by E.J. Fleming
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
A new book exploring the unsolved 1972 murder of Danny Croteau, 13, of Springfield, paints a damning portrait of then Springfield bishop Christopher J. Weldon as man who obstructed justice and may have sexually abused a young boy in the 1950s.Drawing on more than 10,000 pages of police and court records and interviews with Croteau's family, friends, fellow abuse victims and church officials, author E.J. Fleming ("Tread Softly: Bullying and the Death of Phoebe Prince") looks at the killing and the only publicly named suspect -- Richard R. Lavigne, a since defrocked priest who has been the subject of claims from 40 alleged victims of sexual abuse. Weldon is characterized as a "despotic ruler with connections to politicians, police and newspapermen," who covered up sexual abuse by priests.
Fleming includes the accusations of Texas inmate William Burnett, who says his uncle, a priest, had molested him as a child and "handed him off to five other priests from 1950 through 1959." One of the five was Weldon claimed Burnett, who is serving time for killing a man in a Houston motel. Burnett reportedly passed two polygraph tests regarding his accusations against Weldon. "Death of an Altar Boy" alleges an unholy alliance between Weldon and then Hampden County District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan. It speculates that the DA did not pursue the Croteau murder at the urging of Weldon, who in exchange helped keep Ryan from facing political challengers. The 222-page book also takes to task one of Weldon's successors, Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, who left his position in disgrace amid The Republican's reporting of child sex abuse allegations in 2004. Later, Dupre was indicted by a Hampden County grand jury on charges that he sexually assaulted two altar boys, ages 12 and 13, more than three decades prior. As diocesan chancellor in 1982, Dupre reportedly told members of the presbyteral council that Weldon had ordered a housecleaning of a secret archive of files on every priest in the diocese. An unidentified priest recalled Dupre with "glee in his voice and glee in his eye almost gloating about it." The book also cites the findings of the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canonical law expert who has researches thousands of abuse claims. Doyle's conclusions about the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield included: Officials realized the extent of clergy abuse prior 1971.Law enforcement was never notified about allegations received prior or before 1971.The diocese did not conduct even cursory investigations prior to 1971.The diocese failed to adequately supervise priests known to have abused.
While the book notes lauds the investigative work by former Republican reporter Bill Zajac and the public stand taken by retired East Longmeadow pastor Rev. James J. Scahill, it is highly critical of the diocese, Weldon and the bishops that followed: "Elliott Street evolved no more than the Vatican. From 1972, when priests stopped police from searching Lavigne's quarters, into the 2010s, when even bishops became openly uncooperative, the diocese continue to show bad judgment. Over time, intransigence turned to outright truculence. Weldon lied endlessly about his knowledge of abuse. (Bishop Joseph F.) McGuire, annoyed he was forced to answer questions about Danny at all, banned Church comment on the subject. (Bishop John A.) Marshall launched his ineffectual, confrontational commission to a job to address the problem and lied repeatedly about his early knowledge. Dupre gutted his Secret Archives. The week he arrived in Springfield in March 2004, (Bishop Timothy A.) McDonnel attacked in the press the first critical priest he encountered. It is not surprising that Springfield was the last diocese in Massachusetts to share the identities of accused priests with district attorneys."
"Death of an Altar Boy" also names several prominent priests and church officials, who have been accused of sexually abusing children. It details how the diocese handled those claims. Springfield Diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont said he was unaware of the book until contacted by The Republican. "To the best of my knowledge the author made no attempt to contact us during what I assume would have been an exhaustive research effort. So having not read the book I would not be able to offer any direct comment," Dupont said. "I would say that as a faith community we remain committed to correcting our past failures by reaching out to victims of abuse as well as constantly updating and improving our training and protection efforts. It is an ongoing effort that we as a church community remain fully committed to continuing. And as such we stand ready to assist victims of abuse, even if that abuse occurred decades ago."