Category Archives: Father Richard R. Lavigne

Murder Haunts Catholic Church Charges Of Sexual Abuse Reopens An Old Murder Investigation

Murder Haunts Catholic Church

Charges Of Sexual Abuse Reopens An Old Murder Investigation

Correspondent Rebecca Leung

May 24, 2005

From the link:

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.

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.”

Court documents reveal altar boy’s ordeal

Court documents reveal altar boy’s ordeal

By The Republican Newsroom  
on February 21, 2008 at 8:15 PM, updated February 21, 2008 at 8:32 PM

From the link:

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.

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.

SPRINGFIELD – About a week before Daniel Croteau’s lifeless body was recovered under a bridge in 1972, he returned home listless and nauseous from an overnight visit with his parish priest.

According to a statement his mother gave to police that year, the 13-year-old had left his house, smartly dressed, one night in April.

“He wore his knit shirt, tie, and herringbone jacket with a fur collar. He said that he was going to go someplace with Father Lavigne,” the statement by Bernice Croteau, taken on Aug. 7, 1972, reads. “That was the last we heard of him that evening until we received a call from Father (Richard) Lavigne, it was around 11:30 p.m. … and the father asked me if (Danny) could stay over that night.”

The statement was among 115 pages of documents released by the Hampden County district attorney’s office this week after a judge ordered the files unsealed. The documents include an overture to investigators from an astrologer, witness statements recounting dream visions and dying wishes, a jailhouse interview with a convicted priest from California, and wrenching accounts of Daniel Croteau’s allegedly volatile relationship with Lavigne.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini that the files be opened came in a civil dispute between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield and its insurance carriers, which are resisting paying for settlements with victims of clergy abuse – many of whom say that Lavigne molested them.

The paperwork includes haunting images through witness statements spanning the 30 years since Croteau was killed and as law enforcement officials pursued a thus-far fruitless search for the boy’s killer.

The only suspect ever publicly identified was Lavigne, a now-defrocked priest, whom family members and friends said had a close and complicated relationship with Danny Croteau.

Lawyers for Lavigne have vehemently denied that their client was involved, even sending out a press release earlier this year entitled: “Richard Lavigne did not murder Daniel Croteau.”

The morning after Danny Croteau’s overnight stay with Lavigne in April 1972, Bernice “Bunny” Croteau told police, her son returned home, saying he felt ill.

“He didn’t say too much … he just laid around for a while and complained about his stomach … Towards evening he told me he had vomited several times,” the statement reads.

Several witnesses, including one who said he was Danny Croteau’s best friend, told police that Lavigne tried to ply them with liquor. He gave a statement in 1991, when Lavigne was under investigation for molesting boys in Franklin County.

“After the Mass, Father Lavigne would always offer us wine in the chalice … Father Lavigne would joke around a little and encourage us to drink the wine. I remember this because I didn’t like the wine, but Danny seemed to,” a witness, whose name was redacted from the statement, told police.

Investigators have said that Croteau’s alcohol blood level was .21, twice the legal limit, at the time of his death.

The witness also said that he and Croteau were altar boys for Lavigne at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Sixteen Acres.

“I found it strange that the other two priests never watched us change, but Father Lavigne always did,” the witness said. “In fact, he helped us by assisting us pull off the robes. … We thought Father Lavigne was a cool guy. He didn’t act like a priest. He acted like a playboy, very carefree and never serious outside the church.”

He added that he often spied Lavigne watching their street hockey games from a parked car.

“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. This would happen alot (sic) and Danny was with Father Lavigne alot (sic),” the statement reads.

Lavigne pleaded guilty in 1992 to two counts of molesting male parishioners. He was sentenced to 10 years’ probation; Lavigne was defrocked in 2005 after abuse accusations against him persisted and the diocese paid out millions to settle claims against him and other clerics.

The newly released documents show that many witnesses who claimed they had information about the Croteau killing came forward in the early 1990s. They included a woman whose recollections were memorialized in a spidery, handwritten statement in 1992.

She claims that Croteau appeared at her door in Chicopee one cold and windy night, shortly before he was killed.

“He was very polite and he asked me if he could use the phone to call father in Williamansette (sic). He refused a ride he said father would be right there,” said the witness, whose name also was blacked out in the documents. “I didn’t hear the conversation. It wasn’t long before he hung up then went outside. I turned the lights off then went to work.”

In the statement, dated Dec. 1, 1992, the witness said she told police of the encounter 30 years earlier, when she saw Croteau’s picture on the news after his body was found.

The teen was found face-down on the banks of the Chicopee River on April 15, 1972. He had been bludgeoned to death.

The records unsealed after Agostini’s order show Lavigne told certain people he was a suspect in the case, including a fellow priest who gave a statement to police in 1993.

“He was clearly looking for information about what was being said in Chicopee because we shared neighboring parishes,” the unnamed priest said of a flurry of telephone calls from Lavigne in the days following Croteau’s funeral. “(Another priest) also told me that he had a lot of communication with Father Lavigne during this whole time and that is what he agreed with me that (Lavigne) could be having a breakdown.”

Later in the same statement, the priest said, “(We) were confused as to whether or not Father Lavigne was involved in the murder because Father Lavigne had such conflict with members of the Springfield Police Department but we were both very uncertain, unclear and incapable of believing that any priest would be involved in a murder.”

Lawyers for Lavigne have repeatedly maintained that Lavigne passed the second of two lie detector tests administered by police; tire tracks at the scene did not match the tread on the tires of Lavigne’s Ford Mustang; DNA evidence found at the scene did not conclusively link Lavigne; and called into question the credibility and timing of certain witness statements.

Indeed, these records show overtures from the public included offers of help from an astrologer and statements from a woman who told police she resurrected images of Lavigne at the murder scene through hypnosis.

One individual told police in 2004 that she had spotted a boy in a yellow raincoat lying beneath the bridge where Croteau’s body was found.

“He was laying on his stomach with both arms bent over his head on the side. I could only see a left leg, which was bent. He looked like he was asleep. I saw a priest standing over him,” the woman told police of her reported sighting on April 12, 1972. “I remarked to my father that the kid must have fallen asleep and the priest was trying to wake him up. My father commented that if he was tired, the priest should have taken him home. I thought no more of it.”

The four-page statement recounts the witness’s encounters with the then-bishop, the Most Rev. Christopher J. Weldon, who is now dead, and then-District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan Jr.

She told police that Weldon threatened to excommunicate her father from the church. Ryan said there was no evidence to support her claim, according to her statement, and told her that he could arrest her for filing a false report if she pursued her claims.

The statement says it was her father’s dying wish that she remain quiet on what she has reported seeing. The final paragraph reads:

“That’s it. I’ll have to live with the guilt that I didn’t come forward sooner, but I was honoring a promise to my father.”

Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett, who fought the release of these files and others related to the Croteau case, was unavailable to discuss the documents today. However, a spokeswoman for him said he would answer questions during a press conference tomorrow.

Before the insurance companies sought the release of these records, The Republican fought a year-long court battle to open 2,000 pages of files related to the Croteau case.

Bernice Croteau’s statement to Chicopee police also details conversations she and her husband had with Lavigne on the night her son disappeared.

“At about 10:30 p.m. I spoke to Father Lavigne on the telephone. I don’t remember if I called him or if he had called me. I told him that (Danny) hadn’t arrived home, and asked if he had heard or had seen him and he said that he didn’t see him,” she told police on Aug. 7, 1972.

She also went to the home of her son’s scoutmaster to see if Danny was there, she said.

“I went home and when I arrived home, my husband told me that he received a call from Father Lavigne, that Father Lavigne asked if (Danny) had been found yet, and when my husband answered no, there was silence at the other end of the line.”

Croteau’s body was recovered the next morning, with a bloody stone, the apparent murder weapon, lying a few feet away.

Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski, who represents clergy abuse victims as well as Bernice and Carl E. Croteau, Danny’s parents, said the documents raise new questions about the altar boy’s death.

“There is a significant amount of circumstantial evidence in these statements, though I have yet to see a smoking gun,” Stobierski said. “I’m sure the question for the district attorney is: is there enough circumstantial evidence to gain a conviction.”

DANNY’S STORY | DEATH OF AN ALTAR BOY A priest, a boy, a mystery


A priest, a boy, a mystery

The nightmares are frequent and always end the same way: Bunny Croteau wakes up in a cold sweat, swinging clenched fists, crying for her son.

“Danny is yelling for help,” she says, staring out the window of her living room, “and I can’t get to him.”

Danny Croteau was 13 when they found his body, floating face down in the Chicopee River, a few miles from his Springfield home. That was 31 years ago. But for Bernice “Bunny” Croteau and her husband, Carl, the anger and frustration only grow as the years pass.

Living with the nagging sense that they didn’t do enough to protect their youngest son is bad enough. Knowing that the man they believe killed him is still out there, living in retirement only a few miles away, haunts them. Knowing that that man remains a priest, paid by their diocese, drives them crazy.

“The world’s upside down, and there is no justice,” Bunny says, looking over to her husband, who nods.

It is not only the Croteaus who believe that the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne, a convicted child molester, murdered their son in 1972, crushing his skull with a rock and dumping his body in the river. Just about every law enforcement official who worked on the case believes Lavigne did it.

To this day, the case remains open, and the priest is, as he has been for three decades, the only suspect, according to law enforcement sources.

“What really bothers me and Bunny is that whatever police we talk to, they say, `We know who it is,’ but they can’t charge him,” Carl says. While police and prosecutors long ago assembled a circumstantial case against Lavigne, the lack of physical evidence and of witnesses placing him with Danny the night of the murder have made authorities reluctant to charge him. DNA testing of blood found at the scene was inconclusive. Lavigne’s lawyer, Max Stern, is adamant that his client is innocent.

“He didn’t do it,” Stern says.

But while the question of who killed Danny Croteau is unanswered — and may never be answered — more certain is that the Diocese of Springfield knew Lavigne was a suspect, and knew of sexual abuse complaints against him, and yet allowed him access as a priest to children for 20 years after the murder.

During that time, according to police who have investigated him and the nearly 40 people who have filed lawsuits against him, Lavigne abused scores of children. In 1992 he was convicted of fondling two boys and sentenced to probation. In 1994 the diocese paid $1.4 million to settle claims brought by 17 people who said Lavigne abused them, and Lavigne now faces another 20 claims. The Massachusetts Sex Offenders Registry Board classified Lavigne as a Level 3 offender, meaning he is deemed a high risk to reoffend.

He remains, for many in heavily Catholic western Massachusetts, the living symbol of the clergy abuse crisis, much as John Geoghan was in Boston.

One difference: Lavigne is still a priest, though the Springfield Diocese removed him from active service in 1991 and earlier this year began the process of defrocking him. Another: Lavigne has never gone to jail.

More than a lack of physical evidence has kept Lavigne a free man. He has been the beneficiary of cultural attitudes that made many, including the Croteaus at first, refuse to believe a priest was capable of such abhorrent acts.

Law enforcement, especially in the early going, was likewise deferential. Prosecutors shrank from seeking warrants to search his family home and the parish rectory. Even after Lavigne pleaded guilty to the two abuse counts, the judge in the case declined to send him to jail, saying the charges were overblown.

Today, the murder case is still under active investigation, Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett says. A new series of DNA tests has been ordered.

And there is a corps of police officers who refuse to give up on trying to put Lavigne in jail, if not for Danny Croteau’s murder, then for sexual abuse. Lavigne is a suspect in an ongoing investigation into the sexual assault of a boy in the 1990s, according to people familiar with that investigation.

As police and prosecutors slowly proceed, Bunny and Carl Croteau are left to reflect on the tragedy that upended their family life forever but, remarkably, did not steal their faith.

Just 7 miles away from the Croteau home, Richard Lavigne lives on a quiet street in Chicopee, with his elderly mother, supported by a $1,030 monthly check from the diocese.

One recent afternoon, Lavigne was putting a fresh coat of white paint on the house. At 62, he is fit and trim, though friends say he has a heart condition. He told a Globe reporter he wanted to tell his side of the story but had been advised over the years not to.

“My silence,” he said, “has been my salvation.”

`He said he wanted to help us’ Carl and Bunny Croteau have been married for 51 years. They have lived in the same brick ranch house in the Sixteen Acres section of Springfield for 38 years. They raised seven children, five boys, then two girls. Danny was the youngest boy.

A painting of Danny, inspired by his seventh-grade school photograph, has hung in the same spot in the living room for 31 years. Wedged behind the framed portrait is a pair of withered palms from Palm Sunday last April. On the other side of the living room is a lamp Bunny made in the shape of Huckleberry Finn — the mischievous, adventurous character reminds her so much of her lost son.

His parents remember Danny as a bright, loquacious boy with freckles and strawberry blonde hair who loved to go fishing. He had a generous side. He used to help an elderly woman in the neighborhood, fetching her mail, raking her lawn, doing errands.

“She’d give him milk and cookies,” his mother says. “That’s all he wanted.”

Sometimes, when she longs to hear his voice, Bunny pulls out a small RCA boombox and pops in a cassette. It is a tape the family made, a few months before Danny was murdered. At one point Danny can be heard talking about a religious medal his mother had given him. Danny had already decided whom he would give the medal to.

“Father Lavigne will love the medal,” Danny said.

Five years earlier, after he was assigned to their parish, St. Catherine of Siena, Lavigne arrived on the Croteau doorstep.

“He just popped up here all of a sudden,” Bunny says. “We didn’t invite him. . . . He said he wanted to help us.”

Carl, who was often working two or three jobs at a time, says they were grateful for the help.

“He knew we had a big family,” Carl says. “Things were tough. I’d get laid off sometimes. Lavigne would raid the freezer at the rectory and bring us steak or a roast. He offered to look after the kids, to baby-sit them.”

All five of the Croteau boys served as altar boys at St. Catherine’s. Police say Lavigne worked to gain their trust. Sleepovers at the rectory became common for some of the boys. Lavigne also had some stay with him at his parents’ Chicopee home. One day, 14-year-old Joe Croteau came home hung over after a sleepover. Lavigne told Carl that Joe had gotten into his parents’ liquor cabinet without his knowing.

“Like a fool, I chastised Joe,” Carl says.

Lavigne was, from the start, a charismatic and controversial figure at St. Catherine’s and, later, at St. Mary’s, another local parish. He would roar at anyone who walked in late for Mass. He spoke out against the Vietnam War. In an area where military service was a proud tradition, his views made some parishoners uncomfortable.

But he flattered others with attention. It was a time and a place where having a priest come to dinner or take the children for sleepovers was a status symbol.

On Friday, April 14, 1972, the last day Danny was seen alive, he came home from school and helped his mother put a rug down. Sometime between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., she said, he went out to play. She never saw him again.

When Danny didn’t come home that night, his parents began calling around. Bunny called Lavigne, but he said he hadn’t seen Danny. As the hours passed, Bunny and Carl began to panic. At 2:11 a.m., they reported Danny missing to the police. At 8:25 a.m., a fisherman saw Danny’s body floating in the Chicopee River, under the Robinson Bridge, near the Springfield line. Inside the pocket of the boy’s suede jacket police found his blue school tie and a yellow exam paper.

Carl rushed home from work when he got the call. The police there told him he should go to the Chicopee police station. On the way, he stopped at the rectory to tell Lavigne.

“They found Danny murdered,” Carl blurted out, trying to control his emotions.

Lavigne betrayed none of his own, according to Carl. “Do you want me to come along?” the priest asked. Carl was glad for the company.

The Chicopee police station was buzzing. Carl met the detectives who would hunt his son’s killer. After police told Carl that Danny had been taken to a nearby funeral home, Lavigne offered to identify the body. Carl thanked Lavigne, relieved he didn’t have to face that horror himself.

Suspicions raised The day after Danny’s body was found, Chicopee Police Lieutenant Edmund Radwanski was out studying the crime scene when he noticed Lavigne, walking along the riverbank. He arranged to interview the priest the next day.

In his official report on their conversation, Radwanski noted that Lavigne asked him two questions that he and other investigators considered strange — and possibly incriminating.

“If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it?” Lavigne asked, according to the report.

How could the priest have known to ask, investigators wondered. There had been, to that point, no public disclosure about how Danny had been killed. It would be several weeks, in fact, before police told the Croteaus that, based on the wounds, they believed Danny had been killed by a left-handed assailant wielding a stone. Lavigne is left-handed.

Lavigne also stirred Radwanski’s suspicions when he asked about the tire-track prints taken by police at the scene.

“In such a popular hangout with so many cars and footprints,” the priest wondered, “how can the prints you have be of any help?”

The priest, in his session with Radwanski, also gave the first of several inconsistent statements about his relationship with Danny.

Lavigne told Radwanski that whenever he took Danny anywhere, it had always been “with his brothers or a gang of kids.” Within days of the murder, however, police learned from the Croteaus that Lavigne, in fact, had regularly been alone with Danny.

A Chicopee woman who lived near Lavigne’s parents’ home told police that on April 7, a week before he disappeared, Danny had appeared at her door at 10:30 p.m., saying he was lost and asking to use her phone to call Father Lavigne. Five minutes later, a maroon Ford Mustang like the one driven by Lavigne pulled up and picked Danny up. When questioned about the woman’s account, Lavigne admitted to Radwanski that he had picked up Danny and taken him, alone, to his parents’ house in the Aldenville section of Chicopee, where Danny spent the night.

Bunny Croteau told police that Danny had arrived home on the morning of April 8, said he felt ill, and later threw up repeatedly. Police believe Danny had been given alcohol by Lavigne the night before, but when questioned after the murder, Lavigne denied it. The priest did, however, acknowledge that Danny might have gotten into his parents’ liquor cabinet.

Autopsy tests showed that Danny was drunk when he was killed. His father said police told him his son’s blood alcohol content was nearly double the level that would have rendered him legally intoxicated. Police say Lavigne’s pattern was to ply boys with alcohol before abusing them.

Bunny’s sister Betty flew in from California for the funeral. Lavigne greeted her at the Croteau home. He told her that he had identified the body, and that it was important to convince Carl and Bunny to keep the casket closed for the wake. Danny’s face was mangled, Lavigne told Betty, and his mother shouldn’t see him that way. Betty did as instructed by the priest.

After the funeral, State Police Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, the lead investigator on the case, came by the house to offer his sympathies and pose some questions. He asked the Croteaus why they kept the casket closed. When they explained, the veteran officer shook his head. Danny’s face wasn’t disfigured at all. The wounds were to the back of his head.

The family was baffled by Lavigne’s behavior at the time, but now they have a theory.

“I think Lavigne couldn’t bear to look at Danny’s face again,” Carl Croteau says.

Fitzgibbon then talked to each of Danny’s brothers separately in one of the bedrooms, while Carl and Bunny waited in the living room. Then he told the couple what he had learned: Their sons said Lavigne had sexually abused some of them. At first, Carl and Bunny couldn’t believe it. To this day, they say, they haven’t had a heart-to-heart with any of their sons about Lavigne. It is a subject the family just can’t talk about.

“Our boys blame themselves for Danny’s death,” Carl says. “It haunts them. It haunts us.”

In 1996 Joseph Croteau settled a lawsuit against the diocese for the sexual abuse he says he suffered at the hands of Richard Lavigne.

The investigation If Danny’s rakish ways reminded his parents of Huck Finn, Jim Mitchell, a now retired state trooper who helped investigate the murder, remembers thinking of the 13-year-old as a boy trying to grow up too fast.

“He would hitchhike around regularly,” Mitchell says.

And he made some questionable friends.

“There was a produce manager at a nearby supermarket,” Mitchell says, “and Danny went to his house and painted his bedroom.”

Mitchell says both the produce manager and another man who led the Boy Scout troop to which Danny belonged were questioned after the murder. But Mitchell says neither “rose to the level” of suspicion that Lavigne did, and that after their alibis checked out, they were ruled out as suspects.

As police worked the case, they asked the Croteaus to alert them if they noticed anyone acting strangely at Danny’s wake.

There was one such person: a Franciscan priest, in brown robe and sandals, who wept loudly as he stood in front of the casket.

“It was just so odd, because we didn’t know this priest, and no one else seemed to know him,” Bunny says.

Mitchell looked at the condolence book and found the name Father Barnabas, whom he traced to the St. Francis of Assisi Center in downtown Springfield. When Mitchell met Father Barnabas Keck at his chapel office, he noticed that the only thing tacked to a cork bulletin board behind the priest was a newspaper story about Danny’s murder.

“Why did you go to the wake, Father?” Mitchell remembers asking. “Do you know the family?”

No, the priest replied.

“Do you always go to the wakes of people you don’t know?” Mitchell asked.

No, the priest replied. But the murder of the boy moved him so deeply he felt he should pay his respects.

Mitchell returned to his office and pulled aside his boss, Fitzgibbon.

“Fitzy,” he said, “there’s something very peculiar over there.”

A few weeks later a high school student contacted State Police, saying he wanted to give a statement about what happened to him when he stayed overnight at St. Mary’s rectory with Father Lavigne. The boy told Mitchell that Lavigne gave him alcohol and fondled him. After one of the sleepovers, the boy said, Lavigne took him to the St. Francis Center, saying they needed to go to confession.

Mitchell and Fitzgibbon believed that Father Barnabas was Lavigne’s confessor. But because Massachusetts law protects priest-penitent confidentiality, they couldn’t make him talk about it.

Reached in New Paltz, N.Y., where he is serving as a priest, the 79-year-old Keck said no one has ever confessed to him about the murder of Danny Croteau. Keck said that many Springfield priests used the St. Francis chapel for confession, but that he never saw the faces of the penitents.

“I knew of Father Lavigne, but I never met him face to face,” Keck said. “I wouldn’t have recognized him.”

In the immediate aftermath of Danny’s murder, Carl and Bunny could not comprehend what had happened to Danny, and couldn’t countenance the idea that Lavigne had played a role.

But Lavigne was soon aware of what police suspected. Within days of presiding over Danny’s funeral, Lavigne called Bunny.

“Under the circumstances,” he told her, “I think it’s best that I don’t come around for now.”

They never spoke again.

Later, as her suspicions grew, Bunny tore around the house like a tornado, looking for photos of her sons with Lavigne, ripping them up.

“I didn’t want any reminders of him,” she says.

Lavigne told the Globe he had considered communicating with the family but never did. He doesn’t think he could talk to Carl Croteau.

“He’s so bitter,” Lavigne said.

Priest seemed `untouchable’ Carl Croteau says Fitzgibbon, who died in 1982, told him “a lot of mistakes were made” in the early days of the murder probe. One was the failure of police and the district attorney’s office to push harder to search St. Mary’s rectory, and to examine the clothes the priest wore the night of Danny’s death.

“The police went there, but the priest who answered the door wouldn’t let them in,” Carl says Fitzgibbon told him.

Mitchell says police didn’t have enough evidence to get a warrant. But other officers suggest Lavigne’s conflicting statements about Danny and his odd remarks at the crime scene might have met the probable cause threshold — but not for a search of a church rectory, in Springfield, in 1972.

Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, then head of the Springfield diocese, and Matthew J. Ryan Jr., then district attorney, were well known to be good friends. The Croteaus and others believe that friendship made Ryan less aggressive in pursuing the case.

In an interview, Ryan, now retired, denied he went easy on Lavigne. Ryan said that he, too, believes Lavigne was the killer, but that he did not have the evidence to seek an indictment for the murder or for Lavigne’s sexual abuses.

“What you think and what you can prove in court are two different things,” Ryan said.

Carl Croteau says he clashed with Ryan, asking why the district attorney wouldn’t at least go after Lavigne for molestation. He says Ryan told him it would have endangered the murder investigation to do so.

Ryan told the Globe he didn’t prosecute Lavigne for abuse because none of the victims would come forward.

There is evidence that some victims of Lavigne remained silent out of fear of Lavigne. In a series of interviews, several men said they were, as boys, abused by Lavigne but kept quiet because the priest seemed untouchable.

“Everyone around here knew that the police thought Lavigne killed Danny Croteau,” said Stephen Block, who says Lavigne began sexually abusing him shortly after the murder. “After I saw that nothing happened to Lavigne, there was no way I was going to come forward.”

Block has since sued the diocese.

Ryan’s reluctance to prosecute Lavigne for sexual abuse hit close to home. Ten years ago, two of his nephews came forward to say Lavigne had molested them.

The diocese’s role

The Springfield Diocese says the first complaint it received about Lavigne came in 1986. But Mitchell, the retired State Police officer, said that shortly after the murder, Fitzgibbon briefed diocesan officials on what police had learned about Lavigne’s molesting some of the Croteau boys and others.

“We had an obligation to show our cards,” Mitchell says. “Fitzy had a sit-down with them. Everything we knew, we told them.”

As the diocese contests nearly two dozen pending claims against Lavigne, what its officials knew and when they knew it remains a point of enormous contention. But the diocese’s own records suggest it had been informed by police that Lavigne was a suspect in the murder case. Within three weeks of the murder, on May 4, 1972, diocesan lawyers arranged for Lavigne to take a polygraph. According to an account of the examination, which is included in the portion of Lavigne’s personnel records that has been turned over to John J. Stobierski, a Greenfield attorney representing alleged Lavigne victims, he was asked five questions:

Did you strike Danny Croteau’s head to cause his death?

Did you kill Danny Croteau?

Were you present when Danny Croteau was killed?

Did you dump Danny Croteau’s body in the Chicopee River?

Do you know who killed Danny Croteau?

Lavigne answered no to all five questions, but the examiner said, “Due to these erratic and inconsistent responses on this subject’s polygraph records, the examiner is unable to render a definite opinion as to the subject’s truthfulness.”

The diocese then arranged for Lavigne to travel to Chicago, where on May 9, 1972, he passed a pair of polygraph exams asking the same questions, the released records show. From that point on, diocesan lawyers pointed to the polygraph tests as proof that Lavigne did not kill Danny Croteau. The diocese allowed Lavigne to remain in parish work, with no restrictions.

After Lavigne was charged in 1991 with sexually assaulting five boys, Bennett, who had succeeded Ryan, reopened the murder probe. With Lavigne’s image of invincibility shattered, more people came forward.

One of the new witnesses was Carl Croteau Jr., who recalled that on the day before his brother’s funeral, he answered the telephone at his family’s home. A male voice said: “We’re very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something behind `The Circle’ he shouldn’t have seen. It was an accident.”

Whoever called would not identify himself, but Carl Croteau Jr. told police he is certain the caller was Lavigne. Investigators believe Lavigne was trying to throw them off his scent. “The Circle” referred to by the caller was a notorious teen hangout behind the Sixteen Acres library.An odd encounter And just last year, Sandra Tessier, one of Lavigne’s former parishioners at St. Mary’s, gave police a statement about an odd encounter with Lavigne.

Within weeks of the murder, Tessier was awakened at 3:30 a.m. by a phone call. It was Lavigne. He asked to meet her at a nearby all-night diner. Still half asleep, Tessier got dressed and drove over. She says the conversation went like this:

“I want to prove to you that I didn’t murder Danny Croteau,” Lavigne told her as soon as she arrived.

“Father, why would I think that?” Tessier replied.

Lavigne steered her toward a man who, while in plain clothes, flashed a badge and said he was a police officer. The man told Tessier that Lavigne had nothing to do with the murder.

“See,” Lavigne said, turning to Tessier. “I told you I didn’t do it.’

“I kept saying, `I never thought you did do it.’ But as time went on, I kept thinking, `Doth protest too much,’ ” Tessier recalled in an interview.

While police have not been able to place Lavigne at the murder scene the night Danny was killed, they have evidence that Lavigne was familiar with the spot. Joe Croteau told police that sometime in 1971, Lavigne took him fishing there.

The crime scene proved a challenge to investigators trying to find physical evidence that could help them find the killer. The place where Danny’s body was found was a fishing hole by day and something of a lovers’ lane at night.

Police combed the site and submitted some objects for forensic testing, which revealed two types of blood: Type O, which was Danny’s type, and Type B, which is the type of about 9 percent of the population, including Richard Lavigne. But DNA testing, which can link blood samples to particular individuals, had not been developed back then. After the case was reopened in 1991, a piece of rope and a plastic straw with traces of Type B blood on them were submitted for DNA testing. The forensic scientist who conducted the tests said that the blood on the straw was not Lavigne’s, but that he could not rule out that the blood on the rope might be. Lavigne’s lawyers say the testing is proof Lavigne is innocent. Prosecutors call it inconclusive. Bennett said his office has commissioned a new round of DNA testing.Unless the new results conclusively link the blood to Lavigne, it is unlikely he will ever face murder charges, according to police who have worked on the case. Bennett, in an interview, says that to seek an indictment prosecutors must believe a suspect is guilty, and have sufficient credible evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. While Bennett would not say so, other law enforcement sources say prosecutors don’t feel their case clears the “reasonable doubt” hurdle.

Carl Croteau says Bennett has told him he could probably get an indictment, but not a conviction. But Croteau believes the evidence would sway a jury.

“If he was acquitted, we could live with that,” he says. “But why not take a shot? I think we owe that much to Danny.”

And to the others who trace the fracturing of their lives to Lavigne. Peter Bessone and his cousin, David Bessone, were among them. They were like brothers. They played together. They went to school together. And one day they vowed to keep a secret together: Both said their parish priest, Father Lavigne, was molesting them. Peter was 8. David was 9.

As the boys grew up, Peter sank into a haze of drug and alcohol abuse. David left the state and went to college.

At Christmas time in 1985, David called Peter to beg him to get off drugs. Then David hung up the phone, lit a Hibachi grill in his apartment, lay down, and let the fumes fill his lungs. He was 23.

A few weeks ago, Peter Bessone watched as a priest, the Rev. James J. Scahill, knelt at David’s grave at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Springfield, to say a prayer.

“The ground was soaking wet, but Father Scahill knelt down anyway,” Peter said.

Peter knelt, too, and then collapsed into the priest’s arms and wept.

Scahill has become a confidante and spiritual counselor to Bessone and others allegedly abused by Lavigne. Scahill has also become the accusing finger pointed at his own bishop and diocese. For more than a year, Scahill has refused to give the diocese its traditional 6 percent cut of the weekly collection from the parish — Springfield’s most affluent — to protest Bishop Thomas L. Dupre’s continued financial support of Lavigne.

Scahill says the diocese has been aware of Lavigne’s predatory ways since at least 1972, when Lavigne became the prime suspect in Danny Croteau’s murder.

“I think Lavigne has gotten away with murder for more than 30 years,” said Scahill, sitting in the living room of St. Michael’s rectory in East Longmeadow. “But the people who have enabled him are worse than him.”

In 1988, Scahill was posted to St. Mary’s, where Lavigne served in the 1970s. After Lavigne’s arrest in 1991, some people came forward to say Lavigne had molested them, too. Over the years, Scahill counseled a half-dozen of Lavigne’s victims.

Some became outright suicides, like David Bessone. But there are others whose downward spiral was gradual.

“They kill themselves by inches,” Scahill says, as he steers his creaky 1988 Buick through the streets of Springfield, glancing at Peter Bessone, who sits glumly in the passenger seat.

Scahill got to know Peter 11 years ago, when Bessone’s father was dying of cancer. Scahill visited the father in the hospital, but the son wanted no part of a priest. At each visit, Scahill put out his hand. Peter would just scowl.

“For a month, I ignored his hand,” Peter says. “At my dad’s funeral, Father Scahill came up to me and said, `I’m here if you need me.’ I don’t know why, but I shook his hand. I remember whenever Father Lavigne was molesting me, his hands were cold. Father Scahill’s hand was warm.”

Bessone, 40, is in the advanced stages of leukemia. He says he does not know how long he has to live, but he hopes to live long enough to see Lavigne defrocked.

Dupre declined to be interviewed. But on the diocese’s website, he defends the support of Lavigne: “Our obligations continue even to those who have grievously sinned and caused enormous harm. Those teachings of forgiveness and charity are core values of a Catholic Christian belief, and I cannot deviate from them even though it would be the popular thing to do.”

`It’s ruined the family’ Despite all they have gone through, Carl and Bunny Croteau cling fiercely to their Catholic faith. Each day, Carl goes to St. Catherine’s to attend Mass. Some days, he acts as an altar server, assisting the priest as Danny once did. Other days, he serves as a eucharistic minister, handing out Communion, as Lavigne once did. Carl Croteau believes firmly that if Lavigne escapes justice in this world, he will face it in another.

Hillcrest Park Cemetery is just a mile from the Croteau home. It is a peaceful place, with towering trees and a picturesque pond. Carl goes often, to visit his youngest son’s grave.

He points to the empty plot to the left of Danny’s grave.

“Bun and I will be next to him,” he says, then bends down to touch the ground.

“It’s ruined the family,” he says, almost in a whisper. “We have kids we can’t talk to about it. It never leaves you. You never have that peace.”

Back at the house, Bunny Croteau sits in the corner of her living room, knitting. She has little and wants less. She has her faith, her nine grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, a few photos, a tape of Danny’s voice, and the nightmares.

“The last time I had the nightmare with Lavigne in it,” she says, softly, the afternoon light fading so that Danny’s portrait on the opposite wall is bathed in shadow, “I was swinging at him, hitting him with everything I had. But then I woke up, and there was nothing there. I was crying. I was calling out for Danny. And there was nothing there. Nothing.”

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.