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Vatican defrocks Lavigne, Springfield, MA Priest

January 21, 2004
By BILL ZAJAC - Springfield Republican

SPRINGFIELD - Richard R. Lavigne, a convicted child molester and the only suspect in the 1972 unsolved murder of a 13-year-old Springfield altar boy, has been defrocked by the Roman Catholic Church.

It is the first time in the diocese's history a priest has been involuntarily removed.

The actual date of the Vatican's decision to defrock Lavigne was Nov. 20, but he will continue to receive diocesan benefits six months past that date under a decision by the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre, the bishop of the Springfield Diocese. Lavigne can also petition for assistance from a special fund set up by unnamed donors to assist defrocked priests.

The defrocking of the 62-year-old Chicopee resident, who pleaded guilty in 1992 to molesting two boys and has been accused by about 40 people of abusing them as minors, drew mixed reactions.

"I think the defrocking is great. It is about time," said Andre P. Tessier, 45, of West Hartford, who last year filed a suit accusing Lavigne of sexually abusing him as a minor at St. Mary's Church in Springfield.

Although Lavigne's current $1,030 monthly stipend and $8,800 in annual health benefits will end May 31, Lavigne can seek charity from the diocese under canon law.

Tessier expressed anger that the diocese may still continue helping Lavigne financially.

"The diocese has treated this man with more compassion than it has treated me and other victims," Tessier said.

If he does seek help, a lay panel of financial and legal professionals would seek to determine if Lavigne is "truly indigent." If he were deemed indigent, money would be given to him from a newly created fund established by gifts from people who have expressed a desire to help priests removed from ministry for sexual abuse.

About $100,000 in gifts has been donated by a handful of lay people the last few months, according to diocesan officials, who added that donors wanted to remain anonymous.

"What kind of person would want to donate money to abusive priests?" said Tessier.

In a separate statement, Dupre stated Lavigne would have to agree to cooperate with the recently appointed "clergy monitor" to receive diocesan charity. Because he is now a lay person, Lavigne is no longer under the jurisdiction of the diocesan-appointed monitor.

Dupre didn't attend a press conference regarding the laicization, the official action taken by the Vatican to return Lavigne to lay status. Dupre was in Washington, D.C., to attend a pro-life rally.

Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, the vicar general of the diocese, said at the press conference that Dupre notified Lavigne in person of the defrocking Saturday at Lavigne's one-family white house at 86 Haven St. in Chicopee.

Lavigne expressed disappointment, Sniezyk said.

Lavigne vigorously fought the defrocking last spring when a canon law hearing was conducted through written briefs.

"He still maintains his innocence of all allegations, except the two to which he pled guilty," said Sniezyk, adding that Lavigne blames many of his problems on the media.

When a reporter sought comment at Lavigne's home yesterday afternoon, no one answered the door.

Although the Vatican's decision was made Nov. 20, it wasn't received until Jan. 9 by the Springfield Diocese.

"It took us awhile to release this because it had to be translated from Latin," said Sniezyk, adding that information about Lavigne's convictions, statements from alleged victims and many media reports were a part of the file the diocese sent to the Vatican.

The Vatican's decision doesn't allow for any appeal or recourse.

Although Sniezyk said it is the first involuntary defrocking in the history of the diocese, he said there have been at least several voluntary ones in which a priest sought to be returned to lay status.

The Rev. James J. Scahill, the East Longmeadow pastor whose parish has been protesting the diocese's financial support of Lavigne, questioned why the defrocking took so long.

"Finally, 30 years after clerical and criminal misbehavior, the church has seen fit to laicize Richard Lavigne," said Scahill, whose parish has been withholding for a year and a half 6 percent of its weekly collections usually earmarked for the bishop's office.

"We will continue in our resolve to withhold this money in protest until an absolute legal arrangement is in place guaranteeing that he is not receiving any contributions from the church," Scahill said.

Scahill accused the church of being hypocritical by allowing Lavigne to receive the holy Eucharist.

"Why is it this same church doesn't offer the same compassion to millions of good Catholic adults who have been married and divorced and who are no longer welcome at the Eucharist table?" Scahill said.

The mother of murdered altar boy Daniel Croteau expressed a sense of satisfaction.

"Thank God for this. I think it is great. And it's about time - maybe about 31 years too late," said Bernice 'Bunny' Croteau.

Within days of the 1972 murder of her son, Lavigne was identified as the prime suspect. However, he wasn't publicly identified as a murder suspect until 1994 when Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett initiated an effort to link Lavigne to the murder through DNA testing. The effort failed and Bennett announced the case was closed.

Last year, Bennett said the case remained open and active and that he is using new DNA testing methods on evidence.

Overall, about 40 people have accused Lavigne of sexually abusing them as minors, according to Sniezyk.

The diocese settled suits with 17 Lavigne accusers for $1.4 million in the 1990s. Currently about 15 people are involved in litigation with the diocese over accusations of abuse against Lavigne.

Lavigne was classified by the state last year as a sexual offender with a high risk to offend again.

Bernice Croteau said she disagrees with the church's financial support of Lavigne, but the defrocking offers "hope."

Sandra Tessier, the mother of alleged victim Andre Tessier, expressed profound disappointment with diocesan officials for facilitating the fund to help sexually abusive priests.

"I am numb. I don't know why the church would do this. The church allowed this man's lust for children to be satisfied and now they have a fund to help him. How about my lust for justice. This man has never been imprisoned," said a tearful Tessier, who characterized herself as a devout Catholic who sits in the front pew of weekend services.

Lavigne was ordained in 1966 by the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon. Although he had asked his superiors to allow him to teach at Cathedral High School in Springfield, he was assigned to about seven parishes. He was serving at St. Joseph's Parish in Shelburne Falls when he was arrested in 1991 on molestation charges.

When then Bishop John Marshall removed Lavigne from ministry after his arrest in 1991, Marshall said he didn't seek defrocking because it was a long, cumbersome process. Dupre cited the same reasons for not seeking the defrocking until U.S. bishops developed a streamlined process in writing in the wake of the national clergy sexual abuse scandal that began unfolding about two years ago.

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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests