Dennis Hastert Case Renews Calls To Change Child Sex Abuse Reporting Laws
For nearly 40 years, Scott Cross hid from everybody what he called his “darkest secret.” And in a federal courtroom, the 53-year-old revealed it to the world.
“Coach Hastert sexually abused me in 1979, my senior year in high school,” Cross said at former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s Wednesday sentencing hearing on bank fraud charges.
Hastert reluctantly admitted to abusing multiple students back when he was a high school wrestling coach — a fact federal investigators inadvertently learned while probing him on banking violations he committed while paying hush money to one of his victims.
But a standard loophole in the justice system meant that Hastert would technically go unpunished for his admitted sexual abuse, while his victims would get nothing.
Like Cross — and hundreds of victims from the Catholic church’s priest sex abuse scandal — many child sex abuse survivors come forward later in life only to learn the statute of limitations has locked them out of the courtroom.
“When a prosecutor cannot indict an offender for these heinous acts because the statute of limitations has run, it raises serious moral, legal and ethical questions,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a Thursday statement.
Madigan is among those who have urged lawmakers to eliminate entirely the statute of limitations for all sex crimes involving children.
It’s especially important to eliminate a statute of limitations when the victim of a crime is a child, said Barbara Blaine, president of the victims advocacy group Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests.
“Most sexual abuse victims have been closed out of the courtroom because it takes them so long to tell,” Blaine said.
During interviews with U.S. attorneys, Hastert’s victims cited his position and gave a common refrain: “Who would believe me?”
In court Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin took pains to detail why Hastert’s 15-month prison sentence for bank fraud could not encompass the decades-old abuse he had just admitted to (and had not been charged for).
Durkin noted that Hastert was a “serial child molester” even though he could never be prosecuted as one in a court of law. Such a label was near-unfathomable 13 years earlier when Hastert voted for the law that eliminated the statute of limitations on federal child sex abuse and kidnapping crimes.
But most child sex abuse cases are not in federal purview, and states have their own patchwork of laws on time-barred prosecution.
Timelines range from South Dakota’s brief three year reporting window to Illinois’ relatively long 20-year window. Time limits also vary based on factors like the date of the alleged abuse or whether a responsible party like a teacher or social worker failed to report the abuse when it occurred.
Experts say current statute of limitations rules unduly and even unrealistically burden young victims with reporting abuse they haven’t come to terms with — or don’t even understand.
“Most adults have difficultly sorting out how to proceed after a crime happens,” said Polly Poskin, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “A child might not even know that they can go to the police. They know about the police but they might not know what happened to them in cases is a crime.”
Even as victims of childhood crimes grow up, persistent cultural attitudes around victim blaming — like the notion that accusations are made out of anger or revenge — can keep a victim silent, Poksin adds.
“We as a culture have a terrible record of believing the victim of a sexual assault or sexual abuse,” Poskin said. “Victims don’t think they will be believed or that they’ll be supported and not blamed.”
Those who oppose an elimination of the statute of limitations on prosecuting child sex abuse argue it’s a violation of due process for the accused.
Other objections touch on the fact that decades-old allegations typically have “stale evidence [and] little to no physical evidence,” Poskin said.
“Usually, there are no witnesses either. Perpetrators usually isolate their victim. And the victims might not know each other and tell each other.”
Proving child sexual abuse beyond a reasonable doubt remains a difficult case to make regardless of when it’s reported, and time almost always works against a victim because memories fade, witnesses die and evidence is lost.
At least four states — California, Minnesota, Delaware and Hawaii — have opened a window of time ranging from one to three years during which anyone who was sexually abused as a child could bring forward a claim of abuse no matter how long ago it happened.
By the time California closed its one-year reporting window in 2004, at least 800 claims had been filed. In Hawaii, some of the several-dozen claims dated back to the 1950s.
Poskin said one of the most compelling reasons to remove the statute of limitations is a simple one: “The perpetrator might confess.”
In Hastert’s case, one confession begat several more, which Poskin said can increase the pressure to confess.
“If the current law doesn’t allow us to indict the Denny Hasterts of the world, then the law isn’t doing its job.”