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Originally published Thursday, July 5, 2012 at 9:42 PM

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$6.4 million going to Seattle Catholic-school sex-abuse victim

A Catholic-school sex-abuse victim won $6.4 million in a lawsuit against an order of priests, one of the largest awards in state history for such crimes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The thought of the deepest, most violent jungle in the Vietnam War seemed peaceful to Steve O'Connor compared with what he said he experienced as a student at St. Benedict School, a Catholic school in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood.

If he'd died, he said, he would no longer have to replay memories of being raped and abused weekly from 1961 to 1964 by lay teacher Daniel Adamson. He wouldn't have to think about how his father and the school's priests ignored his requests for help either, he said.

That's why O'Connor, now 65, says he dropped out of high school at age 17, why he enlisted as a Marine and served through two gruesome tours in Vietnam. He then did his best to block out the horrific memories of abuse and death as he moved on to become a police officer, marry and have four children, but it wasn't easy.

After hearing his story in a four-week trial, a King County Superior Court jury Thursday awarded O'Connor $6.4 million in his lawsuit against the order of priests, his lawyers say. The jury found that the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate had refused to help when a teenage O'Connor reported the abuse.

O'Connor's is one of the largest awards to a victim of a Catholic-school sex-abuse case in state history, according to his lawyers.

The Oblates order, based in Rome, has been investigated for covering up or ignoring child sex abuse several times before, and has insurance that helps cover the cost of lawsuits concerning it, according to Darrell Cochran, one of O'Connor's attorneys.

O'Connor initially filed the lawsuit in 2010 against both the Oblate priests and the Seattle Archdiocese; the latter settled that year for $500,000.

The Oblate order said among the reasons it fought the lawsuit was that the statute of limitations had expired. It also asserted that the parties who had hired Adamson, the Seattle Archdiocese and the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Cross, were responsible for the abuse.

Efforts to contact lawyers representing the Oblate order were unsuccessful.

But O'Connor testified that Oblate priest the Rev. Henry Conrad ignored his pleas for help twice, telling him he was a liar and would go to hell if he told anyone what happened.

"The Oblates tried to point the finger at everyone except themselves, but the jury didn't accept this and rightly held them accountable for their actions," said Michael Pfau, an attorney for the plaintiff, in a statement. "The evidence was overwhelming that this religious order was more concerned with protecting its reputation and avoiding scandal than doing the right thing and protecting children."

Some time after O'Connor complained about being abused by Adamson, a bachelor who lived in his parent's basement, St. Benedict's made him principal, O'Connor said.

During the trial, two other former St. Benedict's students, who said they had not known each other before or after attending the school, testified that they also had been sexually abused by Adamson. One testified that he had also been told by an Oblate priest that if he didn't keep quiet about the abuse he would go to hell.

Adamson would invite students over for tutoring or choir practice, the witnesses said. He had a train set and an organ that he would invite children to play before sexually abusing them in the basement, O'Connor said.

Pfau, O'Connor's attorney, said that men like Adamson often abuse several children and become more abusive over time.

"Given the nature of the abuse, it is inconceivable that he ever stopped," Pfau said. "If anything, my experience tells me he probably got more aggressive, not less."

Adamson died in the mid-1970s while he was still principal of the school.

It wasn't until O'Connor attended a reunion at St. Benedict's in 2008 that he said it dawned on him that others might have been also been abused. Someone who O'Connor didn't know came up to him and asked if he remembered Adamson and his basement, with the insinuation that they had both been hurt there.

"I noticed there was no mention of him at the reunion, no pictures of him anywhere," O'Connor said. "St. Benedict's was trying to make sure this story never surfaced, and that's when I decided this story needed to be told."

He said he'd been afraid for years of what people would think of him if they found out — that's part of how Adamson kept him coming back to his basement. Before Adamson's most violent attack, he told O'Connor that if he didn't skip a big cross-country track meet to see him, he would tell his girlfriend about what was happening between them.

O'Connor said telling his wife and four grown children for the first time what he had experienced was difficult. Rehashing every detail of not only his abuse but his traumatic experiences in Vietnam for the defense lawyer during the trial was excruciating.

O'Connor had remained a member of the Catholic church his entire life but finally renounced his faith when he saw the way lawyers for the priests tried to discredit his story.

"As of today, I want nothing to do with the Catholic Church — after seeing all the documents of how they shuffle people around to cover things up," O'Connor said. "I wish the Catholics sitting in the pews knew what their money was going to."

But he said there's a relief in knowing he doesn't have to be silent about being victimized anymore, and he encourages other former students of Adamson who were abused to come forward as well.

"There are no winners here — it's just a tragedy," he said. "But if anyone has the courage to come forward about this they can talk with me. I'm not walking away from this — this story will be told."

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com

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