Power

Congress’s forgotten pedophile

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was a celebrated politician — and a serial child molester.

Power

Congress’s forgotten pedophile

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was a celebrated politician — and a serial child molester.
Power

Congress’s forgotten pedophile

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was a celebrated politician — and a serial child molester.

The allegations that Senate candidate Roy Moore spent his thirties dating, propositioning, and sexually assaulting high school-aged girls are shocking, but not without precedent. There have been plenty of congressmen who carried on sexual relationships with teenagers — from Thomas Jefferson to Strom Thurmond — but perhaps none as dastardly as Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert, who served as Speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007. In 2015, an FBI investigation found that Hastert molested at least four boys during his tenure as a high school teacher and wrestling coach in the 1970s. An additional civil lawsuit alleged that Hastert sodomized a fourth-grade boy in a school bathroom and threatened him if he reported the assault. Since the statute of limitations had expired on these crimes, Hastert was instead convicted of evading bank reporting requirements in order to secretly pay off his victims. He served 15 months in prison. Somehow, this has all but disappeared from our cultural memory. Could our failure to reckon with Hastert’s crimes — and the numerous derelictions of responsibility that let them go unpunished for so long — be one reason why a known pedophile now has a real shot at winning a Senate seat? Yes, probably.

It’s instructive to recall that when the story of Hastert’s exploits broke, his former colleagues on both sides of the aisle acted ever so shocked. “The Denny I served with worked hard on behalf of his constituents and the country. I’m shocked and saddened to learn of these reports,” said then-Speaker John Boehner. “It seems so out of character for Denny. I just never could imagine that he’d be involved in anything like this,” said the Democratic Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin. However, Hastert’s sociopathy was always evident as he “worked hard” to enrich business interests and allow discrimination against marginalized groups — particularly the LGBT community. Hastert blocked the Matthew Shepard hate crime law the multiple times it was proposed and fought hard on behalf of the failed constitutional amendment to define marriage as “a union of one man and one woman.” In 2004, he told Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition that “More kids need to be taught to just say no. That doesn’t just apply to drugs, that also applies to sex before marriage.” Like Roy Moore, he exemplified the archetype of the hypocritical moralist. Given the number of “family values” zealots who (like Hastert) called for Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 while carrying on their own barely concealed affairs, it might have served Hastert’s colleagues well to give his personal life a closer look.

There were also hints in Washington that Hastert’s attitude toward pederasty was a bit lax. When Republican congressman Mark Foley was reported to have sent sexually suggestive emails and messages to underage Congressional pages in the fall of 2006, he was quickly condemned and forced to resign by the Republican House leadership. The ethics investigation that followed, however, revealed that Hastert and the party leadership had long been aware of Foley’s misdeeds. At first, Hastert maintained that he had no prior knowledge of Foley’s emails, but it soon came out that Rep. John Boehner had informed Hastert of them in the spring of 2006 and Hastert told him the matter “had been taken care of.” (It hadn’t.) This wasn’t the earliest he was aware of Foley’s actions, either — Hastert’s staff had been informed in 2003 of a drunken attempt by Foley to enter the pages’ dormitory after curfew.

Nothing was done about Foley’s predatory behavior until it became a national scandal, and nothing was done about Hastert’s numerous false statements and failure to prevent his colleagues from preying on teenagers. Fortunately for House Republicans, Hastert’s own crimes weren’t revealed until 2015 — eight years after he stepped down from political life. Had they been revealed in 2006, Hastert would have been subject to a Congressional ethics investigation and his colleagues and staffers would have had to testify under oath about what they knew. Republicans also wouldn’t have been able to claim — as they did in 2015 — that somehow, over a 20 year period, not a single person in Hastert’s vast professional network ever suspected him of wrongdoing.

“It seems so out of character for Denny. I just never could imagine that he’d be involved in anything like this.”
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, upon learning of the allegations against Hastert

In November 2006, Democrats became the majority party in Congress and Hastert announced his intention not to run for reelection. Despite his response to the Foley scandal and his role in tarnishing the GOP’s image before the 2006 midterm elections, Hastert’s reputation remained intact, and his colleagues openly and effusively praised him. Boehner — whom Hastert had recently lied to in order to cover for Foley — said that “[Hastert] has led the House through some great times and difficult ones, all with a steady hand of leadership and commitment to principle that deserves everyone’s respect and admiration. He is a man of unquestioned honor and integrity.” President George W. Bush said that Hastert was a “good and decent man” and that “drawing on lessons he learned as a coach, he successfully guided Members of Congress to work together to enact legislation that has improved the lives of Americans.” (Mind you, some of the lessons he learned as a coach, of course, related to covering up sexual abuse of teenage boys.)

The media was also slow to report the story that Hastert was a serial child molester. In 2006, Jolene Reinboldt Burdge told ABC News and the Associated Press that her late brother, Steve Reinboldt, had been the victim of sexual abuse by Hastert in the late 1960s and early 1970s while managing the high school wrestling team that Hastert coached. ABC News reportedly “could not corroborate Jolene's allegation,” and so they held onto the story for nine years. In 2015, the Associated Press stated that “On the phone and by email [Burdge] repeatedly declined to talk about Dennis Hastert and provided no information that would have allowed AP to pursue a story, despite AP’s further efforts to do so at the time.” Had Burdge spoken on the record about Hastert’s abuse, for which she had no physical proof, she likely would have been threatened — like Roy Moore’s and Donald Trump’s accusers — with legal action.

Even though Hastert served just over a year in prison and is now under supervised release, and even though Moore is still leading in the polls despite near-daily accusations of sexual impropriety, there is a case for optimism. The allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others have lessened the stigma that silences victims of sexual abuse by powerful men. When Hastert ran for a House seat in 1986 in a highly contested election, no one came forward. When he became Speaker of the House, the third most powerful position in the country, no one came forward. When the 2000 election put Hastert second in the line of succession behind a president prone to choking on pretzels and a vice president recovering from his third heart attack, no one came forward. The FBI had to stumble upon Hastert’s illicit activities by accident before the story broke. This time around, it seems that fewer victims are being cowed into silence. Moore may still win next month, but at least this time we have advance knowledge of his evil.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline.
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