Former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert sexually molested young boys and got away with it. Having once held the third highest political office in the United States, he was only two distinct heartbeats away from the presidency, and was a serial child molester.
Denny Hastert is also going to prison, but not because he sexually abused children. Hastert will only be serving time for violating federal banking laws, and in the process becomes “exhibit A” in the argument to reform statutes of limitations in sexual abuse cases.
On April 27, Hastert was sentenced in federal court to 15 months in prison on felony charges of violating banking laws. During the sentencing, Hastert admitted publically for the first time that while a high school wrestling coach in Illinois from 1960 to the early 1980s, he molested at least four boys. During the sentencing on bank charges U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin made it clear that Hastert was not being punished solely for financial crimes. “He is being punished for cruel depravity,” Durkin declared. Allowing that the financial crimes Hastert committed often drew no prison time, the Judge made it clear that in any sentencing phase he must take the character of the defendant into consideration and then delivered a scorching rebuke to the former congressman. As Hastert sat impassively in the courtroom Judge Durkin admonished, “The defendant is a serial child molester. Some actions can obliterate a lifetime of good works. Nothing is more stunning than having ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence.”
The sentence handed down was 15 months in prison and two years of supervised release for illegally structuring bank withdrawals to fund a $3.5 million payout to one of his victims. Because the statute of limitations on any abuse charges had expired Hastert will never be held criminally or civilly liable, even after admitting to the sexual abuse.
During Hastert’s sentencing Judge Durkin said, “Some conduct is unforgivable no matter how old it is.” This high profile case offers us a textbook example why nationwide statutes of limitations in abuse cases desperately need to be reformed. Illinois, where Hastert was prosecuted, has one of the longest statutes of limitations at 20 years, yet it still wasn’t enough to provide justice to the victims. Defenders of more restrictive laws argue they protect innocent people from latent claims. But these arguments don’t take into account how hard it is for emotionally damaged victims to come to face what happened to them. The victims in this case, like the thousands of victims from the Catholic Church’s priest sex abuse scandals who came forward later in life, learned that the statute of limitations had locked them out of the courtroom.
Ultimately Hastert’s sentence only offers the illusion of justice and he remains a successful sexual predator who managed to run the clock out on being prosecuted. The U.S. Attorney’s sentencing brief in this case reads like a how-to manual for sex abusers. As a wrestling coach in Yorkville, Illinois, Hastert was in a position that gave him access to children, and by its very nature demanded their trust. He was a “nice guy” who spent months and years working his way into student’s lives and manipulating them until eventually he would strike. One of the victims in the case, who was 14 at the time, alleged that Hastert told him to get up on a table so he could “loosen him up,” then in the process molested him.
Like other child molesters, Hastert counted on his victim’s embarrassment, fear and shame to extinguish any thought of reporting the abuse, then or at any time in the future. One of Hastert’s victims was quoted as saying the reason he didn’t tell anyone about the abuse was: “Who is ever going to believe me?”
During the case one of the federal prosecutors perhaps summed up this dilemma best when he said: “He made them feel alone, ashamed, guilty and devoid of dignity. While defendant achieved great success, reaping all the benefits that went with it, these boys struggled, and all are still struggling now with what defendant did to them.”
There were other disturbing factors at work during this case that also beg examination. Throughout the trial Hastert was treated with kid gloves. Hearing schedules, despite protestations from the press, were never posted. In his court filings, begging for mercy, Hastert was described as a decent, religious man, with constant reference to his “years of public service.” There were no details about what he did to the young boys or that the financial crime he was being convicted of involved paying hush money to one of the victims.
Many letters pleadin for mercy for Hastert were written to Judge Durkin, including one from former majority leader Tom DeLay who wrote: “He is a good man that loves the Lord. He gets his integrity and values from Him. He doesn’t deserve what he is going through.” This same sentiment was echoed in the letters to Durkin from other prominent public officials who cited Hastert’s faith and public service as grounds for forgiveness and that the abuse charges were only small transgressions in a distinguished career. DeLay wrote of praying with Hastert, who has long described himself as a born-again Christian, regularly in the capitol. Perhaps the former speaker was praying for forgiveness, but in his closing remarks Judge Durkin offered little.
For almost 45 minutes the judge spoke directly about child sexual abuse and the lifelong damage it inflicts. “Can you imagine the whispers, the finger-pointing, the sideways glances if you’re a 14-year-old boy and you accuse the town hero of molesting you?” he said. Durkin then ended the case with pointed remarks to Hastert and his defense team. “This is a horrible case — a horrible set of circumstances, horrible for the defendant, horrible for the victims, horrible for our country. I hope I never have to see a case like this again. Court adjourned.”
I have long argued that statutes of limitations needs to be restructured to allow for the unique circumstances that exist in cases involving the sexual abuse of children. This case is a perfect illustration of why the reforms are needed. Dennis Hastert is a self-admitted sexual predator who will never be prosecuted for his crimes simply because they happened to long ago. Meanwhile the young boys he abused will go through the rest of their lives with the memory and stigma of abuse haunting them, and knowing the man responsible never truly faced justice.
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