Raise your hand if you hear a familiar bell ring as a scandal now envelops former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a scandal ripe with still-unconfirmed links to teen sexual abuse during his long-ago years as a high school wrestling coach.
It’s that ring of familiar quotes: “Are they talking about our Denny?” says someone who coached for a rival team. “He was a man of character, a pillar in the community.”
Where have I heard talk like that before?
Ding! Ding! Ding! Catholic scandal, circa 2002, anyone?
The Catholic scandal ruptured like an abscess in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002. And soon people in every state discovered the pestilence could be found there, too, maybe their own parish.
Across the country that year, as priest after priest was revealed to have molested or raped children and teens, we heard a refrain from shocked parishes:
Oh no, Father So-and-so was such a great priest! He loved kids. He helped kids. This can’t be so….
I read some variation of this more times than I can count. I wrote it, too. I profiled one of the Boston archdioceses’ arch-fiends, the Rev. Paul Shanley. Here was my lead:
Some people say it’s proof of the devil that evil can be masked by charm, that the same person can do good deeds yet cause soul-scarring harm.
“This is what’s so horrid about all this,” recalls Verona Mazzei of Newton, Mass. “Father Paul Shanley was wonderful when we knew him: charismatic, intelligent, open. He helped me in my faith journey.”
Mazzei and others who knew Shanley wonder: How could this be the same priest who allegedly fondled boys, lured or forced them into sex and demolished their trust?
In 2005, some of Shanley’s reported 26 victims watched him be convicted by a jury of raping and assaulting a 6-year-old boy 20 years earlier. It was a joyless victory. The defrocked priest, now 84, is still serving his 12 to 15-year sentence in prison.
Somewhere out there are good people who just can’t believe a priest or a teacher or coach who seems so kind, so smart, so interested in their teenagers, could so grievously mangle that trust. The Catholic scandal taught us all otherwise. Boz Tchivijian, writing in his blog for Religion News Service, reminds us all that these sad sick secrets occur in all kinds of churches where charming predators lurk.
According to the indictment, Hastert allegedly tried to hide a fortune in hush payments to an unnamed person he knew during his years as a high school coach. Unidentified law enforcement officials have leaked to major media that the payments were meant to keep someone quiet about sexual abuse.
Who? Was Hastert the abuser? Or could it have been that Hastert knew — and failed to report to authorities — that some other adult was abusing a teen? Ding! Ding! That rings two bells.
— See the coverage noting the strange silence in congressional leadership when U.S. Rep Mark Foley was known to be sending inappropriate messages to underage House pages.
— See umpteen stories on bishops covering up known abuse — and later the church paying more than $2.5 billion in payments to more than 17,000 victims as of 2012.
But when you look at this weekend’s Hastert coverage, you’ll see, all the usual shock, astonishment and denial.
His old high school buddy told The Washington Post: “I don’t know the details, but I know what the man is made of, and I know that I will stand behind him.”
Surely a good guy, a good coach who became a political leader and a successful lobbyist couldn’t have molested young, vulnerable students in his charge so long ago.