For seasoned court watchers, attorneys, even veteran prosecutors, the sentencing of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert proved to be powerful and troubling.
"Nothing is more disturbing than having 'serial child molester' and 'Speaker of the House' in the same sentence," Judge Thomas Durkin told a packed but silent audience in his 14th floor courtroom. “Some actions can obliterate a lifetime of good works.”
For two hours, the gut-wrenching testimony unfolded. Two accusers detailed sordid tales of sexual abuse from Hastert’s days as a wrestling coach in Yorkville. His own attorney conceded he could not contest the allegations. Prosecutor Steven Block told the judge that the government regretted they couldn’t hit him with tougher laws.
“Had there been an opportunity to charge the defendant with sexually abusing boys in his care, we would have,” Block said. “His decision last year was designed to keep his dark secrets.”
That decision, to mislead agents investigating massive bank withdrawals to pay off an accuser, eventually led to a person still identified only as “Individual A”, who described sexual abuse at Hastert’s hands when he wrestled for Yorkville High School in the seventies. Eventually, four other alleged victims were discovered.
One, Stephen Reinboldt, died from Aids in 1995. But in court Wednesday, his sister Jolene Burdge stood before the former Speaker.
“I hope I have been your worst nightmare,” she told Hastert, who did not react. “You took his life Mr. Hastert…because you took his innocence and turned it against him.”
Reporters filled the jury box, which went unused because Hastert had entered a guilty plea to a crime called “structuring”. It’s an arcane statute governing massive withdrawals of money. Because of statutes of limitations, he could not be charged with the sex crimes relating to those transactions. But the evidence was presented nonetheless. And it was difficult to hear.
“As a young boy, I wanted to be part of what Coach Hastert had created,” said another accuser, “Individual D”. A near gasp rumbled through the courtroom when he stated his name as Scott Cross. His brother Tom was well known to most reporters in the courtroom, as a former State Representative, and onetime protégé of the Speaker himself.
“Coach Hastert sexually abused me my senior year in high school,” Cross said, choking back tears. “I did not say anything to anyone. Coach Hastert and I never spoke of it.”
Cross said he considered the abuse his darkest secret.
“I wanted you to know the pain he caused me then, and still causes me today,” he told the judge. “It is important to tell the truth—I could no longer remain silent.”
As observers watched Hastert, he showed no emotion. No obvious twinges of pride as his attorney Tom Green described his client’s post-9/11 heroics on Capitol Hill. No apparent shame when Green stated, “Mr. Hastert abused.”
Green concede that his client “made some very poor decisions.” But he begged the judge to consider the total arc of Hastert’s life.
“Dennis Hastert was able to reshape his life into a career of public service and extraordinary accomplishment,” Green said. Then he conceded, that those “decades of accomplishment have been erased.”
Then the time came for Hastert himself to state his case. The clock ticked. Reporters leaned forward. His attorneys helped the former speaker push his walker to a lectern. A prepared statement was unfolded before him.
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“I’m deeply ashamed,” Hastert read from the paper. “I’m the only one responsible.”
But even then, he could not bring himself to use the words “sexual abuse”.
“I know I am here because I mistreated some of the athletes I coached,” he said. “The thing I want to do is say I’m sorry.”
But the judge wasn’t buying it, and he interrupted Hastert’s statement.
“Did you sexually abuse Mr. Cross?” he asked.
“I don’t remember doing that,” Hastert said. “I accept his statement.”
“Individual B?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” Hastert admitted.
“That’s a different situation,” Hastert said cryptically. He paused to confer with his attorney, before conceding that he could not dispute the comments of Reinboldt’s sister.
“So you did sexually abuse him?” the incredulous judge asked.
“Yes,” Hastert said.
When it came time for him to impose sentence, Durkin spoke for more than 40 minutes. He did nothing to hide his disgust, and clearly demonstrated that the many pleas for mercy had fallen on deaf ears.
“If I’m going to consider the good, I must also consider the bad,” Durkin said, “which is that the defendant is a serial child molester.”
“Your actions were cynical,” he told Hastert. “You abused those who wouldn’t or couldn’t cry out.”
Attorneys had asked for leniency due to Hastert’s failing health and advanced age. The judge said the Bureau of Prisons would offer adequate medical care.
“Your age did not prevent you from committing crimes,” he said. “Your age should not prevent you from being punished.”
In the end, he sentenced Hastert to 15 months in prison, and a $250,000 fine. Reporters frantically sent out the news, thumbs flying on silent keyboards. Hastert’s attorneys made last minute arrangements for their client’s surrender, pending assignment to an appropriate prison.
And then it was over. But not before one last moment of despir from the judge.
“Nothing today gave me pleasure,” he said. “This is a horrible case. I hope I never have to see a case like this ever again.”