Death of an Altar Boy: The Unsolved Murder of Danny Croteau and the Culture of Abuse in the Catholic Church by E.J. Fleming, 2018.
Reviewed by Ann White
In 1972, thirteen year-old Danny Croteau was found dead in the Chicopee River near Springfield, Massachusetts. Danny’s head was gashed, his jaw broken, his clothes stained with blood. This book about Danny’s death reads like a murder mystery novel; in fact, it tells a shockingly true story.
Danny Croteau was a Catholic altar boy and the victim of priestly sexual abuse. Author E.J. Fleming’s understanding of Danny’s murder comes from 10,000 documents and interviews and from the fact that Fleming’s background was similar to Danny’s. Fleming, too, was a Catholic altar boy in Springfield, MA–but not in Danny Croteau’s parish and not with an abusing priest.
The Springfield district attorney charged no one in Danny’s murder. The physical evidence was weak, some of it lost and some of it mishandled, but the D. A. nonetheless believed that it pointed directly at Father Richard Lavigne, a priest who sexually abused the boy. The lead detective on the case agreed, saying that if Lavigne had been an ordinary factory worker, he would have been charged with murder.
So why didn’t the district attorney seek an indictment?
According to Fleming, the district attorney may have been part of a cover-up orchestrated by Bishop Christopher Weldon. The bishop exercised great influence over the police in Catholic-dominated Springfield and could easily have pressured the D.A. to leave Lavigne alone. Bishop Weldon knew that Lavigne was an abuser. He had a secret archive with specific dates, events, and victims’ names. He hid thousands of abuse cases, warning a doctor who told him of one incident, “You can’t tell anyone about this. Great harm would come to the Church . . .” Fleming believes that Weldon “was undoubtedly as dedicated to protecting his Church from the scandal of a single murder as he was to hiding thousands of abuse cases.” [click HERE to read about Weldon’s own criminal abuse]
Danny’s mom called her son “a real boy” who reminded her of Huckleberry Finn. He loved the outdoors, riding his bike everywhere and going fishing as often as he could. He excelled at boxing and wrestling and also at beating up anyone who dared to insult him or his family. An even-tempered boy who never started a fight, Danny was quick to retaliate if someone made him angry. He never lost a fight. Still, the nuns who were his teachers didn’t consider him a problem student.
Those nuns perhaps didn’t see the contradiction in Danny’s life that Fleming describes as “equal parts cherubic altar boy and troubled kid.” He hung out with a group of slightly older boys who drank, used drugs, stole from their families and broke into houses and cars. “Troubled-kid” Danny smoked marijuana, smuggled liquor into Boy Scout meetings and was a chronic shoplifter. “Altar-boy” Danny hung out with Father Lavigne, spending every Friday and Saturday night at the rectory and serving every Sunday Mass with Lavigne.
At age thirteen, Danny hinted to others about Lavigne’s abuse. When Danny told a friend that Lavigne “hurt him,” the friend understood that he meant sexual abuse. Danny’s comments prompted a member of his gang to figure out that Lavigne was molesting Danny.
Father “Dickie” Lavigne was a master of the methods used by abusers to soften up their victims. He took boys on day trips, weekend trips, and vacations to Florida, California, New York City, and Canada. He gave presents to them and to their families. He got them to chug glasses of vodka while pretending to do the same with a glass of water, and he let them drink wine from his personal chalice in the church sacristy. The lead-up to sex was carefully scripted: several nights in the rectory sleeping with a boy in a room with a single bed, without any sexual advances, and giving the boy wine to help him sleep. On the night when Lavigne finally touched a sleeping boy’s genitals, the priest would pretend it was an accident.
During the Boston Globe Spotlight investigation, an attorney general rebelled against the weak vocabulary used to discuss the cases.
“We throw this word abuse around, and it’s a nice, inoffensive word.” But, he said, the word abuse doesn’t capture the violence of raping children.
Dickie Lavigne may or may not have murdered Danny Croteau, but there is no doubt that his sexual abuse involved violence. [warning: PG-13] He slapped boys’ buttocks and smacked their testicles with the back of his hand. Fleming writes: “Sometimes, after forcing victims to perform fellatio while kneeling in front of him, he viciously beat them. They must feel pain as Jesus did, he said.” Lavigne lurched his car at a boy after dropping him off at a secluded spot on a narrow road. He threatened death to more than one boy if they told anyone.
The Church tried to deny justice to Danny Croteau and to every other sexual abuse victim in the Springfield diocese. As diocesan co-chancellor, Father Thomas Dupre destroyed all mention of sexual abuse in the diocese’s secret archives. Dupre later became the bishop, after Lavigne pled guilty to several charges of sexual abuse and was removed from his parish. But Bishop Dupre insisted for several years that Lavigne remain a priest. Abusers were like family, Dupre said, and “families would not disown the guilty party.” Dupre resigned as bishop when a newspaper story revealed that he himself had abused minors.
Abuser Dupre had said to one of his victims: “I’m God. You are sleeping with God.” The Catholic laypeople of Springfield apparently came close to agreeing with him. Clergymen could do no wrong. In Fleming’s words, priests were “presumed pure of thought, and assumed infallible.” Parishioners cried when they heard the news that Lavigne had been arrested and charged with child sexual assault. One woman said the arrest almost killed her; another called Lavigne “a beautiful man.” If these Catholics couldn’t believe that Lavigne was an abuser, how could they ever think he was a murderer?
Almost fifty years after Danny Croteau’s death, his murder remains unsolved. E.J. Fleming’s book honors Danny’s memory. It tells the story of Danny’s short life, and it documents his murder and its investigation.
Death of An Altar Boy also tells the ugly truth about sexual abuse, the truth that the hierarchy has for so long tried to hide. When Fleming published his book in 2018, the spokesman for the Springfield diocese criticized the author’s research, rather than welcome the light that the book shines on the whole tragic story. Sexual abuse is grisly, inhuman, and evil. The laity didn’t understand that. The hierarchy appears not to care.