Above, Lavigne poses with (from left) Joseph, Danny, Michael, and Jackie Croteau. Globe Staff Photos/Dominic Chavez.
"I will never understand as long as I live how he is allowed to be paid by the diocese and remain a priest. . . . and I was abused and I have nothing. I am 34 and I feel afraid of people. I am afraid of sex. I can't hold onto a job."
- Shawn Dobbert speaking at a press conference after he filed suit against the Rev. Richard Lavigne and the Diocese of Springfield (Springfield Republican, July 12, 2002).
Dobbert's turn of phrase – that he would never understand as long as he lived – proved only too true. He died in circumstances ruled accidental in North Adams only a few days after his claim against Lavigne was settled in late 2004. He was buried after a service in an Episcopal church.
The two-year delay for his claim was not unusually long by Diocesan standards, but it was perhaps harder to take than most. The delay was caused in large part because his suit was used by the Diocese as a test case. Since Dobbert's suit wanted to examine the bishop/priest relationship, the Diocese worked hard to have it dismissed – on the grounds that such suits were a violation of church/state separation.
Lavigne was a parish priest in the Springfield Diocese for 25 years. But on Oct. 21, 1991, his career collapsed. That day he was arraigned in Greenfield District Court for sexual assault on children. He pleaded guilty to several counts of fondling two boys. One boy was molested in 1983-84, the other in 1987-88. But, the other charges in the plea bargain were far more serious – six charges of molestation of a child under the age of 14, two charges of molesting a child over 14, and two child rape charges.
Within 8 months, he was convicted and sentenced. Judge Guy Volterra ordered him to never again serve as a parish priest. The banishment was one condition of a 10-year probation. He never did jail time.
The prosecution of Rev. Richard Lavigne in 1992 and settlement a year later with 17 victims for $1.7 million seems from this distance to be almost a prequel to the Boston crisis some 10 years later. But, there is a significant difference.
The Archdiocese of Boston finally admitted to moving problem priests from parish to parish. That admission has never been made in Springfield. As to assigning reasons for this difference, "better record-keeping" might be among them.
It should be noted that when the announcement was made in March of '94 about the settlement, Bishop Marshall stated that a Diocesan investigation of Lavigne proved no cover up.
"A claim was made that diocesan representatives knew or should have known about Father Lavigne's misconduct and did nothing to prevent it. However, the bishops at the time and the priests, who lived with Father Lavigne, maintain adamantly that they knew nothing of such activity, any more than did the parents and families of the young persons who made the allegations."
The Diocese later admitted that it had received complaints of a sexual nature about Lavigne in 1986 or '87, when he was at St. Joseph's in Shelburne Falls. He was evaluated by mental health professionals, then placed back in service as pastor.
More disturbing, the Boston Globe reported the recollections of Detective Mitchell that shortly after the Danny Croteau murder in 1972, Detective Fitzgibbon sought out and briefed Diocesan officials. Police had learned that Lavigne had molested some of the Croteau boys and others.
"We had an obligation to show our cards," Mitchell said, according the the Globe. "Fitzy had a sit-down with them. Everything we knew, we told them."
It was only after the 1993 settlement that Joseph Croteau, Danny's brother, came forward to settle charges about Lavigne's behavior between 1969 and 1971. Joseph's complaint was settled in 1996, though the amount has not been disclosed by the Diocese. His complaint included the information that Lavigne had taken him fishing to the same spot where Danny's body was later found. Not proof, to be sure, but disquieting.
Joseph's settlement may help to explain why the 1993 settlement figure of 1.3 to 1.4 million had jumped to 1.7 million by 2004, when the larger figure was reported for the first time in a long-awaited Diocesan report on abuse.
But whatever the official position of the Springfield Diocese about Lavigne he was, and remains, a sort of one-man Chernobyl, in terms of damage. There is no other priest even close. His record includes the initial 17 claims, then Joseph in 1996, 24 in 2004, and 7 in 2008 – a total of 49. And there may be more.
Victims from long ago continue to come forward elsewhere, notably in the Burlington Diocese, which encompasses Vermont. A jury award of $8.7 million, mostly in punitive damages, was levied there in May, 2008, against the diocese for crimes committed and covered up in the 70's. $3.6 million was awarded on Dec. 17, again, mainly for punitive damages, and against the diocese for covering up crimes in the 70's. There are over 20 lawsuits against the Burlington Diocese still pending.
Thus, based on precedent in Vermont and on Lavigne's long record, there's still a possibility that we may see a jury trial based on testimony from one of Lavigne's victims. Yet, the more that victims settle, the fewer of them remain, and the less likely that trials will result.
And so, like Chernobyl, his legacy lingers. It is not just that the crimes themselves have caused lasting damage to the Diocese (though they certainly have). Of equal concern is that the officials of the Diocese, in pursuing a legal strategy of avoiding responsibility for enabling his crimes, have assumed a defensive posture. It is questionable if they have ever emerged from that stance.
Soon after his conviction, Lavigne was declared indigent, in October, 1993. In the following year Bishop Marshall stated that Lavigne was no longer on the Diocesan payroll. He added that Lavigne was receiving charitable assistance to meet minimal subsistence needs.
Similarly, in May, 2002, after Lavigne's continued support became a public issue, Bishop Dupre told reporters that Lavigne was given minimal food and shelter expenses to keep him off public assistance.
In fact, for thirteen years, from his arrest in 1991 until May 27, 2004, Lavigne received a Diocesan stipend of over a thousand dollars a month, plus full health and dental benefits.
His indigent status also earned him court-ordered legal counsel from Max Stern, a prominent Boston lawyer. He would need the counsel, because at regular intervals, legal actions against him would require his presence in court. His court appearances kept his name in the news and allowed questions about his support to grow. Another public concern was his continued status as priest.
After Ronald Malboeuf's defrocking in 1988, he moved to Florida and was taken off the payroll. On the other hand, Lavigne remained in the Pioneer Valley, was still paid, and was known to socialize with his former colleagues.
The socializing became an issue in the mid-90's. Lavigne would stop by the St. Brigid's rectory in Amherst after his therapy sessions to visit the Rev. John Roach. While Roach saw nothing objectionable about this, the same cannot be said for Rev. Bruce Teague, the pastor of St. Brigid's. Teague was particularly concerned because in 1997, Lavigne had asked to help hear children's confessions. Teague asked Lavigne to stop hanging around church grounds.
Teague reported Lavigne's presence to the Diocese, but no action was taken. He then went to the local police, who issued a trespass order threatening arrest if Lavigne reappeared at church properties. When word of this got back to the Diocese, Teague was reprimanded for going outside of the church. Eventually, Teague was forced out as pastor. Many parishioners were outraged, but Bishop Dupre insisted throughout the controversy that Teague's dismissal had nothing to do with discipline, or with Lavigne.
Word of Teague's dismissal and the continued financial support of Lavigne spread throughout the Diocese via press reports. Soon, victims, their families and many others were calling for action.
The twin complaints – the defrocking issue and the support issue – only got more volatile as time went on. A parishioner said that the defrocking was half the equation, because "…until Lavigne is removed from the diocesan payroll, he will be the responsibility of the diocese and the lay people of the diocese."
Finally, in June of 2002, one parish took a stand. Led by Rev. James Scahill, St. Michaels in East Longmeadow began to withhold the parish tax on recurring income (weekly collections). This 6% tax was sent to the chancery for general purposes. The protest was to last nearly 2 years.
The best way to understand the impact of this protest is to listen to an excerpt from the deposition of Scahill. This interview with Attorney Stobierski took place in Oct. 2003, some 16 months after the protest began. The purpose of the testimony was to gather information for one of the lawsuits filed against both Lavigne and the Diocese.
Q (by Mr. Stobierski): Do you know the gist of the stand that you took, what -
A. (by Fr. James Scahill): Well, I think I told you it was a two-prong concern -
A. - that the man [Lavigne] would be laicized and that he would no longer be supported by the church. And that in the meanwhile we would withhold a 6 percent taxation of the chair on the recurring income in East Longmeadow because there was a concern that that monies were going for those purposes.
Q. Did you ever ask for any kind of information to show the Diocese funds were not used to support Richard Lavigne?
A. Well, for the first time in my 28-year history as a priest, later, about a month after we took the stand, in fact, I believe it was the end of June, for the first time bishop sent a cover letter and there was an explanation of the disbursement of the 6 percent taxation. I think there was 17 or 18 line items, you know, 8.1 percent here, 3.2 percent here, all adding up to a 100 percent. And he did mention in his cover letter to all the priests that this conclusively shows that not one cent of the 6 percent goes for these purposes.
But my point is the church has no money save from what it receives from people and the people did not contribute for these purposes.
Q. So other than that letter did you ever ask for any specific information or ever receive information with respect to how the Diocese pays Richard Lavigne at this point?
A. I don't understand that.
Q. You indicated that you received a letter that was sent out to all the parish priests how the money was broken down?
A. It was 6 percent was disbursed. Of course, if one wants to prove conclusively that not one cent would go, one would have to break down all of those 18 line items to the cent.
Q. But did you ever ask anyone else or make any requests with respect to how Richard Lavigne is paid?
A. People's jobs could be in jeopardy. I know factually that the Diocese is paying for his full excellent medical and dental insurance. That's one of the things we had to hammer down before we could publicly say that but I hope no one loses their job over the fact that they shared that information with me.
In Chapter Twelve, the difference between judicial and administrative laicization was discussed. The judicial is the involuntary process. It requires canon lawyers on both sides, due process, testimony and so on. In the administrative process, the laicization is not contested by the priest. Indeed, he asks for it. It is the administrative type that was in play for Ronald Malboeuf, voluntarily laicized in 1988. Lacization finally came for Richard Lavigne, but not without more foot-dragging on the part of Dupre.
As Scahill mentions above, Dupre sent out an "Explanation of Laicization", including packets of information, to all priests of the Diocese. It appeared to be a direct reaction to the Scahill protest. In a cover letter, Dupre wrote: "This is a difficult time for all of us. We need to be supportive of one another and avoid the temptation to create division among us."
When the press asked him to explain further why Lavigne was still being paid, Dupre was unavailable for comment for three weeks. In lieu of a statement, a Diocesan spokesman sent newspapers a copy of the "Explanation of Laicization".
We have seen that the financial protest by parishioners began in June of 2002. On the opposing side was canon law, as interpreted by Bishop Dupre. Dupre stated that church law obliged him to support Lavigne during his 10-year probation, and even after any future defrocking. Essentially, Dupre was endorsing lifelong support. It seemed that the more that people demanded Lavigne's banishment from the church, the more defenses Dupre found, and the harder he dug in.
For example, he explained to the press that Catholic bishops have been reluctant to use the laicization process against "notorious and serial" child sexual abusers because the process is so slow and cumbersome: "The priest has all the rights any person would have - the right of due process, the right to a lawyer . . . There are rules of evidence and a statute of limitations and on and on and on."
He explained further, "The law holds all members of the faithful, and particularly Bishops, to the higher demands of charity. Bishops are not allowed the luxury of taking the easy, or most popular, path."
Later in the year, Dupre again asserted that the reason he had not moved to laicize Lavigne was because the process was too time-consuming. He failed to mention that, by this time, Lavigne had been out of ministry for over ten years, presumably more than enough time for the process to have run its course, had a judicial trial been started many years previous.
But whatever Lavigne's status, Dupre never wavered in his support, often citing canon law to back him up. This may have come natural, for he was a canon lawyer by trade. In fact, Dupre's astute grasp of canon law is footnoted in the standard work, the "New Commentary on Canon Law" by Beal and others.
But finally, in December of 2002, Dupre announced that the Vatican's approval of a streamlined policy enabled him to strip Lavigne of his priestly status. Apparently, Lavigne's name was at the top of the list, because a year later the defrocking was complete.
Back in 1991, Marshall had simply removed Lavigne from service, without pushing for either type of laicization. In fact, Lavigne spent only seven months at St. Luke's, and it's quite possible that the Diocese planned to return him to service again, as they had in 1987.
When Dupre took over in 1994, he followed Marshall's lead for handling Lavigne, essentially making a decision by not making a decision. When he finally came around to pursuing laicization in Dec. of '02, Dupre explained his change of heart: "Until charges came forward this year, I was willing to accept that arrangement [Marshall's]." Dupre may have been referring obliquely to the new policy of punishing abuse by immediate removal (Dallas Norms), which was passed by the US bishops in 2002.
But, we now know that complaints and lawsuits about Lavigne's behavior must have been coming in on a regular basis throughout Dupre's tenure. For example, the claim of Danny Croteau's brother, Joseph, was settled in 1996. The fact that Dupre had not publicly acknowledged that claim and others does not mean that he was unaware of the charges.
In retrospect, the study of law, particularly of the hardball variety, seems to have been almost a refuge for Dupre. Described by his admirers as "shy" and as "dour" by others, he nevertheless seemed most content while working within the intricacies of the law. Nor was he afraid to wield the law as a weapon, notably in a bruising fight among hospitals and local legislators. His control of the Diocese during his tenure was masterful, right up to and even including his Wizard of Oz-like departure at the 11th hour, in the early morning hours of Feb. 11, 2004.
A few months later, he again danced out on a legal limb, going so far as to take the Fifth Amendment when he stood accused of abuse. Taking the Fifth is almost never done in civil trials, because that potentially damaging fact may be disclosed to the jury, assuming that the case goes to trial. Perhaps he sensed that the trial would never be heard.
At any rate, when faced with a pre-trial hearing on civil charges of child rape in the summer of 2004, when he could have denied the facts, affirmed the facts, or remained silent, he chose the last option – to invoke his constitutional right not to incriminate himself.