Seeking Justice for 31 Years

By Adam Gorli
Hartford Courant [Hartford CT]
April 6, 2003

SPRINGFIELD -- It's an anniversary that Carl and Bunny Croteau dread. It will be 31 years this month since their son, Danny, was found floating face down in the Chicopee River and their priest became a suspect in the 13-year-old altar boy's murder.

April 15 will mark the passing of another year with no answers, no justice and unanswered prayers for the Croteaus. For three decades, the couple has kept their faith. Mass is a part of their weekly routine, and St. Catherine's church is still a focal point in their lives. Now, they have reason for new hope.

As more than a dozen sex-abuse lawsuits have piled up in the past year against their former family priest, the Rev. Richard Lavigne, new DNA testing has been ordered on evidence in Danny's death.

The lawyer representing 15 people accusing Lavigne of molesting them when they were children says some of his clients have spoken to investigators about the Croteau case. Attorney John Stobierski and his clients won't give details about those interviews, but some who say Lavigne abused them describe the priest as having a violent temper.

Lavigne had pleaded guilty in 1992 to molesting two altar boys, and was suspected of killing Danny, but never charged. The Croteaus believe Lavigne abused their son and killed him because Danny was going to tell. As police investigated the slaying, they suspected Lavigne of molesting one of Danny's older brothers also - a charge that was settled out of court two decades later.

District Attorney William Bennett won't discuss specifics of the investigation.

The case has been dormant since 1995, when DNA testing on a bloody drinking straw found at the site where Danny was discovered failed to link Lavigne, now 61, to the crime. But Bennett recently said advances in DNA testing may yield new information.

If it does, the Croteaus say they may finally be able to move on from the nightmare that changed their lives in 1972.

"Danny is always going to be in our hearts," Carl Croteau, 72, said. "But it would be a closure if someone were finally held accountable. There's hope out there, and that's the one vine we're holding to."

The couple's remaining six grown children have families of their own, but Danny will forever be a 13-year-old Boy Scout who liked to draw, daydream and spend time with his younger sister.

"He was the Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer type," Bunny Croteau, 67, remembers. "He had a real sense of adventure, but he always loved helping people."

Danny's portrait, painted from a school photograph shortly after his death, has hung from the same wall in the Croteau's living room for 31 years. His brown hair dangles above his eyes, his tie is neatly knotted and his eyes stare straight ahead.

After his body was found in the river with a fractured skull, the Croteaus turned to Lavigne for support. After all, the priest was a close family friend who visited often and would take Danny on overnight trips.

Lavigne went with Carl Croteau to identify Danny's body. Days later, the priest presided over the funeral Mass.

But when the Croteaus returned from a church-sponsored trip to California to recover from their grief, Lavigne had emerged as a suspect.

"It was hard to believe," Carl Croteau says. "He warmed his way into this home. He warmed his way in with the kids. Being an altar boy myself, I never would've imagined a priest would do something like this."

The close relationship between the boy and the priest, the cleric's presence at the spot Danny was found and the unusual question he asked made Lavigne a "prime suspect," according to court documents.

A day after Danny's body was found, police found Lavigne standing at the crime scene. Court documents show that when he was later interviewed by police, the priest wanted to know "if a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it?"

The Croteaus believe officials in the Springfield diocese used their influence to shield Lavigne from prosecution, a suspicion echoed in many of the civil sex-abuse cases filed by attorney John Stobierski.

Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese, said in a written statement that the diocese "did everything in its power to cooperate with investigators, as we continue to do."

Lavigne's lawyer at the time had the priest take a lie detector test about three weeks after Danny's death. The first test proved inconclusive, but court documents show he passed a second test.

Church officials "had no reason to doubt him," Dupont said.

Lavigne's lawyer, Max Stern, did not return phone calls.

Edward J. Rojowski, the now-retired Chicopee police captain who led the 1972 investigation, said he's confident police did all they could to solve the case. But he admits it wasn't easy interviewing a clergyman.

"It's tough interrogating a priest when he's a respected member of the community," Rojowski said.

Interest in the case eventually dried up until 1991, when Lavigne was charged with molesting five boys. The priest pleaded guilty to molesting two of them, and the remaining charges were dropped. He was sentenced in 1992 to a treatment facility and 10 years of probation.

In 1994, the Springfield diocese settled suits for $1.4 million with 17 men who accused Lavigne of abusing them. Two years later, the priest settled a sex-abuse lawsuit with Joseph Croteau, Danny's older brother who said the priest molested him between 1969 and 1971. The diocese has started the process of defrocking Lavigne, a registered sex offender.

The Croteaus keep their patience and their faith.

"As time goes on, it gets worse," Bunny Croteau said. "You don't have answers, but you continue to pray."

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