Until his last breath, defrocked Roman Catholic priest Richard R. Lavigne — prolific child molester, alleged murderer and catalyst for many lifetimes of ruin — remained convinced he was going to heaven.
With the steady beeping of a heart monitor in the background, this was among the revelations a state trooper drew from Lavigne as the disgraced cleric lay ill in medical facilities in Springfield and Franklin County over the spring.
Detective Michael T. McNally, a product of Catholic schools himself, first visited Lavigne’s bedside in the hope of eliciting a confession to the 1972 killing of altar boy Daniel “Danny” Croteau. After a long series of forensic tests proved fruitless over the past three decades, it was doubtless a Hail Mary tactic.
One of only four “unresolved cases” investigators in Massachusetts, McNally tapped on the door of Lavigne’s hospital room on April 14. By some coincidence, it was the 49th anniversary of Croteau’s death. The boy’s body was found along the bank of the Chicopee River in Chicopee Falls on April 15, 1972, the day after police concluded he was killed.
In that first meeting, the dialogue between murder suspect and detective began with brief niceties. Lavigne offered that he had tomato soup for lunch, and that he was an accomplished artist. The trooper showed an appropriate amount of interest, but quickly cut to the chase.
“I want to get to know you because of a case I’m looking into, Father. It’s going on 50 years. Danny Croteau?”
“Oh, God,” Lavigne responded, with what sounded like a whiff of exasperation.
But he didn’t turn McNally away.
“So much has been said. So much has been written,” the trooper said. “But there is a truth. There’s something about ‘justice is the opposite of poverty.’ Have you ever heard that?”
“Justice requires everybody shares the same experiences legally,” Lavigne responded, “and poverty means you don’t have anything.”
“Amen,” McNally answered.
The two began to compile a living history conveniently colored by Lavigne, but with many glimpses of truth. The interviews, which took place over five days and ended on May 4, show Lavigne fancied himself an intellect — a Renaissance man unfairly skewered by the media, shunned by the church and as someone who revered his parents and would never tell a lie, nor hurt a child, nor touch a boy inappropriately. Or, so, he insisted at first.
Eleven hours of recordings reviewed by The Republican are rife with inconsistencies. But a few things emerge as irrefutable based on Lavigne’s own admissions: He took the boy to the area of a boat ramp along the Chicopee River, struck him with a rock, shoved him into the water, and returned later to see his lifeless body, clothed in his Catholic school uniform, floating facedown.
Lavigne then left and never told a soul, he told McNally, although he couldn’t explain why. He simply said he was “fascinated” at having seen a child’s dead body.
Lavigne died on May 21 of COVID-19, nearly 30 years after being removed from public ministry following convictions for indecent assault involving two young boys. He was defrocked in 2003 as victims kept coming forward. Law enforcement officials have estimated his victims may number as many as 250. Lavigne cost the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield millions of dollars in reparations.
Officials say at least one of his victims took his own life. Others sought solace in drug and alcohol abuse, finding it difficult to forge adult relationships or keep jobs, all familiar subplots for survivors of clergy abuse.
Croteau’s killing cast a lifetime pall over the boy’s large, working-class family, who lived near St. Catherine of Siena Church. Lavigne was assigned there in the late 1960s. Of five brothers, four of them were abused by Lavigne. Only Danny, the youngest at 13 when he died, met a decisively violent end.
When McNally first encountered him in a hospital bed, Lavigne was a shadow of the tall, muscular parish priest who earned the trust and admiration of parents and groomed, raped and terrorized scores of their sons.
“He looked old. He looked frail. Thin. He was missing a tooth on one side from a fall,” McNally told The Republican. “But he still had those same striking blue eyes I had seen in old pictures. Eyes that seemed to look right through you.”
Lavigne had fractured his hip and shoulder in the same fall that preceded his hospitalization. But the former priest seemed nonetheless eager for the attention paid to him by the trooper, even if he was a cop who aimed to charge him with murder.
During his interviews, McNally seized what proved to be the final opportunity to crawl inside Lavigne’s mind. The last time Lavigne had spoken to law enforcement was 17 years earlier when officers were conducting a search of his home. Those conversations yielded little.
At their very first meeting, Lavigne began disclosing to McNally details about his version of the day Croteau disappeared. For the first time, he admitted he was likely the last person to see the boy alive at the riverside the day before the boy’s body was found floating in the water.
Lavigne told a story of having taken the boy to the river, either to fish or to see a waterfall up close, depending on the version.
“They said his body had been thrown in the river. So I got in the car and went down there and saw him float by under the bridge that goes from Springfield to Indian Orchard,” Lavigne recalled. “His face was down in the water and I just burst into tears. Not because I loved the kid, but just because I knew him and I thought, how sad, you know? A boy that age.”
Lavigne recounted that he then went home and thought about it for a week or so.
“It rattled me as a person,” Lavigne said. “That somebody would do a thing like that to a boy.”
It took many hours over the days McNally spent with Lavigne before the detective challenged his suspect directly.
“Why did you go down there?” McNally asked, noting Lavigne had arrived at the Chicopee River bank even before the police. “How did you know to go there? Did someone tell you to go there even before the police were there?”
Lavigne was vague in responding, saying he must have read it in the newspaper or heard it from one of his parishioners, though his timeline made no sense. McNally briefly soft-pedaled the disclosure, urging Lavigne to share more and more. As the interviews progressed and Lavigne kept encouraging the detective to visit again, the trooper pressed on.
“Do you think I killed him?” Lavigne asked during their May 4 meeting, which would wind up being the last time they talked.
“I do. I do. I know you did,” McNally said, prompting Lavigne to respond with some indignance.
“I never hurt that kid,” Lavigne said, after earlier during their talks having insisted: “You’re barking up the wrong tree, buddy.”
At one point during the interviews with McNally, Lavigne said he had taken a picture of the boy’s body but never developed the film and must have thrown the camera away long ago.
According to newly unsealed records in the case, a medical examiner concluded the boy spent some time, injured, on his back before ending up in the water. There were signs of a “scuffle” at the scene, police reports state. The child had ligature marks on his neck, and one of his pockets had been torn off entirely. There was a large swath of blood-stained sand at the scene, and tire tracks under the Robinson Bridge indicated a vehicle had taken off at a high rate of speed, according to the reports.
The trooper informed Lavigne that Type B blood was found at the scene, and, while it wasn’t the boy’s blood type, it was Lavigne’s. Lavigne responded dismissively, saying that many people must have Type B blood.
No, McNally said. Only 11% of the white Caucasian population is Type B, he told Lavigne.
Still, even as the the trooper challenged him repeatedly, Lavigne encouraged McNally to stay. The former priest told the detective he hoped they could keep in touch so McNally might visit his home and see his paintings.
The artwork, according to Lavigne, included portraits of iconic European architecture and natural vistas in Franklin County, where he once owned an A-frame home in Ashfield. On his garage in Chicopee, Lavigne painted a sunburst with the French word “perche” at the crest of the building. In English, the word translates to “why.”
The trooper, who went to the same parochial school Croteau attended, approached the interviews with Lavigne, armed both with institutional knowledge from having grown up in Western Massachusetts and an almost encyclopedic grasp of the investigation over the past half century.
McNally, his supervisor and members of Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni’s staff huddled over the case files — three banker’s boxes filled with witness statements and police and forensic reports. McNally had at the ready names of Croteau’s Boy Scout leaders, a witness who took Croteau in when he became lost in a Chicopee neighborhood shortly before his death and the boy’s contemporaries. The detective also refreshed interviews with living victims of Lavigne.
“That was really the hardest part, going to these people, (these) victims after these horrible things happened to them and having to ask them about it again decades later,” McNally told The Republican.
The interviews were necessary to reestablish what law enforcement and victims’ attorneys described as Lavigne’s pattern of conduct with prepubescent and slightly older boys: dressing them in specific nightshirts, inspecting them after mandatory showers to ensure they were “clean,” plus the ugliest aspects of the abuse including specific sexual preferences capped by sadistic, violent outbursts.
McNally said he was prepared to ask Lavigne if he had himself been the victim of sexual abuse as a child, but Lavigne extolled the virtues of his parents at every opportunity. His mother and father were “saints,” Lavigne said.
In a turning point in that first interview, Lavigne told McNally there was no need to address him as “father” as the two were becoming familiar. “You’re a delightful person,” Lavigne said, opening up about his childhood. “You can call me Dick.”
Lavigne described his late mother, Annette Lavigne, a Maine native, as a handsome woman, gentle and quietly dignified. She kept a strawberry patch and walked to church with her husband and children each Sunday, he shared.
His French-Canadian father, Ovila Lavigne, built an addition on their Chicopee home and opened a shoe store, Lavigne told McNally. He was generous, delivering groceries to neighbors who had fallen on hard times and offering rides to those whose cars were in the shop, and he took his only son fishing on many occasions, Lavigne recalled.
Lavigne also said he had many extended family members who were priests. They often visited, and Lavigne was fascinated by their seeming worldliness and education. Lavigne wanted to be that, he told the trooper. He had always wanted to enter a “helping profession,” he told McNally.
Compassion, Lavigne added, was his favorite quality in others, an ability look at another’s pain and take part in it.
Lavigne attended Assumption College in Worcester on an academic scholarship. There, he would pore over books in the library until 2 a.m. and occasionally attempted to school his more agnostic classmates in scripture, he said.
“All this stuff about God? Who is God?” Lavigne recalled of the skeptics, and with a chuckle. “You’ll find out someday, buddy.”
It was during this conversation that Lavigne confided to the detective, “I assume I’m going to heaven.”
Lavigne’s abuse of boys occurred at the height of what’s been exposed as the cover-up era in the Roman Catholic church and in the Western Massachusetts diocese in particular. Lavigne was transferred from parish to parish seven times.
He complained that the bishop at the time, the Most Rev. Christopher J. Weldon, chilled toward him considerably after Croteau’s killing. After the body was discovered and Lavigne quickly became the prime suspect, Weldon summoned Lavigne to the chancery to read the young priest the riot act.
“Christopher Weldon — I never liked that guy. He said this whole thing is not very good for the church,” Lavigne told the trooper. “He acted afterward as if I didn’t exist, like brush him off of our church life.”
Weldon was revered during his tenure as bishop from 1950 through 1977. He died in 1982, his grave was marked with a towering obelisk near the entrance of the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Springfield. However, when a Chicopee man came forward in 2018 to diocesan officials to disclose he had been raped repeatedly by Weldon and two other priests in the 1960s, it stained his previously spotless legacy.
Down came Weldon’s name and likeness from buildings and walls throughout the diocese and beyond. His body was exhumed from the high-profile spot at the cemetery and moved to an undisclosed location that diocesan leaders vowed would be “less prominent.” Groundskeepers at the cemetery said they only knew his remains had been taken away soon after diocesan officials announced their intentions.
The Weldon scandal was the latest to draw cries of a cover-up by the church. An independent investigator concluded the diocese had bungled the initial investigation at best, or, at worst, tried to manipulate the information provided by the victim to protect Weldon’s reputation. That investigator, retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis, also concluded the man’s account of being raped and beaten as a child by Weldon and his cohorts were “unequivocally credible.”
The man, who reported the abuse began when he was as young as 9, has sued the diocese over the matter. His accounts include being raped at Camp Holy Cross in Goshen. Lavigne’s victims also told investigators they had been abused there and at other campsites.
Lavigne’s recollections paint a picture of a cleric who was something of a loner and mostly ostracized within an organization already rife with dysfunction. He said he arrived home one day after the Croteau story broke to find his beloved mother in a rocking chair, her face wet with tears. He lamented that his parents had to stop going to church to avoid the stares and gossip.
“Dick, I think the church turned its back on you,” McNally said repeatedly during the interviews, hoping to appeal to Lavigne’s smarting over the treatment. “Oh, I know that,” Lavigne responded in one instance.
Despite his criminal convictions and the dozens of adult men who came forward with hauntingly similar tales of abuse, Lavigne initially denied ever touching a child inappropriately and denied being attracted to boys or young men. McNally pressed Lavigne to confirm that Croteau had threatened in front of witnesses at the camp to “tell” about the abuse.
“I think your weakness was exposed,” the trooper cajoled. “That little loudmouth was going to ruin your life. I believe that. Instead, they made you out to be that evil man. Tell me the truth about what happened to Danny. Set the record straight.”
Lavigne reprised his denials, saying he simply wanted to forget the entire experience. The former priest frequently danced away from the conversation as he seemed to edge closer to a full disclosure, requesting instead that the trooper adjust his pillows or call a nurse.
“This whole Croteau thing was a pain in the ass,” he said at one point.
Lavigne also repeatedly disparaged members of the Croteau family. The boy’s mother, Bernice “Bunny” Croteau was “Queen of the Nile,” he told McNally. Her husband, Carl? A brutish “jackass” who liked to drink and frequently snarled at Lavigne, he recounted. And Danny? Just a “dumb altar boy,” he concluded.
During a memorial service for the boy after Gulluni closed the case, family members and the priest who delivered the sermon said quite the opposite. The Croteau parents were kind and simple “in the best way,” the Rev. James Scahill told mourners. And, Danny was mischievous but thoughtful and clever, his older brother Joseph Croteau said.
Scahill waged an aggressive battle against the church to have Lavigne defrocked and cut off from any financial benefit, as well as speaking out publicly about conspiracies within the church to protect abusive priests.
McNally and his family were parishioners of Scahill at churches in Springfield and East Longmeadow. The priest strongly influenced McNally’s perception of the Catholic church as a child, the trooper said. And here, as an adult and an investigator, he found himself sitting just inches away from the man who stoked the hottest fire in the region’s clergy abuse history.
“You have to put your personal feelings aside, and also to understand — I’m not making excuses for him — but he’s human,” McNally said.
During the final interview, Lavigne admitted “poking” Croteau and other boys in the groin sometimes. He also conceded he brought Croteau to the river’s edge and hit him with a rock, which he then flung about six feet out into the river. He said he gave the child “a good shove,” but wouldn’t go so far as to admit that he killed him.
“Use your power, Dick. You were always a powerful man, but not anymore,” McNally told Lavigne. “You’re a shadow of what you once were. You are. Your arms are as skinny as any I’ve ever seen. You’re 80 years old. You’re going to die. I ask that you use your power to make it better for those boys who are still alive.”
“I swear to God, I’m telling you the full story. I had nothing to do with his death,” Lavigne responded, offering that perhaps Danny had been killed by falling rocks.
The trooper countered that he didn’t want Lavigne’s vows to God, he wanted the truth.
McNally left Lavigne’s bedside for the last time on the afternoon of May 4. He expected that the next time he saw the former priest he’d arrest him and charge him with murder.
The trooper received the go-ahead from his supervisor to arrest Lavigne on May 21 at exactly 5:39 p.m., he said, checking his phone log.
Lavigne died at 5:40 p.m. that afternoon, a Friday. Gulluni announced the closing of the case the following Monday.
Gulluni’s office planned to use McNally’s interviews and a report from a forensic linguistics expert as key building blocks in their case for murder against the former cleric. The expert compared letters and writings known to be Lavigne’s to a bizarre letter Lavigne claimed to have received from “the real killer” years earlier. The expert concluded Lavigne had written it himself.
One of the comparative writings the expert used was an affidavit Lavigne filed with the Chicopee Police Department in 2012. He said a wayward young man he was “helping” with rides and with studies for a general equivalency degree had come to live with him and had become abusive, crawling into his bed at night and at times choking him. It was unclear from the police report what became of that relationship.
After he died, a neighbor of Lavigne told a reporter that there had been another young man staying with the former priest before he was hospitalized.
McNally, 40, has been a trooper since 2012 and was a Springfield police officer before that. He is no longer a church-going person. In part, he said, it’s because of having come of age in the 1990s and hearing the stories about Lavigne and other abusive priests. And, in part, it’s because he watched the diocese treat Scahill shabbily when he waged his public challenges.
Of Lavigne’s death? McNally was disappointed he was unable to arrest him for murder, but takes some measure of comfort knowing the surviving members of the Croteau family have more answers to replace the suspicions they’ve had for nearly a half century.
“I owed it to survivors of this man to do anything we could to obtain justice for Danny and for his family,” McNally said.