Call it Denny Hastert's legacy: End the statute of limitations on sex abuse crimes

Chicago Tribune Editorial Board
April 25, 2017

At his sentencing hearing a year ago, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert apologized for sexually abusing boys he'd mentored decades before as a wrestling coach at Yorkville High School. "For 11 months, I have been struggling to come to terms with events that occurred almost four decades ago," he said at the emotional Chicago hearing in which a federal judge called him a "serial child molester."

Hastert wasn't convicted on any sexual abuse charges, however. The statute of limitations had long ago expired. Instead, he was convicted on charges relating to bank fraud. A federal investigation into suspicious bank transactions by the former Illinois legislator and congressman had eventually revealed the sexual abuse.

Hastert was sentenced to 15 months in prison, which he is scheduled to complete this fall. He is also due to get word on Wednesday whether his state retirement benefits will be slashed by a board that governs Illinois lawmakers' pensions.

Of course, Hastert's 11 months of turmoil, including the prison time and possible pension cut, pale in comparison to the decades that his victims struggled with what had happened to them.

But if there can be a worthwhile legacy from a case involving the sexual abuse of children, it might be this: As Hastert prepared for his prison stay, victim advocacy groups pushed Illinois lawmakers to re-examine the statutes of limitations for sexual abuse and similar crimes. Attorney General Lisa Madigan proposed legislation in 2016 that would remove the state's statute of limitations for serious sex offenses — including criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse — when allegedly committed against someone under 18.

We supported the push last year, and we're encouraged that it's now receiving strong support in the General Assembly. Senate Bill 189, sponsored by Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, passed the Senate 54-0 in March; a House vote is expected.

Illinois is already a leader in providing victims of sexual abuse a pathway to justice. Several years ago, in reaction to the priest abuse scandal within the Roman Catholic Church, the state removed the statute of limitations on sex abuse crimes against children. But there were crucial exceptions. Victims needed to produce corroborating physical evidence, for instance.

Few cases meet that criteria, leaving most abuse cases subject to a statute of limitations that gives a victim only until he or she is 38 (20 years after he or she turns 18) to file a complaint. The new law would remove those extra requirements and effectively eliminate the statute of limitations for cases in which the current legal time limit hasn't yet expired.

Here's why this is important: Ending the statute of limitations would acknowledge that many victims are simply unable to deal with, let alone talk about, the abuse they suffered as children until much later in life.

The Hastert case provided one painful example. Scott Cross, the brother of longtime former Illinois Republican House Leader Tom Cross, was a 17-year-old wrestler in 1979. After Hastert sexually molested him in an otherwise empty locker room one day, Cross kept the incident to himself for almost 37 years. He didn't come forward until the Hastert investigation was reported in the media. The statute of limitations was long expired. But he spoke publicly at Hastert's sentencing hearing.

"I wanted you to know the pain and suffering he caused me then and still causes me today," Cross told U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin before Hastert was sentenced. "As importantly, I want my children and anyone else who was ever treated the way I was to know that there's an alternative to staying silent. As deeply painful as it has been to discuss this ... staying silent for years was worse."

If there hadn't been a statute of limitations in the 1970s, would any of Hastert's victims gone to police in recent years? We don't know. But, as Bennett said after the bill passed the Senate, "survivors should be free to make that decision in their own time."

Lifting the statute of limitations for felony criminal sexual assault and sexual abuse crimes against children won't help Scott Cross, and it won't change the case against Hastert. But it will leave open a pathway to justice for other victims, who only now may be starting to process what has happened to them.