End the statute of limitations on child sex crimes

Former Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert cut a pitiful figure this week as he left federal prison in Minnesota and his wheelchair got stuck on a bump in the sidewalk. His wife, fumbling at his side to manage his aluminum walker and other items, wasn’t immediately able to help him over the hurdle. The just-released prisoner was momentarily stuck, pathetic for a man who was once second in line for the presidency of the United States.

I didn’t feel sorry for him one bit. Hastert is one of the worst kinds of criminals in my book. He robbed children of their innocence and damaged their futures forever.

When Hastert was sentenced to 15 months in prison last April, the judge called him “a serial child molester” and noted that he had sexually abused at least four members of the wrestling team at Yorkville High School in suburban Chicago from 1965 to 1981.

But Hastert was not convicted of sexually abusing children because the statute of limitations in Illinois had long since run out. In that state, victims have 20 years from their 18th birthday to report a sex crime, and Hastert’s popular position in the community back in the day was enough to keep all his victims quiet — for decades.

No, it wasn’t sex with minors that brought down the man whose affable personality helped him hold on to the House speaker position longer than any other Republican. It was his own mysterious bank transactions that alerted the FBI. When agents questioned Hastert, he lied about the reason for his systematic withdrawals of just under $10,000. But the FBI’s investigation turned up the real reason Hastert had drained his accounts of more than $950,000. Beginning in 2010, Hastert had begun to pay hush money to one of his victims.

Ultimately, all the former politician could be charged with was violating banking regulations. Once the indictment against him was made public, Hastert’s secrets began to spill out in shameful detail.

Stephen Reinboldt, one of the victims, later died of AIDS, according to his sister, Jolene Burdge. She said her brother’s life deteriorated after the sexual contact with his trusted coach. The unidentified victim to whom Hastert had been paying money filed a lawsuit asking for the remainder of the $3.5 million Hastert had promised him. And victim Scott Cross decided to go public after 37 years of keeping his secret.

On CNN this week, Cross was asked to enlighten people about why so many victims wait to report sexual abuse or never report it at all.

He said: “You think about shame, guilt, embarrassment, humiliation — the Hasterts of the world have so much trust and respect over you that you really have a hard time processing and understanding it.”

Now 54 years old, Cross told CNN that he had never told his parents or three brothers about the abuse. Ironically, one of his brothers had been a political protege of Hastert’s and went on to serve as the Illinois Republican House leader.

While Hastert was serving 13 months of his 15-month sentence, Cross was working with the Illinois attorney general to get the state to abolish the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children. He was successful. Gov. Bruce Rauner is expected to sign the unanimously passed legislation soon.

Only a handful of states have no statute of limitations on felony sex abuse. Many use the “age-18-plus-20-years formula.

That any state continues to embrace a statute of limitation on reporting child sexual abuse is incomprehensible. Our system is based on the premise of justice for all. And that includes victims who, for whatever reason, cannot confront or talk about what happened to them until later in life. It is way past time to do away with these antiquated statute of limitation laws.

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