Former House speaker Dennis Hastert departs the federal courthouse in Chicago after his sentencing. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
Columnist

It’s the silence that traps them, encasing them in shame, self-loathing and sometimes fear.

The millions of American men who were molested when they were children — a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimates that it could be as high as 1 in every 6 men — hide what happened to them for years. They tell no one. But every so often, something happens to crack the silence.

That’s what we witnessed last week in Chicago at the sentencing of former House speaker Dennis Hastert, who allegedly molested five teenagers connected to the wrestling team he coached decades ago. One of them, Scott Cross, now a 53-year-old married father of two, decided that he wouldn’t be silent anymore about Hastert, who was convicted not of child abuse but of violating federal banking laws in paying hush money to another accuser. The statute of limitations on the abuse itself ran out decades ago.

Cross had wanted to remain unidentified by name in court records, just like the other alleged victims who are still alive and still dealing with the devastating consequences of what happened to them.

Maryland Del. C.T. Wilson was raped as a child and has been lobbying for a bill to extend the statute of limitations on lawsuits by victims against their abusers. (OFFICE OF C.T. WILSON)

But then Hastert, 74, had the hubris to contact Cross’s brother, Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross, to write a letter on Hastert’s behalf, asking the judge to show mercy.

And get this: It wasn’t just once. When Tom Cross didn’t respond, Hastert’s legal team approached him a second time for the character letter.

That is what finally pushed Scott Cross into emerging from the shadows and testifying at Hastert’s sentencing. And it was powerful to hear, in his own words, the long-lasting impact that he said Hastert’s abuse had on him.

“As a 17-year-old boy, I was devastated,” he said. “I tried to figure out why Coach Hastert had singled me out.” He endured years of guilt, isolation and sleeplessness, he told the court. “Today I understand I did nothing to bring this on, but at age 17, I could not understand what happened or why.”

The testimony reminded me of what we heard in Annapolis from Maryland Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), who has stood before his colleagues twice and described the lifelong horror of being raped repeatedly as a child by his adoptive father. It took Wilson, an Army veteran and lawyer, 20 years to acknowledge what he endured.

He was lobbying his colleagues to extend the statute of limitations for victims to file lawsuits against an abuser or organization that harbored the abuser. And for two straight years, the legislature ignored him. State lawmakers were swayed by the lobbying efforts of the Catholic Church, which for years has been at the center of a global scandal over priests sexually abusing children.

What a way to tell the victims that they shouldn’t be heard.

In court last week, Scott Cross explained to the judge why he decided to give a victim-impact statement against Hastert, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

“I wanted you to know the pain and suffering he caused me then and still causes me today,” Cross said. “Most importantly, I want my children and anyone else who was ever treated the way I was to know that there is an alternative to staying silent.”

The Hastert case and Cross’s courage in talking publicly about being molested have prompted other men to seek help, said Christopher Anderson, executive director of Male Survivor, an advocacy group for men who have been victims of sexual assault.

The aftershocks of this kind of abuse can last decades. And often, the thing that cracks men’s silence is seeing another man come forward.

After I wrote about Wilson last month, I heard from someone I’d lost track of. He was a smart and strong leader in the D.C. nonprofit world. And then suddenly, a couple of years ago, he went dark. Dropped out. Disappeared.

Emboldened by Wilson’s bravery, he got in touch with me, explained his absence and said he wanted to tell his story.

So we talked for a long time. He and his brother had been sexually abused by his babysitter when he was 6. The boys told their parents, but it was at a time when sex wasn’t talked about, when the things the boys described weren’t spoken aloud.

And besides, the babysitter was from a good family. Who would believe them?

So the parents hushed their sons, dismissed the babysitter and never spoke of it again.

“He was responsible [for the abuse], but you felt somewhat responsible, too, that was how it felt,” he told me. “He took away something we never knew we had.”

It became the kernel of shame and self-loathing that the man, now 67, spent decades surviving. And it was finally his calamitous depression that prompted him to get counseling and confront it.

He told me everything. Then he told me that I couldn’t use his name. Sixty years had passed, and he was still too ashamed for people to know.

Twitter: @petulad

Because of an editing error, an earlier version indicated that the recipient of money from former House speaker Dennis Hastert is deceased. This version has been corrected to indicate that he is not dead.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.