Why the Dennis Hastert scandal has a familiar ring

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We don't want to believe people we like could be capable of abuse -- disguised behind Image courtesy of Craig Owen via Flickr (Image source)

We don't want to believe people we like could be capable of abuse -- disguised behind Image courtesy of Craig Owen via Flickr (Image source)

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….

We don't want to believe people we like could be capable of abuse -- disguised behind Image courtesy of Craig Owen via Flickr (Image source)

We don’t want to believe people we like could be capable of abuse — disguised behind a charming and accomplished facade. Image courtesy of Craig Owen via Flickr (Image source)

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.

Could he?



  • Greg1

    So, Dennis should have become a Catholic priest? To me, the more we expose this stuff, the better. Regarding the Catholic Church, I believe God Almighty revealed that filthy scandal so to clean up the priesthood, as well as the bishopric. It was like tearing the scab off of a very large wound, but in the end the priesthood of the Church will be renewed, brought back to the state of purity. As for the Church, well the screening process has become more rigorous, allowing only men who have been called to the celibate life in. Whereas, with Hastert, well we see another male on male abuse scandal, but he is merely a politician, accountable only to the voters. So, I’m not sure how that will be cleaned up, other than jail time. In summary, the only connection between the Hastert scandal, and the Catholic Church scandal, is the male on male abuse. One can be cleaned up, the other will fade after the headlines ebb off, and continue on unchecked.

  • Ginny

    This pro-life congressman was busy making a fortune acting as a lobbyist for a tobacco company. Nice guy indeed.

  • Ben in oakalnd

    So, what’s the big surprise when another self proclaimed heterosexual, uber Christian defender of family values, known for his firm and wide stance against the evils of gay people and our insidious agenda to redefine everything good and holy…

    I say, what’s the big surprise when yet bother of these Men o’ God turns out to have had his hand down the cookie jars pants? In the past two weeks, we have had revelations about a pedophile religious propagandists, his enable ping parents, a cop friend of there’s who like kiddy porn, hayon another kiddy porn lover and beloved of NOM, the anti gay down low minister in Michigan, two other sex scandals, and a minister think who embezzled $60k from his church.

    At least the last one was merely a thief.

    I know why these hypocrites, homosexual-hating-homosexuals, sex obsessed moralizing busybodies exist. I just wish they’work out their issues by exorcising their own very real demons instead of pretending to exorcise my imaginary ones.

  • opheliart

    “Ding! Ding! Ding!”

    ah, yes … for whom the bell tolls …

    Thx for the article, Cathy Lynn


  • JR

    This article mentions more about the Catholic Church scandal than Hassert’s activities. Analogy is fine, but a retread of all the details of the past is not really the latest news. Focus on the subject at hand.

  • dave

    Back in the 70’s and earlier, America was still living in the, ‘St. Paul.’ Don’t   let any rotten/unhealthy word come from your mouth ‘ era.

    Ephesians 4:29 (EXB) | In Context | Whole Chapter

    29 Don’t ·say anything that will hurt others [L let any rotten/unhealthy word come from your mouth], but only say what is ·helpful [good] to ·make others stronger [build others up] ·and meet [L according to] their needs. Then what you say will ·do good [give grace; be a gift] to those who listen to you.

    Journalist’s and editors didn’t want to wind up in a burning hell so it wasn’t published, not even in religious literature. It was only whispered about in hushed tones among family’s across the nation.

    So now we have this epidemic of child sex abuse. Hopefully this now adult survivor can receive therapy and healing from the money he received from Dennis Hastert .
    This is another reason for states to reconsider their statute of limitations laws with regard to sexual crimes.

  • dave

    There are millions of adults who’ve experienced child sex abuse and still may not be healed yet.


  • Ted

    When you see people judging others, always question what they’re hiding. Judge not, lest you be judged. Are you listening, homophobes? What are you hiding?

  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    Did the Arcus Foundation fund this decade old rehash of a problem the Catholic Church has done far more to do something about than has the public schools or Hollywood.
    Just today the Boston Globe ran a little (and well buried) story about how one of Hollywood’s leading, award winning documentary film makers couldn’t find anyone to distribute her latest film. It is about child abuse in Hollywood. And who are great heroes there: convicted child molester Roman Polanski (who can’t even come to the U.S.) and Woody Allen.

  • Deacon,

    I’m glad you agree that the filthy pedophiles in the church are at the same level as the filth in Hollywood. Thanks for proving the point that Religion is just another man-made myth-making system and it does not lead to better behavior or better morals. Thanks for agreeing that no higher bar should be expected for religious people.

  • ben in oakland

    Hey, at least they’re not as bad as the muslims. That oughtta be worth something.

  • JR

    Judging someone does not mean you are hiding anything. People judge all the time, it’s human to do so. Our judgements are not equal to God’s, and we are warned not to judge someone as if we were God. But if we see sinful behavior we can certainly judge it for what it is, and inform the sinner that they are wrong. It is a duty to educate the ignorant on what sin is. If they choose to ignore our advice or scoff at it, then it’s on them….we needn’t care anymore about them.

  • Larry

    You are right, in most cases they aren’t hiding much.

    Their hypocrisy is apparent to all when they engage in petty moralizing judgmental actions.

    Their low moral character, dishonesty, and irrational behavior is all there for people to see for themselves. If such people did not want their actions to be judged, they should not have been so judgmental themselves.

  • Benjamin Pacheco

    Ms. Grossman article focuses more on the Catholic Church than under Dennis Hastert,the object of the news. For the sake of objectivity, I would like to see her comments about Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt ,the leader of an affluent Modern Orthodox synagogue in N.Y.who took boys as young as 12 to the sauna and while the children were naked he openly gawked at a naked child, placing his hand on another naked child’s leg ,and so on.(see Sunday 5/31 The New York Times ” The Rabbi and the Sauna”) I await your comment Ms. Grossman.