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. Continue reading “Guest Post: Book Review”→
[A long and complicated story, dear reader. And painful.
But true. And important.]
In volume III of her historical study Rite of Sodomy, Randy Engel describes how she began an extended personal correspondence with an inmate of a Texas prison. Mr. William Burnett is serving a sixty-year sentence for murder. Their first exchange of letters occurred in February, 2002.
In 1995, Burnett had written to the then-bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts. Burnett had described the sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of a number of priests and bishops, during the 1950’s. The list of those who had abused him included: Springfield Bishop Christopher Weldon. Also, Worcester Bishop, and later Cardinal of the Roman Curia, John Wright.
Unfortunately for Burnett, the man who received his 1995 letter–Bishop Thomas Dupré–was himself a serial sexual abuser of minors. In 2010, lawyers attempted to depose Dupré for a civil lawsuit against him, which claimed damages for sexual abuse. At the deposition, Dupré stated his name and date of birth, then pleaded the fifth.
In 2005, Burnett found a lawyer willing to work with him in prison. He sued the Diocese of Springfield. Burnett took a polygraph test on his claims about Bishop Weldon. The test found Burnett truthful. Twice.
When Burnett filed his lawsuit, David Clohessy, of the Survivors Network of the those Abused by Priests, commented on the credibility of a convicted murderer, when it comes to a claim of sexual abuse as a minor:
If you told your spouse you were in a horrific accident on the highway and then walked in the house without as much as a scratch, then that would raise credibility concerns. The same can be said for victims of clergy abuse.
The diocese said they had no records whatsoever that could corroborate Burnett’s charges.
Later, in 2018, Mr. E.J. Fleming published his thorough investigation into the death of one of his childhood friends, Death of an Altar Boy. The boy’s case remains unsolved to this day. In his book, Fleming documents how Dupré destroyed all the sex-abuse records in 1977, shortly after Weldon’s death. Dupré served as chancellor of the diocese at the time. So, of course they could find no records, in 2005.
In 2005, the Diocese of Springfield dismissed Burnett’s claims as not credible.
In 2014, another man–let’s call him John Doe–approached the Diocese of Springfield to allege that multiple priests had abused and brutally raped him, including Bishop Christopher Weldon.
Nearly four years then passed. The diocese did nothing, reported nothing to anyone. Even though Doe had spoken to diocesan employees who had a legal obligation to report what they had heard to law enforcement.
In 2018, John Doe again asked the diocese for some kind of justice. He had a hard time getting the diocesan sex-abuse review board to hear him. But finally, in June of 2018, he had the opportunity to recount everything, at a review-board meeting.
In September of that year, the chairman of the review board, Mr. John Hale, wrote to John Doe, informing him that the board found his charges credible. Hale’s letter stipulated that all further action lay in the hands of the sitting bishop, Mitch Rozanski.
As we know from our own experience here in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia: The prelates of the American Church went through a sequence of generic actions after the crushing summer of 2018. Feeling public pressure because of McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand-Jury Report, many of the American bishops proceeded to hold “listening sessions” and to publish lists of “credibly accused clergy.”
Rozanski marched in step with this. At one “listening session,” Mr. Doe apparently spoke, in Rozanski’s hearing, about what he had suffered. This took place months after Doe had received his “you’re-credible” letter from the diocesan review board.
Then the Springfield diocese dutifully published its list of credibly accused clergy. Bishop Christopher Weldon’s name did not appear on it.
At this point, John Doe had had enough. He went to a newspaper reporter.
Thus began the truly alarming events of June 2019 in the diocese of Springfield MA. Even though its own review board had written to Mr. Doe the preceding September, declaring his allegations credible, the diocese insisted to the Berkshire Eagle newspaper that no one had ever accused Bishop Christopher Weldon of sexual abuse.
Hearing this from the diocese, the newspaper reporter got busy. He found a member of the review board willing to go on the record. She confirmed what Mr. Doe had told the reporter. The board had heard him, and they had believed him.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the board, who had written Doe the preceding September, told the reporter the opposite of what he had told Doe in his letter. “We never found him credible on that claim,” Hale said. (Mr. Hale has since declared that he longer considers himself Catholic.)
Bishop Rozanski, rightfully embarrassed by this utter mess, claimed he wanted to know the truth.
A little strange for him to say that: The bishop had received his copy of the review-board letter the previous September, declaring Doe’s accusation credible. According to the rules for American dioceses established in 2002 (after the Boston Globe forced the bishops to do something about sex-abuse cover-ups), the process to determine the truth of John Doe’s claim had already occurred. Long since.
But Rozanski had shown precious little interest. Until bad press came his way.
Rozanski proceeded to hire a retired judge, Peter Velis, to perform a thorough review of John Doe’s allegations against Bishop Weldon. After a year-long investigation, the judge found, among other things, that…
1. The investigator retained by the diocese to look into sex-abuse claims had produced two different versions of his final report on John Doe’s allegations, in June of 2018.
Both versions of the diocesan investigator’s report are alarmingly short. And scant on details.
That said, even more alarming is this: One version included the name of Christopher Weldon. The other did not.
Judge Velis could not find anyone who could explain this.
2. The only record of the diocesan review-board meeting at which John Doe recounted his abuse was: The hand-written notes of the board’s secretary. She worked as Administrative Assistant to the bishop’s Vicar General.
She typed up her notes and then destroyed the original. She died while the judge was conducting his investigation.
3. The retired judge, after conducting his own investigation, concluded that John Doe’s accusation that Bishop Weldon raped him, when Doe was a nine-year-old boy, was unequivocally credible.
Mr. Jesse Bogan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article yesterday outlining the problems with the Springfield tenure of St. Louis’ Archbishop-elect.
Rozanski’s tenure in Springfield coincides almost exactly with the period of time during which the diocese “chronically mishandled” John Doe’s case and failed “this courageous man.”
“Chronically mishandled.” Those are Rozanski’s own words about the situation.
Strangely, Bishop Rozanski has not added any words about his own personal responsibility for the fiasco. Even though he was in charge the whole time.
Given the facts–facts crushingly embarrassing for any Catholic–I would think a responsible leader would say something like: “I resign as bishop. And I ask the Holy Father to choose someone else as the next Archbishop of St. Louis.”
Jesse notes in his article in the St. Louis newspaper: The 2002 efforts to create transparency haven’t gone far enough to give victims justice.
Judge Velis’ report on the John Doe case reads like a careful, systematic exposé of the inadequacies of the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
From 2018 to 2020, the Diocese of Springfield MA simply did not know whether or not a victim had credibly accused former bishop Christopher Weldon.
The most-charitable interpretation is: The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. A detached incompetent sat at the top of the organization. No one took responsibility.
Other, less-charitable interpretations would also stand to reason.
The fact remains: If a newspaper reporter had not gotten involved, Mr. John Doe would still have to live his private agony, with no comfort and no justice from holy Mother Church.
As we mentioned: In 2005, Mr. William Burnett accused Christopher Weldon, and other Massachusetts prelates, of sexual abuse, in civil court. At that time, the dioceses of Springfield and Worcester expressed dismay that the memories of their esteemed former bishops had to suffer such scurrilous damage. The accused have died; they cannot defend themselves! Unfair!
In his report, Judge Velis explained how you do justice to a dead ‘defendant’–who indeed deserves the presumption of innocence.
You vindicate the right to a good name that the deceased person has by investigating the charge as thoroughly as you can.
The deceased defendant, just like the living accuser, deserves more than the vague claim that ‘dead people can’t defend themselves.’ Rather, a deceased ‘defendant’ receives ‘due process’ when the living conduct a thorough investigation of all the available evidence.
Why has the Church hierarchy never engaged this insight? Why do we not have good procedures in place for evaluating charges against dead clergymen?
After all, the dead ‘defendants’ have long since gone to their final judgment. They have nothing to fear, nor to hope for, from any human tribunal. The human forensic enterprise exists to benefit us, we pilgrims still struggling on earth.
So: William Burnett… Don’t his ‘incredible’ claims look a lot more credible now? And doesn’t the evidence produced in Fleming’s book–namely, that the Diocese of Springfield not only covered-up serial sexual abuse by priests and bishops, but also the murder of one of the victims, by his priest abuser–doesn’t that evidence look a lot more important, and helpful to the cause of truth, now?
Shouldn’t the diocese acknowledge the importance of Fleming’s work, and thank him for it? Shouldn’t the diocese reach out to William Burnett?
Shouldn’t they finally do these things? Now that the Diocese of Springfiled MA has gotten itself forcibly dragged to the point where it has had to acknowledge, twenty-five years after Burnett first wrote to Bishop Dupré: Bishop Christopher Weldon was a brutal criminal.
Back when Randy Engels began publishing her huge study, a decade ago, I ignored her work. I disregarded it, classing it among the ravings of the Church’s angry lunatic fringe.
I was, clearly, dead wrong about that. The ‘angry lunatic fringe’ has gotten vindicated over and over again, these past couple years.
We have to face it: When Engels began corresponding with the incarcerated William Burnett in 2002, she did a far more heroic act of Christian charity than any of the bishops did, during that turbulent year for our Church. Englels was a lot closer to the right track than the bishops who gathered in Dallas.