A FEDERAL judge sentenced former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to 15 months in prison, a longer term than federal prosecutors had recommended. The judge apparently was unmoved by Mr. Hastert’s poor health, his courtroom appearance in a wheelchair and pleas from the likes of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, who wrote the court, “He doesn’t deserve what he is going through.”
We say: Good for the judge.
Mr. Hastert is not the victim here. The victims are the men who, as teenage boys, were sexually abused by Mr. Hastert when he coached their wrestling team decades ago. They didn’t deserve to have their trust betrayed and their dignity destroyed. They should not have had to struggle with what Mr. Hastert did to them all the while they watched him rise in stature and power.
“A serial child molester,” said U.S. District Court Judge Thomas M. Durkin last week as he rejected pleas for probation. Mr. Hastert, 74, had pleaded guilty to a banking violation, not sexual abuse, but his aim in illegally structuring bank transactions was to cover up his predatory behavior at Illinois’s Yorkville High School. Mr. Hastert was so intent on trying to guard his secret that he falsely told investigators that one victim — to whom he was voluntarily paying money as recompense for pain and suffering — was extorting money from him.
That Mr. Hastert’s molestation of multiple victims was uncovered almost by happenstance points to the difficulties in detecting these crimes. “I’ve always felt that what Coach Hastert had done to me was my darkest secret,” one victim told the court. Another victim, before his death, told his sister he had never said anything because he didn’t think he would be believed.
Mr. Hastert has now admitted to the sexual abuse, but he can’t be criminally or civilly held liable, which underscores the need to change statute of limitations laws that give victims and prosecutors too short a time in which to seek redress. In a number of states, including Maryland, victims have a limited number of years after they reach the age of 18 to bring an action. Such restrictions overlook how hard it is for emotionally damaged victims to come to grips with what happened to them. Defenders of restrictive laws argue the need to protect people against latent claims, but that’s why we have juries, which can weigh whether memories are faulty and evidence sufficient. As Judge Durkin said, “Some conduct is unforgivable no matter how old it is.”