updated 1/20/2004 7:24:15 PM ET 2004-01-21T00:24:15

A convicted pedophile priest who is a suspect in the murder of an altar boy has been defrocked decades after the allegations surfaced, the Springfield Diocese announced Tuesday.

Richard Lavigne was defrocked by the pope on Nov. 20 and will be removed from the payroll on May 31, Springfield Bishop Thomas Dupre said.

Lavigne pleaded guilty in 1992 to molesting two altar boys, and was suspected by authorities but never charged with killing another one — Danny Croteau — in 1972. The boy’s family believes Lavigne abused their son, and killed the child to stop him from reporting it.

Lavigne, 62, was sentenced to a treatment facility and 10 years of probation. He was barred from serving as a priest, but still received a monthly stipend and health insurance totaling more than $20,000 a year.

“This is the beginning of attaining justice for the victims of Richard Lavigne,” said John Stobierski, the lawyer representing most victims suing Lavigne.

Msgr. Richard Sniezyk said the diocese has received at least 40 complaints of abuse by Lavigne since the 1970s.

Long history of suspicion, settlement
In the 1990s the diocese settled suits for $1.4 million with 17 men who accused Lavigne of abusing them. Within the past two years, at least 15 other people have filed lawsuits accusing Lavigne of abuse.

Dupre said announcing the pope’s decision “brings me no pleasure.”

“Indeed no priest or bishop can ever take pleasure in seeing such a severe penalty handed down,” he said. “As Christians, we must remain faithful to the church teaching of love and forgiveness and as such, I commend Richard Lavigne to our prayers.”

Sniezyk said Lavigne maintains his innocence and was “disappointed” when he learned on Saturday that the Vatican defrocked him.

Lavigne’s lawyer, Max Stern, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Dismissal from the priesthood is a fairly unusual and complicated process. Since the clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in the Boston Archdiocese two years ago, about two dozen priests have been suspended from the archdiocese, but none have yet been defrocked.

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