Former Recorder reporter reflects on Lavigne case

  • The Rev. Richard Lavigne, a Catholic priest, pleads guilty in Newburyport on June 25, 1992, to two counts of indecently assaulting two boys. AP FILE PHOTO

  • A photo of former Roman Catholic priest Richard Lavigne, who Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni announced Monday was responsible for the murder of 13-year-old Danny Croteau in 1972. Lavigne, a convicted sex offender, had died days prior on May 21 at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Recorder
Published: 5/25/2021 5:29:43 PM

SHELBURNE FALLS — A year before shocking charges of child molestation were levied against Richard Lavigne in 1991, I had two chances to meet with the then-admired priest of St. Joseph’s Parish.

First, a parish member recommended I see him for counseling after a relationship breakup, but I never did.

Then, about six months before his arrest that October, another parishioner suggested I write a feature about Lavigne’s renovations of his three parish churches: St. Joseph’s in Shelburne Falls, and mission churches in Colrain and Charlemont. The parish was holding a huge dinner to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Lavigne’s ordination, with 300 people coming from all the parishes where he served in his 25 years, and another 250 turned away for lack of space.

But that story was never written, as Lavigne wouldn’t take my phone calls. “Father doesn’t give interviews,” the church secretary said.

Lavigne, who Hampden County’s top prosecutor says killed a 13-year-old altar boy in 1972, died Friday of respiratory failure due to COVID-19 at Baystate Franklin Medical Center just days before police planned to arrest him on a murder charge.

I often thought of these “missed opportunities” over the next dozen years because I would have liked to have seen Lavigne at least once with his halo intact — the way many parish members saw him before that first weekend, when he was arrested on charges of molesting three boys at St. Joseph’s. He had been the parish priest in Shelburne Falls since 1977.

As a reporter, I went to St. Joseph’s for the Sunday Mass after his arrest on a Friday afternoon, where the last pew was occupied by reporters and TV cameras. The substitute priest asked parishioners to pray for Lavigne and for the young persons and their families “who might be involved.” Then several parishioners asked to see us afterward. In a parking lot press conference, some were crying.

“It almost killed me,” said a woman from Colrain. “He is a beautiful man who has done enormous things for this area.”

Another Colrain resident said his son, a 9-year-old altar boy, cried for an hour when he heard of the arrest. “My son said, ‘It couldn’t happen, Daddy. It’s just not fair.”’

I don’t believe anyone present knew Lavigne had been a suspect in the 1972 murder of 13-year-old Danny Croteau. And, in the next dozen years, many more young men molested by the priest would come forward with their stories.

This was 10 years before the Boston Globe investigation revealed that clergy abuse of children was more widespread than a few “bad apple” priests — or that the church was transferring problem priests from one region to another.

Since then, many more victims of clergy child abuse have come forward, and this priest who was so close to the community would ultimately be accused of molesting dozens of young people.

Greenfield lawyer John Stobierski started handling clergy abuse cases after Lavigne pleaded guilty to the first cases. And in the last 20 years, he estimates he has handled 40 to 50 cases against Lavigne.

“There are still people coming forward,” Stobierski said Tuesday, after Lavigne’s death. He said one of the investigating officers estimates there are more than 100 who were molested by Lavigne.

“I think there are a lot of survivors,” he said. “Now that he’s dead and can’t hurt them anymore, they may come forward. Some folks wouldn’t come forward with their claims because they were so scared they would have to see him in court.”

Stobierski still advises victims, but his law partner now represents them in court. He believes the Roman Catholic Diocese still doesn’t treat clergy abuse survivors fairly when it comes to settlements.

In 1991, it was painful to live in a town of only 2,000 and ask your neighbors how they felt about the arrest of a popular priest. I remember interviewing folks in a local restaurant when a woman started shouting “you vultures” at me and the photographer. Referring to a large front-page photo of Lavigne, she snarled, “I hope you run his photo that big when he’s found not guilty.”

No one would speak to me about the priest after that.

Although you have to be neutral in covering a story like this, I really hoped he was innocent because the charges were so ugly. It seemed absurd that people could admire this man — their pastor for 14 years — without being suspicious.

Lavigne’s 1992 trial was held in Newburyport, in a small 19th-century courthouse that was packed with Shelburne Falls parish members and a smaller crowd who had come to support the victims’ families. Lavigne was hugged by many of the parishioners — both when he entered the courtroom and when he left it. He pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault and battery in a plea bargain, with the rest of the charges against him filed. These included two counts of rape of a child, and assault and battery on a total of five youths.

Judge Guy Volterra — who actually plays himself in the movie “Spotlight” — sentenced Lavigne to a 10-month probation and a seven-month psychiatric treatment program in Maryland. Lavigne was also not to hold any job in which he worked unsupervised with youth.

In 1993, police in Springfield identified Lavigne as the only suspect in the 1972 murder of Danny Croteau, and in 1994, the Springfield Diocese paid $1.4 million in a series of settlements to 17 alleged victims of the priest. Another $7.7 million was later paid out to 46 Lavigne victims in 2004, the year in which he was finally defrocked.

Diane Broncaccio, a retired newspaper journalist who worked for the Greenfield Recorder for three decades, covered the 1992 trial and events surrounding it when Lavigne pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault and battery.


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