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St. Michael’s Cathedral in Springfield, Mass. / John Phelan/wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0

Springfield, Mass., May 25, 2021 / 14:05 pm (CNA).

A Massachusetts prosecutor announced Monday that a convicted sex offender who had been dismissed from the clerical state, and who died last week, was responsible for the death of an altar boy nearly 50 years ago. 

The suspect, a former priest, Richard Lavigne, died in hospital May 21 at age 80. 

On May 24, Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni announced at a press conference that their investigation had concluded that Lavigne had killed Daniel Croteau, 13, who was found beaten and floating in a local river in April 1972. 

Lavigne, who was reportedly a family friend of the Croteaus and would often take the Croteau children on outings alone, was pegged early on as a suspect in the Springfield altar boy’s death. 

According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Lavigne pled guilty in 1992 to sexually abusing two boys, and was sentenced to ten years probation. Two years later, the Diocese of Springfield in Massachusetts reached a $1.4 million settlement with his abuse victims, and Lavigne was dismissed from the clerical state in 2003. 

Daniel’s brother Carl Croteau has said that his brother would return from being with Lavigne on the weekends, and would be sick to his stomach from drinking alcohol, the Gazette reported. 

The investigators say they suspect Lavigne killed Daniel because he threatened to reveal that Lavigne was sexually abusing him, too. 

At the press conference, Gulluni played audio recordings of April and May 2021 interviews with Lavigne, conducted by Massachusetts State Police. 

In the recordings, the elderly Lavigne did not directly admit to killing Croteau, but did admit that he was likely the last person to see the boy alive; that he at one point “gave him a good shove” after taking him to the riverbank the day before his body was found; and that he later saw the boy’s body floating in the river but did not alert anyone. 

Authorities also found evidence that an anonymous letter that Lavigne received, which purported to be from Croteau’s killer, was actually written by Lavigne himself in an attempt to confuse investigators. 

Carl Croteau also received a strange telephone call two days after Daniel’s death from an anonymous person who said “we’re very sorry what happened to Danny” and that his death was an “accident.” Carl says he now believes the voice to have been Lavigne’s.

Gulluni, the district attorney, declined to reveal the manner in which Lavigne died, but said he had been ill for some time. 

“We’re disappointed that he’s not being brought to justice,” the victim’s brother, Joe Croteau, said at the press conference, as reported by the Gazette. 

Springfield’s recently installed bishop, William Byrne, on Monday expressed his “personal and sincerest apology to the Croteau family.”

“It is incredibly disheartening to learn that a priest, a person ordained to care for God’s people, would have committed such an evil crime and then not taken responsibility for his actions. This is all totally contrary to the teachings that we as Catholics believe in and hold sacred,” Bishop Byrne wrote in a statement.

“It is also another reminder of our past failures as a Church and a diocese to protect children and young adults from such terrible predators in our midst. Although we have made great strides in improving our child protection efforts, that is little consolation to the victims of Richard Lavigne and the numerous other sexual predator clergy who preyed upon our youth.”

He urged any additional victims of abuse to come forward and report their experience to both law enforcement and the diocese. 

Springfield’s bishop from 1995-2004, Bishop Thomas Dupre, reportedly came under criticism for his response to Lavigne. 

In February 2004, Dupre himself resigned and left the state to check into a medical facility soon after being confronted by allegations he had sexually abused two teen boys in the 1970s.

In September 2004, he became the first Catholic bishop in the U.S. to be indicted on criminal charges for sexual abuse, but he did not ultimately stand trial. He died in 2016. 

Former Springfield bishop Mitchell Rozanski, now Archbishop of St. Louis, is accused in a lawsuit of covering up abuse allegations in Springfield. The plaintiff claims he suffered trauma as a result of the diocese’s mishandling of an abuse allegation he brought against the late  Christopher Weldon, Bishop of Springfield from 1950-1977. 

Archbishop Rozanski has admitted that the diocese mishandled the abuse case, which the plaintiff says he first brought to the diocese’s attention in November 2014.