Hastert victim to lawmakers: Scrap time limits for abuse charges

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Scott Cross (left) a victim of sexual abuse by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, joined Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to testify before members of the Illinois Senate as they met Tuesday in Chicago. Madigan is calling on state lawmakers to pass legislation removing statutes of limitations for child sex abuse crimes. Cross was abused by Hastert decades ago. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun Times

A man who testified about being sexually abused by former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert called on state lawmakers Tuesday to remove legal barriers to prosecuting decades-old sexual abuse cases.

Scott Cross, a Wheaton banker who was captain of the Yorkville High School wrestling team when Hastert was coach during the 1970s, spoke to a Illinois Senate panel, lobbying for legislation that would remove the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual abuse cases against offenders who target underage victims.

Cross first spoke publicly about the abuse, which happened in 1979 when Cross was 17, when he took the witness stand at Hastert’s federal sentencing hearing in April.

But the charges that sent Hastert to prison on a 15-month sentence were for financial crimes tied to payouts he made to another abuse victim, Cross said. Hastert could not be prosecuted for sexual abuse because the statute of limitations —the number of years that can elapse before a crime can no longer be prosecuted —for Hastert’s abuse of Cross had passed a decade earlier.

“Since I confronted Hastert in court, the question I get the most, is ‘How do you feel about his sentence? Was justice delivered?’ Hastert inflicted unbelievable pain on the lives of youth he was entrusted to care for, yet he got a slap on the wrist,” Cross said. “Hastert’s only political legacy should be that his crimes and complete lack of repentance led to changing laws that empowered survivors over their sexual abusers.”

Seated beside Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Cross choked up often as he read from a prepared statement to the Senate Subcommittee on Statutes of Limitation. The General Assembly has four bills pending that deal with the statute of limitations, Madigan office said.

Currently, sexual assault against a child can be prosecuted only if the victim comes forward within 20 years of the date they turn 18 — meaning that victims older than 38 have no chance to see their abusers face charges, Cross said. The pain and shame of the abuse can take years to process, Cross said, and setting the window for charges at 20 years is “arbitrary” and “defies common sense.”

Hastert in 2015 pleaded guilty to charges of structuring bank withdrawals to disguise payments he made to an unnamed former student whom Hastert also abused, and who reached a deal for Hastert to buy his continued silence for $3.5 million. Questioned by federal investigators about a string of large withdrawals he made to deliver the payments, Hastert said he was being blackmailed, and even tried to help set up a sting.

Hastert had been a successful and popular teacher and coach at Yorkville before leaving to run for state representative. Hastert would go on to represent the Yorkville area in Congress, becoming the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House. After retiring, Hastert went on to a lucrative career as a lobbyist.

At his sentencing this spring, Hastert was asked about Cross’ statements in court regarding being abused. Hastert told U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin that he didn’t recall the abuse, “but I accept his statement.” Hastert also said allegations of abuse by a second victim were “a different situation,” but declined Durkin’s request to elaborate as to how it differed.

Durkin would call Hastert a “serial child molester.”

“If you need an example why every legal and prosecutorial tool should be on the table, just look at the conduct of Dennis Hastert until his sentencing,” Cross said. “Did Hastert really confront his actions? No. He concocted a nonsensical lie about being blackmailed, further inflicting pain on a survivor of his abuse. Was Hastert ready to accept a slap-on-the-wrist jail sentence? No. He used his connections to the powerful and elite, who wrote letters asking for leniency.”

Nation-wide, Madigan said 36 states have eliminated or extended statutes of limitations on sex crimes involving children.

Northwestern University criminal law professor Jeffrey Urdangen, said it was hard to predict whether changes to the statute of limitations would increase the number of cases filed, because evidence could easily be lost, and memories fade, over the decades. Historically, statutes of limitations have existed for all but a few crimes to prevent the specter of charges from hanging over the heads of potential defendants, Urdangen said.

“There is the presumption of innocence for defendants, and just as there are problems with older cases and the evidence you need to bring charges, and it can be difficult to marshal the resources to put on a defense, after 5, 10, 20 years,” said Urdangen, who is director of the Center for Criminal Defense at Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. “I think you have to be circumspect when you’re tying legislation to one single, reprehensible individual, as seems to be the case here.”

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