Memorial held 49 years on for slain altar boy Danny Croteau after late priest named as killer


Staff Writer

Published: 06-28-2021 8:51 PM

SPRINGFIELD — As Bunny Croteau drove home one day in the early 1970s, she noticed a vehicle drive by in the other direction, the driver looking an awful lot like her 11-year-old son, Danny.

So, when Bunny got home, she looked around for Danny, but he was nowhere to be found. Then she saw another car arrive at the house.

“And who pulls into the driveway?” his brother Joseph recounted Monday, some five decades later, drawing laughter from the audience gathered at Hillcrest Cemetery in Springfield. “Danny.”

The car, he said, was a stick shift that not even Bunny could drive. Expecting anger from their father, Carl, Joseph recounted that his dad finally just asked Danny: “How the heck did you learn how to drive that car?”

Joseph Croteau remembered his brother’s intelligence, clever pranks and kindness before dozens of loved ones and community members gathered under two green shade tents, spilling out into the grass around the site where Danny Croteau was buried in 1972.

At that first funeral service, the Catholic priest presiding was Richard Lavigne. Last month, Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said he had concluded that Lavigne, who had been convicted of sexually abusing children, had murdered Croteau all those years ago, dumping his body into the Chicopee River. Lavigne had died of COVID-19 days before Gulluni’s announcement.

The funeral service was a memorial for Croteau, weeks after his family finally received some kind of closure in the murder case. Five decades later, Croteau lies buried next to his parents and two deceased brothers, Gregory and Michael.

“This will finally allow Danny, my parents, two deceased brothers, to finally rest in peace,” Joseph Croteau said.

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Gulluni, who was in attendance at the memorial service Monday, announced May 24, days after Lavigne’s death in Greenfield, that he had been preparing to present recently gathered evidence to a judge to obtain an arrest warrant for the 80-year-old Lavigne for the murder of Croteau.

The 13-year-old altar boy was found beaten to death and floating in the Chicopee River in 1972, and since then authorities had acknowledged only one suspect — Lavigne, who was defrocked in 2004, 12 years after he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing minors. In 1994, the Catholic church settled 17 sex abuse complaints against Lavigne, paying out $1.4 million.

The evidence against Lavigne in Croteau’s death was based on hospital-bed interviews that state police conducted with the former priest in April and May. In the recordings, Lavigne admitted to being the last to see Croteau, to shoving him by the river and to seeing him later, floating face down.

Lavigne met the Croteau family in 1967, while assigned to St. Catherine of Sienna Parish in Springfield. He was reassigned to St. Mary’s Parish in Springfield in 1968 but maintained close relations with the family. The diocese eventually placed Lavigne in St. Joseph’s Parish in Shelburne Falls, where he was pastor when he was arrested in 1991.

Lifting the clouds

For some, Monday’s memorial service was the sixth time attending such an event at the gravesite. But Monday’s service felt different, with laughter, applause and crying coming from the crowd at times.

James Scahill, the retired pastor of St. Michael’s Parish in East Longmeadow, gave an address at the memorial service. He said that, 49 years ago, the Croteau family and friends had gathered at that space “under the weight of grief and the heavy shroud of confusion.”

“Today, those 49-year survivors and new family and friends gather yet again with the pain of grief somewhat healed by time,” he said. Now, he added, the heaviness of confusion and suspicion had been “finally removed.”

Scahill said that across the world, there are millions of victims of abuse, as Croteau and some of his brothers were. He spoke highly of Croteau’s parents, describing them as the “salt of the earth” and “simple in the very best of ways.” He said they correctly suspected that a priest could be evil and a murderer.

“They dealt with hatred spewed at them for thinking such a thing of a priest,” Scahill said, criticizing those people as followers of a cult.

Scahill noted that shortly after Lavigne made his new admissions to state police, he died. He said that there was a longing for justice and human punishment, but that Lavigne — whose name Scahill did not utter once — will face a higher form of justice from God. He pondered whether Lavigne’s death was providential, quoting next from the Bible.

“Never repay evil for evil to anyone,” he read from the Book of Romans. “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God.”

Scahill urged those present to fight for laws to protect children from abuse and to punish their abusers and those who enabled that abuse. He had strong criticisms for the Roman Catholic Church for what he described as its hypocrisy when it came to the issue of abuse.

“Death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight,” Scahill said. “Lift us up, God, that we might see farther.”

Standing together with his brother Carl Croteau Jr., Joseph Croteau played the ballad “Danny Boy” to end the service:

“Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling. From glen to glen, and down the mountainside. The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling. It’s you. It’s you must go and I must bide.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at]]>