Guest Post: Book Review

Death of an Altar Boy E.J. Fleming Croteau

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.

momReviewed 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]

Bishop Christopher Weldon Springfield MA
Bishop Christopher Weldon

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.

Boston Globe 2002During 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.

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Book Review

  1. Heartbreaking.

    Anyone who hurts a child has no soul. The fact that for decades the Church has covered up child rapes is beyond anything I can fathom.

  2. One can only hope and pray that Father Mark’s book will garner National Attention similar to “Death of an Altar Boy”

  3. Another story of abuse yet unheard of by me.
    Another paper article of abuse Sept 30th Louisiana Priest Arrested for filming threesome with two dominatrix’s on church altar. (St Peter and Paul Catholic Church)
    I have been discouraged to say the least this past year. This morning it has turned to a physical sickness.
    We Catholics are under siege from the devil himself. Spiritually – Physically – Emotionally.
    We have our Pastor Father Mark White suspended by the very hierarchy who hides and secretly has covered up so many abuses. I won’t live long enough, nor do I care to, to read – hear or see it all.
    I feel stuck in a mire of bile I can’t clean off or lift out of.
    If we as a Catholic Group cannot reach rectification for our innocent Pastor – What in my Lord’s name can we do for our Church?
    I will continue on in this battle but don’t question my tears for weakness look to them as a justified tear of anger.
    God help us all and Priest like our Pastor Father Mark White.

  4. Sheila, let the tears of “Christ” wash over you and wash away all of the bile you speak of. What we continue to do in seeking “Justice for Father Mark” is in the larger sense for the cleansing of the Church. Remember Satan loses in the end!

    1. Thank you Joe…I saw a picture once of a checker board with Christ and the devil on it. I knew that the Lord would win but the battle is intense. I will use the tears as a cleanser and use them as a fortification for the tempest ahead. The Lord will always win and I just need to steady my ship. Bless you and all of us.
      .

  5. I think it may be possible that years ago, some hierarchy members either remained silent or covered up, out of misled devotion to keeping the image of the Church pure. More likely, however, is that the majority of those who remained silent and/or covered up, did so to protect themselves due to their own sins and involvement! Bless you Sheila for your sorrow. We are indeed under attack from the devil in so many ways.

  6. I’d love for someone to read my review and comment on the most important person in it: Danny. He’s the victim — of sex abuse and of murder.
    Ann White

    1. I read it, and have already ordered the book. I hope when a Father Mark completes his book we can see to it that it gets wide distribution.

      Joe

      Sent from my iPhone

      >

  7. Ann your review on the young victim of sexual abuse, Danny. by clergy was to me obviously critiqued by the comments above. Explosive sorrow
    There is no measure of sorrow more pervasive in my heart than those who have been assualted in every bit of their being and soul by who we look to as men of God.
    The overriding of perhaps the review you look to is perhaps numbed by the audacity of the hierarchy to not be falling on their knees for forgiveness to the ravaging of these abused souls and persons and corrupting the process to prosecute the abusers.
    This story like so many hidden before just coming to light is beyond numbing and soulfully horrific.
    While I’ve heard many times from you – prayers are good but you need to speak out and into faces of the abusers…Not only do I pray for all abused I am trying to speak out to the church via the group formed for and with your son.
    The sickness I feel today is for Danny and all the Nathans before and after him.

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