Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who stands accused of sexually molesting and inappropriately touching five teenagers long ago, doesn’t seem to understand that he is lucky — very lucky — that prosecutors are asking for up to just six months of prison time.
Were it not for the statute of limitations, he could be facing criminal charges that would put him away for decades, effectively the rest of his life. Yet he’s playing the have-mercy-on-me card, asking a federal judge to go easy on him because he is old and sick and already so shamed, even as he refuses to fully ‘fess up — victim by victim — to his miserable conduct way back when.
The tragedy is not Hastert’s fall, except perhaps in his own mind. The tragedy is the permanent damage done to the boys. One has died, but prosecutors report that the other four — now middle-age men — continue to struggle with the psychic scars.
It is too late to prevent what happened from 1965 to 1981 at Yorkville High School, where Hastert was a wrestling coach. But we can learn from the mistakes. Where were the safeguards? Where was the common sense? How could a La-Z-Boy-type chair set up in the locker room so “the coach” could watch kids take showers not draw questions? How could Coach Hastert take kids on overnight road trips with no other adults?
The appalling behavior was Hastert’s, but the failure was institutional.
There is an argument in some quarters that the feds were wrong to vigorously pursue Hastert for a technical crime — illegally structuring large bank withdrawals to hide their detection from the government — for which he might have been given a pass had there been no link to past criminal activity. Hastert has pleaded guilty to structuring bank withdrawals to hide $1.7 million of an agreed $3.5 million in payments to one of his alleged victims, a former wrestler.
But under federal law, Hastert could get as much as five years in prison when he is sentenced on April 27. The much shorter sentence of zero to six months that the feds are recommending is by no means severe even for the crime of structuring. And had he been convicted on the sex abuse charges, he could have been sentenced to decades in prison.
Yet Hastert, as his part of the bargain, has only generally acknowledged his shameful actions as a coach at Yorkville High.
“Mr. Hastert acknowledges that as a young man he committed transgressions for which he is profoundly sorry,” his lawyer, Thomas Green, told the court. “He earnestly apologizes to his former students, family, friends, previous constituents and all others affected by the harm his actions have caused.”
Green, who is seeking a sentence of probation, also said, “Hastert accepts responsibility for his conduct, seeks no special consideration and is prepared to receive the court’s sentence.”
What does it say that Hastert has let his lawyer do the talking? What are we to make of the fact that he has acknowledged only that he “committed transgressions”? How fully does he appreciate the harm he has done?
If Hastert truly accepts responsibility and feels remorse, let him say so himself.