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Abuse case resolution can’t erase years of inaction

Wed., Sept. 19, 2012

Steve O'Connor gathers his thoughts after talking about his life after an interview, Sept. 17, 2012 in Spokane, Wash.  O'Connor recently received the largest jury award in Washington State history in a priest abuse case. He was abused as a boy in a Seattle Catholic school and won a $8 million judgement.   (Dan Pelle)
Steve O'Connor gathers his thoughts after talking about his life after an interview, Sept. 17, 2012 in Spokane, Wash. O'Connor recently received the largest jury award in Washington State history in a priest abuse case. He was abused as a boy in a Seattle Catholic school and won a $8 million judgement. (Dan Pelle)

Everybody knew. Nobody did anything.

That’s what emerges again and again throughout the long, heart-wrenching story of Steve O’Connor, his extensive abuse at the hands of a Catholic-school teacher, and the decades of denial that shrouded it all – starting when he was in seventh grade and extending to a recent $8 million jury verdict, among the largest of its kind.

“How many times am I going to hear that everybody knew about it?” asks O’Connor, a 63-year-old retired policeman living in Spokane. “I guess the rest of my life, I’m going to hear, ‘We all knew about it. Everybody knew about it.’ ”

O’Connor recalls his 1950s childhood in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle as something out of Norman Rockwell.

“All the women were homemakers,” he said. “All the dads worked during the day. Every family had one car. Every family had six, eight, 10 kids. And everybody went to St. Benedict’s.”

And one of the routines for every sixth-grade class at St. Benedict school was the annual division into two seventh-grade classes – one taught by a nun, the other by lay teacher Daniel Adamson. O’Connor said Adamson – a man with a fearsome reputation for the paddle – would enter the sixth-grade classrooms and select his students.

“He would hand-pick,” O’Connor said. “He would go around in the sixth grade and put his hand on your desk.”

As a sixth-grader, O’Connor was chosen. The following year, Adamson began to give O’Connor small classroom responsibilities, and gradually larger ones. He was one of “Adamson’s boys,” and that came with certain perks, including visits to Adamson’s basement – a legendary spot among the other students, complete with an elaborate train set.

But being Adamson’s boy had horrific consequences, O’Connor said. Between 1962 and 1964, Adamson raped O’Connor regularly, at his home, at the school, in the church, in motel rooms. O’Connor describes the nature of the abuse as “terrible, unbelievable and horrific.”

From the start, O’Connor told people about it.

“I told a lot of people,” he said. “And I told them in deep detail.”

First, he told his pastor and assistant pastor in the confessional. On another occasion, he was called into the principal’s office and questioned about the horseplay in the schoolyard known as “goose-fighting” – when boys would grab each other in the crotch.

“I blurted out, ‘We learned that from Mr. Adamson. He does that all the time,’ ” he said.

The principal didn’t seem very curious about that, O’Connor said. In a later meeting with his pastor, O’Connor went further, telling him in detail about the abuse.

“His general response was: ‘You’re a liar,’ ” O’Connor said.

Two other men testified during a King County trial this year that they’d had similar experiences, telling the Rev. Henry Conrad, a priest with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, about abuse at the hands of Adamson and being ignored.

By the time he reached his sophomore year in high school, O’Connor had put a stop to the sexual abuse. The relationship exploded into a physical confrontation at Adamson’s house; the teacher kicked the boy, hard, between the legs, severely injuring O’Connor’s testicle. He was hospitalized and recuperated at home for several weeks. When he returned to school, he discovered that, again, nothing had happened to Adamson.

When he was a junior, O’Connor decided to tell his father. His father – a “pay, pray, obey” Catholic – told him he’d look into it. And then, again, nothing. O’Connor blew up: He gave away his clothing and his car, dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Marines.

“That didn’t get anybody’s attention either, so – end of story. Wound up in the jungle,” he said.

O’Connor served in the Marines in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969. He was injured twice and contracted a case of malaria.

Dan Adamson, meanwhile, was promoted to school principal.

O’Connor returned from Vietnam, worked as a military police officer for a few years, and then moved on. He married a woman he’d known since childhood, and they raised four children.

Did it haunt him, those experiences? Did it shadow his life?

“I felt I had a very unique blocking system,” he said. “Whenever those thoughts would enter my mind … I could block it.”

O’Connor crossed his forearms as he said this, as though he were physically blocking an opponent.

“I had to totally block the whole thing,” he said. “Just exactly like I was able to block Vietnam.”

O’Connor and his wife moved to Spokane about 10 years ago, after his retirement from police work. They attended St. Thomas More Catholic Church and participated in parish activities. Several years ago, he was “dragged, literally kicking and screaming” to a hundred-year celebration of St. Benedict with his wife and a friend. Adamson died years ago; O’Connor wondered how his memory would be handled.

“There was just no mention of the guy,” he said. “No pictures of him. His name wasn’t on the classroom where they listed the seventh-grade teachers – his name wasn’t on there. Not a word.”

O’Connor revisited some of spots in the school where some of the worst abuse had occurred: the school’s projection booth, the area underneath the auditorium stairs, the boys’ bathroom. In the bathroom was the same tile, the same radiator, the same cracked sinks, the same stalls.

“I was back in 1962,” he said. “I was just – zoom – right back there.”

He decided he would try again to tell the story. That meant starting with his wife, who had grown up right down the street from him and attended St. Benedict, too.

“Needless to say,” O’Connor said, “she wasn’t surprised.”

O’Connor contacted Seattle attorney Michael Pfau, who’s represented scores of sex abuse victims in Washington cases, including the multimillion-dollar claims against the Diocese of Spokane. O’Connor filed a complaint against the Archdiocese of Seattle, which ran St. Benedict school, and the Oblate Fathers of Western Province.

The Archdiocese quickly agreed to mediate the case and settled for $500,000. The Oblates fought. At trial, the defense team dragged out a laundry list of O’Connor’s traumatic experiences from Vietnam and his service as a police officer, all to cast doubt on his credibility, to spread responsibility for his trauma, to muddy the water, Pfau said.

Attorneys for the Oblates argued during trial that the statute of limitations had run out on the crimes, and that others were primarily responsible. A message seeking comment from the order was not returned.

In July, a King County jury awarded O’Connor $8 million. It was one of the largest awards in a sexual abuse case in state history; it was lowered to $6.4 million because two other orders were also found partially responsible.

O’Connor is well aware what some defenders of the faith say about cases like his: He did it for the money. He says he did it for the justice.

“He is not the guy who’s looking for $8 million,” Pfau said. “He settled with the Seattle Archdiocese for $500,000 – and I, as his lawyer, told him not to.”

His whole life, Steve O’Connor was a Catholic. Before, during and after the years that he was raped as a child – Catholic. Before, during and after the years that his repeated abuse was ignored by every adult around him – Catholic.

But O’Connor came to feel betrayed, not just by his teacher and childhood priest, but by a churchwide system of denial and ignoring and victim-blaming.

“I stopped ever, ever being a Catholic,” he said. “I don’t want any part of it, ever again, as long as I live.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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