After decades of representing victims of sexual abuse, I was convinced that Jerry Sandusky’s arrest at Penn State in 2011 would put to rest the belief that child molesters are slovenly, leering guys wearing dirty raincoats and lurking outside playgrounds. But when word leaked last year that former Republican House speaker J. Dennis Hastert had paid hush money to a high school student he had allegedly sexually abused decades earlier, while he was a high school wrestling coach, the reaction by many in his home town of Yorkville, Ill., in Congress and elsewhere proved that the myth was alive and well. Not Denny Hastert, the beloved coach. Impossible!
The enduring fantasy that nice guys don’t molest children provides dangerous cover to perpetrators and engenders abject hopelessness in victims. Hiding behind a facade of kindheartedness, child molesters know they are committing the perfect crime, one that silences most of its victims forever. For those few able to muster the strength to come forward years later, it is not their perpetrator but the law itself that denies them justice. Maryland is a case in point: It gives victims just seven years after their 18th birthdays to file civil lawsuits — a period when few victims are yet able to acknowledge the horrific violation they experienced.
Remember, none of Hastert’s victims ever came forward to report him; it was a banking compliance officer who alerted federal officials to him after noticing unusual account activity. As the U.S. Attorney in this case noted, by that point the federal and state statutes of limitations regarding the sexual-abuse-related offenses had long since expired, making it impossible to prosecute Hastert for any of the underlying sexual crimes.
Child molesters are a patient lot. A 2015 study on offenders in youth organizations found that more than half joined specifically to gain access to children. In no rush to achieve their goal, they are willing to spend months working their way into the fabric of a child’s life. Constantly proving “nice-guyness” is essential to abusers. They exploit the child’s inherent lack of life experience by lavishing him or her with gifts and adulation. The molester then manipulates the child’s reality — soon making an “innocent” rub of the shoulder, or a casual tousle of the hair, a normal part of his relationship with the child. Then the more invasive forms of abuse begin, and the child’s fate is sealed.
If you need a primer on how these molesters operate, read the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing brief detailing not just the way Hastert allegedly went about sexually abusing the victim to whom he was paying the hush money, but also the tactics he used on other teenagers on his team. One victim, 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.
If the molester has done his job right, he can count on his victim’s embarrassment, fear and shame to extinguish any thought of reporting the abuse, then or at any time in the future. This trap was perfectly illustrated by Jolene Burdge, the sister of one of Hastert’s victims. She quoted her brother as saying the reason he didn’t tell anyone about the abuse was: “Who is ever going to believe me?” Given the initial reaction of those in Hastert’s home town to the allegations, he was 100 percent correct.
Because decades-old sexual abuse cases are infrequently prosecuted, the only real justice for victims of institutional abuse, such as children abused in schools or churches, are civil lawsuits. Considering the immense psychological hurdles a victim has to get over to take action, Maryland — along with New York, New Jersey and many other states — has so narrowly drawn its statute of limitations that it effectively excludes untold numbers of victims from ever seeing justice. Passage of Maryland House Bill 1215 and Senate Bill 69, which would give such victims until their 38th birthdays to file a suit, would give them back their voices. Anything less serves to protect perpetrators of sexual abuse and the institutions that failed to supervise them.
Hastert’s supporters probably believe the 15-month sentence he received was too harsh, considering his ill health and his career in Congress. But in reality the coach fared infinitely better than a group of Yorkville High wrestlers whom he wounded for life so many decades ago.
Paul Mones is a Los Angeles lawyer who represents victims of sexual abuse.