Murder Haunts Catholic Church
Charges Of Sexual Abuse Reopens An Old Murder Investigation
May 24, 2005
From the link: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/murder-haunts-catholic-church/
File photo / The RepublicanCarl and Bernice Croteau stand in front of a portrait of their murdered son, Danny, in their Springfield home in this 2003 photo.
Danny Croteau, a 13-year-old altar boy from Springfield, Mass., was murdered — a murder most foul. His body was found bloodied, battered and floating in a river.
A suspect was identified almost immediately. It was someone who knew Danny and his family well. But that suspect was never arrested, and still lives only a few miles away.
What makes all of this remarkable is that Croteau’s murder happened 33 years ago. Now, an investigation has been re-opened into the case that has tortured Springfield, its police force, and Danny’s parents ever since. reports.
“I still hear Danny hailing for help. It’s horrible,” says Danny’s mother, Bunny. She and Danny’s father, Carl, are haunted by their son’s murder.
“It’s just been a nightmare,” says Carl Croteau.
The Croteaus had seven children, including five boys. Danny was their youngest son.
“What did the police tell you when they first came,” asks Rather.
“Well, they said that Danny had been in trouble,” recalls Carl Croteau. “And I say, ‘What do you mean … did he do something wrong?’ And they said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘It’s worse than that.’ He says, ‘We found him, murdered and floating in the Chicopee River.'”
The parents couldn’t imagine who would murder their son, and neither could police. Former State Det. Ed Harrington, who helped investigate the case, took 60 Minutes Wednesday to the spot where Danny’s body was found.
“Adjacent to the body was a rock that we believe was used to smash his head in,” says Harrington, who believes that was the murder instrument.
As soon as they heard the awful news, the Croteaus, devout Roman Catholics, turned to their parish priest, Father Richard Lavigne. Danny had been an altar boy for Father Lavigne.
“He used to come over to the house three, four times a week,” says Carl Croteau. “Wasn’t a weekend passed that Danny wouldn’t be with him.”
Lavigne identified Danny’s body to police and participated in the funeral Mass. But soon after Danny’s burial, the man who had been the family’s comfort and support became something else: a suspect.
“Within five to seven days, information had been developed that a family friend, Richard Lavigne, who was a parish priest, might be involved,” says Harrington.
Was he the only suspect? “The only one that I was ever aware of,” says Harrington. “That was ever investigated.”
Harrington cites circumstantial evidence against Lavigne, including the fact that Lavigne denied ever having been alone with Danny. A police report said officers quickly learned that “Danny and Father Lavigne were often alone.” The report also said the priest asked questions that police believed “were consistent with those that are often asked by the perpetrator of a crime.” But with no witnesses and no firm physical evidence, the district attorney at the time chose not to prosecute Lavigne. Harrington concurred.
“The fear was that if we tried to bring it to trial, we wouldn’t have enough evidence and lose it,” says Harrington. “And then, of course, we’d never be able to bring him to trial again.”
“So you were convinced he did it, but you were convinced you couldn’t get a conviction?” asks Rather.
“Correct,” says Harrington.
At the time, Lavigne insisted he was innocent and still does. While he refused to speak on camera, his lawyers sent 60 Minutes Wednesday a letter listing powerful, concrete evidence of his own, including “the tire tread marks left at the scene of the crime…did not match the tires on Richard Lavigne’s car or his family’s car.” They also point out that a DNA analysis of “blood found at the crime scene…was not Richard Lavigne’s blood.”
And at the time of the crime, Lavigne was a respected figure in the community. Carl Croteau says the district attorney told him, “‘Where could I get 12 jurors to convict a Catholic priest?'”
For two decades after Danny’s murder, Lavigne continued to work quietly in the diocese of Springfield until 1991. That’s when men began coming forward to charge that Lavigne had sexually molested them when they were boys. First, a group of five men made the charges. Later, others followed, 43 in all.
Danny’s friends, Steve Block and Tom Martin, claimed that the parish priest had a motive for the murder, to hide a dark secret that Danny was threatening to tell.
“He told me that he hated Father Lavigne and he hurt him,” says Martin. “And I knew exactly what that meant.”
What that meant, Martin charges, was that Lavigne was sexually abusing Danny, just as he had molested Martin and other boys at the church. “He forced me into oral sex on him twice,” says Martin, when he was 8.
“He actually invited me over to the rectory to make breakfast. And at that point is when he took the initiative to move me into another room, sexually assault me,” adds Block, who says this happened when he was 12. “And told me ‘Christ suffered and so should I?’ Things like that.”
Were they aware that there were other boys being abused?
“The only time that I ever spoke about it was with Steven, and the only thing we ever said to each other was ‘Is he doing the same thing to you?'” says Martin. “And the only other person that ever said anything to me about Father Lavigne was Danny Croteau.”
Danny’s parents say that soon after the murder, three of their other sons admitted that Lavigne had sexually molested them, too. The family did not go public with those allegations at the time. But when some of the other victims did go public years later, Lavigne was charged with criminal sexual abuse. At first, he claimed innocence.
But then, he changed his plea to guilty when he was offered a deal: admit to molesting two boys in return for no jail time, no new prosecutions for sex crimes committed earlier, and 10 years probation, including treatment at Saint Luke’s in Maryland, a hospital specializing in therapy for pedophile priests.
After seven months there, Lavigne returned to the Springfield diocese, where the diocese wrote: “Lavigne would no longer be able to function nor present himself as a priest.” But he was not formally defrocked, despite being listed as a Level 3 sex offender, and designated a high risk to re-offend. He continued to be paid a monthly salary of over $1,000 plus benefits, even as the diocese paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits filed by his abuse victims.
“You know, I was an altar boy myself, and I never had an inkling that a priest would ever abuse anybody, never mind murder anybody,” says Carl Croteau.
The molestation case caused police to look into Danny’s murder again, but they said they still didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges against Lavigne. That didn’t end the outrage in the community, though.
Springfield resident Warren Mason wanted the diocese to take action: “I’m the father of three young, healthy boys. And to see that, I’d look at them and I’d say, ‘How could somebody do this to an innocent child?'”
In 2002, Mason took his concerns to his local parish, St. Michael’s, located less than five miles from Lavigne’s old church. To his surprise, he found a receptive audience.
“Molestation of children is evil and there’s no other name for it,” says Sister Mary McGeer. “When we cover it up, it’s evil. When people cover it up, the people that are covering it up are evil.”
Then, Mason met with the Rev. James Scahill, pastor of St. Michael’s, and made a radical proposal: that the congregation withhold from the Springfield diocese the 6 percent contribution that every parish is required to send up to its bishop, until and unless Father Lavigne was defrocked and removed from the diocese payroll.
“I told him at that meeting that as long as Father Richard Lavigne was receiving any sustenance from the diocese, I wouldn’t give any money to the church, and I flippantly said, ‘Hold back the 6 percent,'” says Mason. “And father looked like he was gonna pass out about that point in time.”
Even so, Scahill agreed to submit that ultimatum to the head of the Springfield diocese, Bishop Thomas Dupre. The bishop’s spokesman characterizes the bishop’s reaction as “disappointed.”
Scahill describes him as furious: “He said what? And I told him again. And he said, ‘You cannot do that.’ He says, ‘There’s no conversation relative to this matter. You absolutely cannot do that.'”
Scahill says that Dupre threatened to suspend him. And McGeer says other local priests treated him as a traitor.
Why isn’t there widespread support? “There’s a very strong silence that goes on in that priesthood,” says McGeer. “As a result, priests are not breaking that silence. They’re staying together with it.”
“The church must become accountable. The church must change,” says Scahill, who spread the message by speaking out for victims of sexual abuse and against Dupre. McGeer encouraged church members to support their cause. Mason bombarded newspapers with letters demanding that the bishop defrock Lavigne.
In January 2003, the Springfield diocese initiated procedures to remove Lavigne. Then in October 2003, Scahill received a phone call from a concerned mother. She had been following the news about his battles with the bishop, and she had something Scahill needed to know.
“[She said] that her son and one of his friends had been abused by Bishop Dupre,” says Scahill.
Scahill met the two men, who repeated the charges. Then reporter Bill Zajac of the Springfield Republic got wind of the allegations. And in February 2004, he asked Dupre to respond.
“The next morning, I woke up and then I heard the news that the bishop had resigned his position and he had checked himself into a hospital the night before,” says Zajac.
Seven months later, Dupre was indicted for statutory rape, the first U.S. Roman Catholic bishop to be charged with sexual abuse. He pleaded not guilty, and the charges were later dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.
Shortly before Dupre’s resignation, Lavigne was defrocked and soon afterward his financial support ended. The diocese told 60 Minutes Wednesday the public pressure had nothing to do with it. But McGeer disagrees: “I do believe Richard Lavigne would still be a priest and that Thomas Dupre would still be the bishop in Springfield, had we not taken some action.”
Last summer, Scahill and his congregation celebrated their victory. “We have the belief that what we have done at St. Michael’s has made children safer for all times and victims have been given voice to begin their healing,” says Scahill.
The investigation into Danny Croteau’s murder was reopened two years ago, but some detectives fear that too much time has passed, that not enough new evidence can be found to bring charges. And Lavigne – no longer Father Lavigne — still lives in Springfield. And Carl and Bunny Croteau still attend Catholic Mass every day.
That Dupre is still a Catholic bishop in good standing 15 months after his resignation, his whereabouts unknown, is both troubling and disgraceful. Have the Croteau’s thought about leaving the church?
“No,” says Bunny Croteau.
“You’re convinced that a priest killed one of your sons. He sexually abused three others. The hierarchy of the church covered it up in a conspiracy. You’re convinced,” says Rather. “But you stick in. You stay in.”
“They can’t take God away from us,” says Bunny Croteau. “That’s the one thing they can’t have.”