one count of molesting boy over the age of 14, the prosecution agreed to drop two child rape charges, six counts of molesting a child under the age of 14, and two counts of molesting a child over 14.

He received 10 years of probation for a suspended four- to six-year prison sentence in Cedar Junction in Walpole, and was sentenced to a concurrent 10-year probation sentence in lieu of a one-year jail sentence. Lavigne was also ordered to spend seven months to one year in psychiatric treatment in the Saint Luke Institute in Suitland, MD, as a term of probation. The facility counsels clergy who have drug, alcohol, or sexual abuse problems.

He was informed that he could no longer serve as a parish priest, must stay away from his victims, couldn’t live in a house where there is anyone under the age of 16, or work unsupervised with anyone under 16.

“I am sorry for the harm I have caused, and I ask for their forgiveness,” said Lavigne. “As far as other accusers: If I have harmed them in any way I ask for their forgiveness.” It was hardly a statement that suggested that he was innocent and that he was avoiding the “gut-wrenching” prospect of being falsely accused in five separate trials.

Bunny Croteau, Danny’s mother, said, “The decision wasn't as great as I’d like. At least he admitted some guilt.”

On September 25, 2009, I asked him to turn the clock back 12 years and recall what he was thinking right after the sentencing. I expected him to remember some kind of sense of redemption over the guilty plea. But there was none. His smile turned into a frown. He couldn’t believe the sentence. “It was a disappointment,” he said. “A slap in the face. An outrage.”

A woman, interviewed in 1992 by the Springfield Union News outside the courthouse who on the condition her name not be used, echoed Carl’s sentiments. She called Judge Volterra’s suspended sentence “a joke, a farce…If he wasn’t a priest, he’d be going to jail, not some country club.”

Volterra, on the other hand, blasted press coverage of the case, and opined that a conviction might have been overturned on appeal because the statute of limitations on the crimes had run out, but was extended retroactively by the state legislature.

Soon after Lavigne pled guilty, someone set fire to a car owned by a relative with whom he was living. The arson took place a day after a television reporter had told his neighbors about his presence in the eastern Massachusetts town in which he had relocated. “We all felt he was in danger,” said Stern. “He eventually moved.”

Lavigne seemed contrite after the sentencing, but he was much less so a few days later during an interview on Amherst radio station WFCR. Speaking against the advice of his attorney, he said he was writing a book about his legal troubles, blaming his predicament on his lifelong refusal to stick to the status quo. “And now I’m paying the price,” he said. “Very few people know who I am. They know me from working with me, or my sermons, or the jokes I tell. But very few people know and understand me. I’ve got a lot to say. It’s hard for me not to be able to tell my side of the story. But for now, I have to stay quiet. I’m a very, very trusting person, and I know if I go to the press with my story at this point, I could create problems for my defense. Being too trusting has always been one of my problems.”

Lavigne’s 1991-1992 ordeal, however, marked just the beginning of his dealings with the legal system. He was the target of dozens of lawsuits since the early 1990s. The investigation into the Daniel Croteau murder proceeded with starts and stops since 1991, with two rounds of DNA testing on blood found at the murder scene failing to match Lavigne’s DNA.

He still hasn’t told his side of the story, saying only “My silence is my salvation,” when reporters ask.

In February of 2002, when he was four months away from the end of his 10-year probation, Stern said of his notorious client, “He’s had a perfect and clean record for these 10 years. He was and is a very decent man. He was, in fact, a great priest.”

Indeed, Lavigne had found it difficult to pull away from the church life, despite being banned from serving as a parish priest. Five years prior to the end of his probation, the Rev. Bruce Teague (pictured below) noticed him hanging around St. Brigid Church in Amherst, trying to assist another priest who was hearing children’s confessions. Teague informed diocesan officials. When they didn’t respond to his complaint, he reported the situation to the Amherst Police, who issued a trespass order, threatening Lavigne with arrest if he showed up at the church again.

When Teague’s superiors in the Springfield diocese received a copy of the order, he was reprimanded and was eventually forced out of his position as pastor. His parishioners were furious. “Here you have a good priest who blew the whistle on a bad priest and it’s the good priest who gets punished,” said David Keenan, a former Amherst selectman.

Keenan and fellow parishioners were unsuccessful in their attempt to contact Bishop Thomas Dupre and demand Teague’s reinstatement.

“Father Teague was driven out of here because he protected children and dared to challenge the diocese about Lavigne while other priests were still socializing with Lavigne, and yet the diocese continues to coddle Father Lavigne, a convicted pedophile,” said Keenan. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”

At present, Lavigne lives in relative peace in his Chicopee home, his tranquility only occasionally interrupted by an intrepid reporter (at least once from the Boston Globe in 2003) and a police raid on his home in 2004 to search his computer equipment for evidence that he possibly wrote an anonymous letter and mailed it to himself—a letter that Lavigne concluded that it was written by Danny Croteau’s murderer.

In 2004, Lavigne was laicized—officially made a layman—by the Vatican, marking the end of the diocese’s financial assistance to him. The year before, Bishop Dupre (pictured below), who had been criticized for dragging his feet on seeking to defrock Lavigne, submitted his resignation and fled the diocese after allegations that he himself had abused two boys in the 1970s.

The repercussions from the Lavigne case in the early 1990s were particularly difficult on Charles Shattuck. Lavigne’s sympathizers continued to show their contempt for the Holy Trinity Lay Community and the Shattuck family after the priest’s guilty plea. “We were treated as outcasts. We received death threats over the phone. We discovered my wife’s brakes had been cut. My children were mentally and physically abused by some of their classmates at school. It was a nightmare. But we never regretted coming forward,” said Shattuck. A number of Lavigne’s supporters continued to jeer at Shattuck when they saw him in town even a decade later.

Despite what Lavigne did to his sons—including threatening them with a knife if they were to tell (see below), according to their later statements to police—Shattuck continued to pray for him. So did Carl Croteau. Shattuck hasn’t seen Lavigne again. Carl had a couple of chance encounters with the former priest, including sightings in downtown Springfield and at the Holyoke Mall. “He got out of there in a hurry when he saw me,” said Carl.

Lavigne told the Boston Globe in 2003 that he hasn’t contacted the Croteau family because Carl “is so bitter.” This is in direct contrast to the observation of Rev. Charles Gonet, the former St. Catherine pastor who Carl credits with bringing him back to the church. Carl and Bunny Croteau, according to Gonet, are “remarkably devoid of bitterness. The Lord is working in their lives.”

I never got the taste of bitterness when I talked to Carl Croteau. “It’s no use getting angry,” he said. “Hating is not productive.” Over the years, when the negative thoughts did get to him, and he found himself thinking about what he’d do to his son’s murderer, he would put the brakes on the negativity and say a prayer. “Then I’d say, ‘Darn it, now I have to go to confession for even thinking those thoughts,’” he said.

* * * * * * * *

Many wonder how Lavigne’s alleged victims could keep silent about the sordid details of their relationships with the priest—secrets that lasted in some cases for several decades. Why didn’t they just tell their parents—and the police—the minute something improper took place, or when the collective abuse became too much to bear? The answer isn’t a simple one. Generally speaking, for some victims of clergy abuse, the relationship often starts out with a mutual affection. That sentiment can cause mixed feelings when, as the abuse progresses, their emotional attachment conflicts with their realization that the situation is exploitative—and illegal.

For example, rewind to a time before Danny’s murder, to a scene in which Danny was playing street hockey with his friends. “We would be in the middle of a game, well before suppertime,” recalled Stephen Burnett, who served as an altar boy at St. Catherine and was one of Danny’s best buddies. “Everybody would be having a good time, all of a sudden I would see Danny crying and I would look up to Prouty Street, which was about five houses away, and see Father Lavigne parked in the big four-door car, but he wouldn’t come out of his car or park any closer, like he was trying to conceal his identity. Danny would say, ‘I have to go,” and he would run to the car crying with no further explanation. Danny told me that Father Lavigne was his uncle, and that’s why I never thought any more about it…I know that Father Lavigne did not bring Danny home to his (Danny’s) house as he went the opposite direction. They drove down towards Sunrise Terrace down Lumae Street.”

The incident reveals what appeared to be a close and complex relationship between Croteau and Lavigne. Although it was never proven that the priest was sexually abusing Danny, their behavior seems to fit the same pattern as the dynamics of Lavigne’s relationships with many of his alleged victims. Like Shattuck and others, Danny was given alcohol, according to witnesses. Lavigne also showered Danny with attention, and invited him to many overnight stays in which the two were alone.

Here was a kid who was growing up like any boy in Sixteen Acres. Playing street hockey and Wiffle Ball with his friends. Joining the weekly neighborhood volleyball game at the corner of Fenway Drive and Fairlawn Street. Being a typical boy—and then having the fun interrupted because of a seemingly bizarre friendship with a middle-aged man.

And, as Joseph Shattuck discovered, it’s not an easy relationship to get out of. Even when victims know what is occurring is wrong, many of them blame themselves. “There are some things that may seem like a sin, but really are not,” wrote Shattuck. “For instance, being a victim of sexual assault may make a person think they have done something wrong, but in reality they are innocent. I remember when I was 15 years of age, I had a good friend, and of all people, a priest! What a friend—one of the closest people to God. He would take me places like the movies, shopping, etc. Little did I know at the time, but his generosity would be used in such a way to make me feel like I owed him something.”

But by 1991 Joseph Shattuck had certainly gotten over his feeling of indebtedness. He had had enough of Lavigne’s antics, which backfired on the priest in a momentous way. Lavigne’s motives became more and more transparent, and his “affection” had turned into abuse, according to Shattuck’s account, so he was the first to blow the whistle on the priest and bring him to trial. The dirty little secret was exposed, and others came forward with similar stories, triggering the reopening of the Daniel Croteau murder investigation.

Carl Croteau believed that his son was also ready to tell him what was going on between him and his murderer, and that’s why he was killed. Most law enforcement officers involved in the investigation feel this was the scenario as well.

And most of them believe Danny’s killer was Lavigne, but there isn’t physical evidence to convict him. There was enough evidence of sexual abuse in other cases, however, to defrock him, and that was one of the Croteaus’ small victories.

Carl Croteau said that Lavigne’s laicizing was “welcome but long overdue. At least there is some justice. Hopefully there will be more in the future.”

Judgment day. It’s awaiting all of us. But Carl Croteau believed Danny’s murderer should face his accusers in THIS life—in a court of law.


A Springfield Republican editorial, published shortly after former District Attorney Matthew Ryan’s death on August 22, 2009, criticized the former D.A.’s handling of the Croteau murder. But that was of little consolation to Carl Croteau. At the time, he was pressing for an indictment, and he wanted Attorney General Martha Coakley to take over the case and appoint a special prosecutor—even with just circumstantial evidence. “People have gone to jail with much, much less evidence against them,” said Croteau.

And there are witnesses as well, who offered statements in 1991, 1993, and 2000. They told police they saw Lavigne the night of the murder either with Danny or near the murder scene. But why did they wait so long to come forward with their stories? “The D.A. is probably afraid Lavigne’s lawyer would rip them apart," said Croteau. Be that as it may, he thought it was worth a trial—in a criminal court, not a civil one.

Carl wasn’t interested in filing a civil suit, where the burden of proof would be much less. “When it’s a civil suit, it’s about money,” he said. “We don’t want the money. We want justice.”

Read parts 1, 2, and 3.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic work, you should get a Pulitzer for this.
As far as I know no one has put these facts together in such a convincing fashion, convincing enough for a conviction in my opinion. But apparently they still don't have the appetite for it.
Thank you for doing the work.
Richard Marsh

Hell's Acres said...

Thanks, Richard. But none of this would have been possible without the fine reporting of Tom Shea and Bill Zajac. They were in the trenches.

FromTheAcres said...

Perhaps Lavigne will someday allow himself to be interviewed. I can envision him leaving behind bread crumbs once he leaves this plane. The Suits will probably clean them up though.

Hell's Acres said...

I thought it was interesting that he said he was writing a book after he was sentenced...

ray said...

this is an extraordinary piece of work! you say in the blog notes that names and descriptions have been changed in the story. is that accurate for this story or for your other posts? thanks.

Hell's Acres said...

Hi Ray,

Thanks. I believe all the names in these Croteau posts are real, except for Stan Janek in Part 2.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic job on this story. Very enlightening , sad and eye opening. I'm not from the Acres but lived in Wilbraham from 68 thru 78. Went out to Colorado with another friend to visit a friend and stayed there. From reading your blog for awhile , I estimate I'm about 10 years older than you (Senior rates).

Having gone to Catholic school from K thru 4th grade in St Louis (mother was a staunch Catholic) , I can see how these kind of things can happen and it's scary. I had no sexual abuse , but was beat up by the nuns for just being a 7 or 8 year old kid. A bunch of control freak psychopaths. You were taught to obey and respect priests and nuns , they were always right. Catholic school was in the business of graduating "robots" as opposed to creative human beings. I'm sure most all the victims saw it as "this is the way it is , it must be right" at least for awhile. Very sad. Not sure if Lavigne could commit murder , but with the explosive temper , could be.

Keep up the great work on the blog. Love a lot of the nostalgia being a 'chaug graduate.

Hell's Acres said...

Hey Chaug guy,

Thanks. I had some bad experiences with nuns was well, but ultimately I came back to the church because, much like Carl and Bunny Croteau, I finally refused to let a few people come between me and my faith. The couple has been an inspiration to me, and it's too bad they died without justice being served.

Anonymous said...

It is to bad they didn't live to see justice done. From the looks of things it doesn't appear we will ever see any.

None the less great job on the story.

Chaug guy

FromTheAcres said...

Check out obituaries for Joseph Roy Legere and you'll find his mom's name was Sylvia Leblanche. His supposed father is named Frederic DesBarres. Check out obituaries for Sister Marie Louis Bertrand and you'll find her real name is Geraldine M. Labelle. The name changes are signs of intelligence at work. There's more to the origins of these characters than just being sickos. They're an organized network. My head hurts for now

Hell's Acres said...

Wow, his mother was married four times.

I believe offshoots of Legere's group were in Monson and on Garland Street in Springfield. There was something about a shrine to a weeping Mary statue that the diocese had to disavow.

Agawamian said...

Terrific series, HA. It was a great read about a dark and complicated topic. You pulled together a few people whom I've not seen connected before this piece. It's been obvious to me that Lavigne killed that boy, and that a reluctance within the law enforcement community (from the DA own down to local police) to thoroughly investigate a priest allowed him to get away with it. Then again, the scout-leader-as-rapist theory is also compelling. At any rate, I'd like to see a sex ring comprising regular people be allowed to exist for so long as an open secret.

During the mid-1980s, our parish's priests were removed in the middle of the night, for what we later found out was sexual abuse. My parents say that they were warned by other parents in the parish to keep their kids far away from those priests. It shows the reverence people gave to priests then (or that generation of people still gave/give to priests,) because if someone in my church warned me in that way--well, I would just stop going there, you know?

Then later in the early 1990s, a deacon was removed for sexual abuse as well. As far as I know, he was never prosecuted.

So, when the Lavigne case surfaced in 1991, it was like, oh THIS again. And then, 10 years later, when I was living in Boston, I was shocked that people were so shocked when all the abuse allegations surfaced. No matter how many allegations of abuse and rape come out, though, no diocese seems to have learned how to effectively deal with the fallout.

Hell's Acres said...

Hey Agawamian,

What I think is really inexcusable is how the Springfield Diocese played hardball with the victims from the start.

Agawamian said...

IIRC, there was a 22 News segment not too long ago about an abuse survivor who was having trouble getting therapy bills reimbursed by the Springfield Diocese (per a legal settlement.) So, it's STILL going on.

I assume you remember the Boston Archdiocese's antics when abuse allegations first came to light. I especially remember a bishop suggesting that the child was the seducer in one rape case. That's when I kind of lost it with the Catholic Church.

Hell's Acres said...

Yes, and one of the main differences between Springfield and Boston was the paper trail. Boston handed over its files; Springfield destroyed its records.

Agawamian said...

Great Bishop Weldon knew how to protect his priests.

KAP said...

Outstanding series.There were many details of this case I had not heard about. I grew up in the Acres on Mallowhill and attended St Catherine's, we knew the Croteau family from church. I was only five when Danny was murdered but it was something I would overhear my family and neighbors talking about over the years. If you lived in the Acres, went to St Catherine's or knew the Croteau's it was always there in the background. I used to sit in church and as my mind wandered I would look at the priests and wonder what sinister things they were up to or what they knew and kept secret about Danny. I pray someday justice will be served but I'm not holding my breath.

On another note, I had a friend whose brother landed a teaching job at OLSH right out of college. Shortly after decided to become a priest, went to the Seminary in Boston and was eventually ordained in the early 80's. He would tell us stories of insane sex parties in Boston and Springfield, where any fetish or desire you could imagine be accommodated. He later eluded to a sex ring that some priests and he claimed local government officials were involved in. He eventually left the priesthood but to my knowledge never voiced his concerns.

Hell's Acres said...

Yes, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Too bad he never blew the whistle. Did he mean Springfield government officials?

The Boston ring, involving Fr. John Geoghan, also operated in Worcester: http://www.bishop-accountability.org/news3/2002_07_24_Shaw_SuitClaims.htm