Every sex abuse victim ever scared into silence is in debt to the man who had only been publicly known as Individual D until he rose to speak at the sentencing of former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.
Individual D identified himself as 53-year-old Scott Cross and proceeded to describe how he had become one of five teens Hastert molested while coaching an Illinois high school wrestling team.
“I wanted you to know the pain and suffering he caused me then and the pain and suffering he has caused me today,” Cross said. “As deeply painful as it has been to discuss with my family and with you, staying silent for years was worse. It is important to tell the truth about what happened to me.”
Reporters in the Chicago courtroom on Wednesday noted that Cross’s voice quaked and that he verged on tears as he detailed what happened to him after he found himself alone with Hastert in a locker room four decades ago.
“As a 17-year-old boy, I was devastated,” Cross said. “I tried to figure out why Coach Hastert had singled me out. I felt intense pain, shame, and guilt.”
Among those present at the hearing was the victim’s older brother. Tom Cross had been a political protégée of Dennis Hastert and had risen to become the Republican leader of the Illinois state House of Representatives.
The elder Cross is said to have had no idea that his mentor was a monster until after Hastert was charged last year with banking violations related to money the former speaker had been paying to someone still known only as Individual A.
Only on learning of the indictment had Scott Cross told his family that he was himself a victim of Hastert. The younger Cross’s continuing anguish affirmed the elder Cross’s wisdom in supporting a 2013 bill to end the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of children in Illinois; there clearly were no time limitations on the trauma.
Legislators who joined in voting the measure into law included Jim Durkin, the present Republican leader. Durkin is the brother of Illinois federal Judge Thomas Durkin, the very one who was now preparing to sentence Hastert.
But the lifting of the the statute of limitations was not retroactive. Sex abuse of children back in the time of Hastert’s predations was subject to the same three-year statute of limitations as felonies in general.
That did not stop Judge Durkin from describing in clearest terms this man who had gone from wrestling coach to state representative to U.S. representative to speaker of the house, for eight years—the longest tenure of any Republican—second in the line of succession to the presidency.
“The defendant is a serial child molester,” Durkin said
Durkin was equally clear about the larger crimes for which Hastert could not be be charged.
“There’s nothing ambiguous about this,” Durkin said. “This is child molestation. This is sexual abuse.”
At a previous hearing, the judge had noted that when FBI agents approached Hastert about a series of large cash withdrawals he had told them that he was the subject of a shakedown by a former student who was threatening to go public with a false accusation of sex abuse.
Durkin had rightly taken that to mean Hastert had sought to save himself by further victimizing someone he had already victimized, causing this doubly wronged man to suffer “the full weight of the federal government’s resources” and possibly go to prison on false extortion charges.
As Durkin now prepared to send Hastert to prison, the judge had been given a sentencing memorandum prepared by the prosecution. The document notes, “Defendant’s history and characteristics are marred by stunning hypocrisy. When reflecting on his days coaching high school wrestling, defendant wrote, ‘There’s never sufficient reason to try to strip away another person’s dignity.’ ... Yet that is exactly what defendant did to his victims. He made them feel alone, ashamed, guilty and devoid of dignity.”
The memorandum goes on, “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. Some have managed better than others, but all of them carry the scars defendant inflicted upon them. The incidents of sexual abuse occurred at a time in their lives when they stood on the beginning edge of sexual maturity. It is profoundly sad that one of their earliest sexual experiences was in the form of abuse by a man whom they trusted and whom they revered as a mentor and coach.”
With eloquent outrage, the memorandum concludes, “The actions at the core of this case took place not on the defendant’s national public stage but in his private one-on-one encounters in an empty locker room and a motel room with minors that violated the special trust between those young boys and their coach.”
The defense had also submitted a sentencing memorandum, noting Hastert’s years of public service. The document does not mention that Hastert failed to take any action at all when he was repeatedly informed that Rep. Mark Foley had been making improper advances to congressional pages. Hastert had, however, been very quick to join those who called for President Clinton’s impeachment during the scandal involving an intern who was not underage. Hastert had allowed that Clinton was “very able and very capable and very intelligent.”
“But he is also, as we all know, immoral,” Hastert then added.
The defense papers further fail to mention that the $1.7 million paid to the doubly victimized Individual A was money from Hastert’s successful efforts to cash in on his former status in Washington.
How appropriate it is that Hastert’s first stumble toward justice came as the result of a law he helped pass while in Congress. A bank teller who queried him about his numerous large withdrawals of cash cited the Patriot Act’s requirement that the movement of all sums of $10,000 or more be reported.
“Defendant stated that he was aware of the law, but that the Patriot Act was just for terrorism and he (defendant) was not a terrorist,” the government sentencing memorandum reports.
Hastert tried to explain the withdrawals with a series of lies to the bank and to the FBI, saying variously that he was collecting antique cars, investing in stocks and simply putting the dough in a “safe place.” He finally told them that he was being extorted and went so far as to help the FBI record phone conversations with the supposed extortionist.
The problem for Hastert was that the extortionist did not sound like one. The FBI eventually discovered the truth and identified five former students who had been victimized by Hastert. One, Stephen Reinboldt, had since died. His sister, Jolene Burdge, spoke at the sentencing, describing a life that had been irretrievably shattered. She recalled what he had said when he eventually confided in her and she asked why he had kept silent.
“Who is ever going to believe me?”
Hastert had the temerity to attend her bother’s funeral and Burdge had confronted him in the parking lot. Hastert had just stared at her. She too had been left feeling that nobody would ever believe her.
The government sentencing memorandum suggests that Hastert later paid those large sums of cash to Individual A because “defendant knew that if his molestation of Individual A became public, it would increase the chance that other former students he molested would tell their stories. Defendant also knew from his interactions with Jolene Burdge at her brother’s funeral years earlier that she had been deeply affected by what defendant did to her brother, and she was likely to tell her story publicly if anyone would listen.”
If Hastert was not exactly a terrorist, he certainly was somebody who had been counting on fear to keep his victims silent. His was the hope of all sex abusers who prey on children.
And that made Scott Cross all the more a true hero as he stepped forward and addressed the court.
He was joined by Burdge, who was speaking for her deceased brother. She called on Hastert at least to admit what he had done.
“Don’t be a coward, Mr. Hastert,” she said. “Tell the truth.”
But Hastert remained his cowardly and craven self, seeking to hedge on the unhedgeable.
“I mistreated some of my athletes that I coached,” he said. “I’m deeply ashamed to be standing before you today.”
The judge pressed him.
“So you did sexually abuse him?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” Hastert said.
But because of the statute of limitations law that Scott Cross’s brother and Judge Durkin’s brother helped pass is itself limited to 2013 on, Hastert could only be charged with a relatively minor financial violation and with lying to a federal agent.
The prosecution felt it could ask only for a term of zero to six months recommended by the probation department as part of a plea deal—made to spare a victim who wished to remain anonymous from having to testify.
The defense asked for probation, no time at all.
The judge had likely made up his mind before Scott Cross rose to speak. But Cross’s words unquestionably affirmed the judge’s view that Hastert is a serial child molester. And it made the judge seem all the more right in sentencing Hastert to 15 months, not much for a sexual abuser of children, but a significant term for moving your own money around.
Earlier in the two-hour hearing, the lead prosecutor, Steven Brock, had been speaking to Burdge and all the victims when he said,
“We do believe you. You do not stand alone.”
The judge now repeated that assurance directly to Burdge and a Chicago Tribune reporter noted that she mouthed a thank you. The judge also addressed Scott Cross.
“Incredible courage,” the judge said.
Scott Cross left the courtroom with his brother. Tom Cross had once been the protégé of a man who proved to be a monster, but he now has a brother who has proven a worthy model for everybody. The Cross family later released a statement:
“We are very proud of Scott for having the courage to relive this very painful part of his life in order to ensure that justice is done today. We hope his testimony will provide courage and strength to other victims of other cases of abuse to speak out and advocate for themselves.”