By Ted Slowik
I see parallels in the case of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the sexual abuse of children by priests. As Hastert faces sentencing, a judge must weigh whether the damage to Hastert’s reputation resulting from the revelations of alleged sexual abuse is punishment enough.
I have to choose my words carefully, because Hastert isn’t charged with sexually abusing children, and he hasn’t admitted to it. As part of a plea deal, he’s pleaded guilty to a bank structuring charge for withdrawing large sums. When federal authorities confronted him about the withdrawals, he allegedly lied about it. But that charge was dropped as part of the plea deal, in which he also admitted paying about $1.7 million to someone.
The federal investigation and a Tribune report revealed the reason for Hastert’s alleged hush-money payments. The recipient of Hastert’s illegal bank withdrawals was a student and wrestler in the 1970s at Yorkville High School, where Hastert taught and coached. The individual is one of four men who accuse Hastert of sexually abusing them when they were teens, the Tribune found.
My past work as a journalist includes extensive investigation of sexual abuse of children by priests of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet. Most of the stories I wrote were about men who were abused as boys during the 1970s and 1980s. As I related heartbreaking tales from abuse survivors, I often wondered how the criminal conduct occurred in the first place, and why it remained secret for so long.
My personal conclusion is that the terrible tragedy of childhood sex abuse remains a serious problem today because, far too often, abusers barely face any consequences for their actions. I’ve found that to be especially true when the accused are men in positions of power.
Justice for people who were sexually abused as children long ago often is denied because the statute of limitations prevents criminal prosecution of abusers. Yet civil lawsuits and internal investigations can establish the credibility of allegations. In its response to the abuse crisis, I believe the Catholic Church’s apologies ring hollow because they stop short of acknowledging full responsibility, for legal reasons.
I see the same model of empty apology playing out in the Hastert case.
Hastert — who was two heartbeats away from most powerful office in the free world while House Speaker from 1999 to 2007 — says through his attorneys he is “profoundly sorry” for the harm he caused others decades ago. But he doesn’t specify the behavior for which he is sorry.
His attorneys are pleading for leniency when U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin sentences the 74-year-old Hastert on April 27. Hastert’s plea agreement with prosecutors recommends a sentence ranging from probation to up to six months in prison, the lowest sentence possible under federal guidelines for a felony conviction, the Tribune reported.
I heard similar appeals for leniency from bishops and others for clergy who used their positions of authority to prey on children. The accused molesters are now old and frail, they’d say. Plus, they did tremendous good work in communities as priests, and that should be taken into consideration.
Here are the words Hastert’s attorneys used in their plea for mercy:
“What we do know is that he will stand before the court having deteriorated both physically and emotionally, undoubtedly in part due to public shaming and humiliation of an unprecedented degree.”
“Mr. Hastert knows that the days of him being welcomed in the small towns he served all of his life are gone forever,” his lawyers wrote in a court filing. “He knows that, for the rest of his life, wherever he goes, the public warmth and affection that he previously received will be replaced by hostility and isolation.”
Forgive me for tempering my sympathy for Hastert, but his friends and neighbors and the people who voted for him would never have extended him the “warmth and affection” he enjoyed as an influential public figure had they known the truth about his conduct in the first place.
There are a number of reasons why children who are sexually abused remain silent. Everyone’s situation is unique, but there are commonalities. They’re ashamed. They think they won’t be believed.
Some feel culpable in the illicit behavior because their abusers let them drink alcohol, smoke pot, drive cars or do other grown-up things. They’re taught to believe they’re just as guilty as the men who used them to satisfy their sexual desires.
Men who use their positions of authority to silence their victims of sexual abuse tend to carry themselves with a sense of arrogance. They got away with it, and over time this contributes to a sense of invincibility. Their power and arrogance grows.
I can only speculate to what extent this may have contributed to Hastert’s ascent to power. It’s unlikely his political activities will be considered when he is sentenced. But Denny Hastert wielded power in government, securing a $207 million federal-funding earmark for the Prairie Parkway in his home district. The proposed $1 billion road was to connect Interstate 88 (the Reagan Memorial Tollway) with Interstate 80 through Kane, Kendall and Grundy counties.
Hastert’s power translated to clout after he left office to work as a lobbyist. He was criticized for partnering with speculators who earned more than $3 million by buying and selling land along the Prairie Parkway route, the Tribune reported when the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the road and killed the project in 2012. That left Illinois taxpayers on the hook for $21 million the state spent acquiring 15 parcels, including 300 acres and four homes for the project.
No one is likely to ask the judge to consider those actions when he is sentenced.
The judge might, however, hear statements from people more directly affected by Hastert’s deeds. Individual D, one of the four who allege Hastert sexually abused him as a boy, is considering testifying at the sentencing hearing, the Tribune said.
Also expected to testify is Jolene Burdge. Her brother, Stephen Reinboldt, told her Hastert sexually abused him while he was equipment manager for the wrestling team at Yorkville High School. Reinboldt died of AIDS in 1995. Burdge confronted Hastert when he showed up at her brother’s visitation in Yorkville, but he silently turned his back to her and walked away.
Burdge learned the truth about Hastert years ago when her brother told her, and she first tried to speak out publicly in 2006 when Hastert was criticized for his handling of a scandal involving improper advances by then-Rep. Mark Foley of Florida toward underage male congressional pages.
It may be small consolation, but Burdge plans to finally have her day in court on behalf of her late brother when Hastert is sentenced. Hastert faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
When handing down the sentence, the judge could confine his decision to the narrow parameters of a law designed to detect financial support for terrorists. That’s the crime to which Hastert has pleaded guilty.
On the other hand, the judge could make a statement on behalf of all victims of childhood sexual abuse who have been denied justice. After all, this case is about much more than a financial crime.
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