Last week, Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for illegally structuring cash withdrawals to avoid federal bank reporting laws. As part of his plea bargain, the government also dismissed charges that Hastert lied to agents investigating his suspicious banking practices. Sounds pretty mundane, just another victimless crime — a banking violation prosecuted in federal court. But that's the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

The case against Hastert actually involves much darker and destructive illegal conduct. It turns out that the cash withdrawals were being used by Hastert as hush money, to cover up that he had years ago sexually assaulted a minor, now grown and identified in court papers only as Individual A. When first confronted by investigators, Hastert lied by claiming that he was being extorted by a former student who had made up a molestation claim. Imagine the perversity of that lie: attempting to turn a child sex abuse victim into an extorter, a criminal. As a result, the FBI placed Hastert's victim under investigation. Given the truth that finally came out, one must question the prosecutors' judgment in agreeing to dismiss the charges relating to such an egregious fabrication.

Once the FBI investigated Hastert's story, they concluded that Individual A was telling the truth in reporting that Hastert had sexually abused him. As part of the plea agreement, Hastert admitted to having paid $1.7 million to Individual A for his silence. Investigators also found other men who had been sexually assaulted as boys by Hastert when he was a high school wrestling coach — a total of five known victims in all. Prior to sentencing, Hastert never admitted to abusing any of the boys, merely apologizing in a statement for undefined past "transgressions." Even at his sentencing hearing, Hastert apologized for "mistreating" the boys.

It has been reported in the media that more than 40 letters in support of Hastert were submitted to the sentencing judge. Hastert's supporters included a number of former elected representatives, as well as other national, state and local government officials. Incredulously, some of the letters described Hastert as an inspirational leader, principled and trustworthy. Perhaps most ironic was the assertion by former congressman Tom DeLay that Hastert "does not deserve what he is going through."

While likely well-intentioned, these pleas for leniency for Hastert demonstrate an utter lack of knowledge of the characteristics of a pedophile and the damage such a monster causes to his victims. Unfortunately, such ignorance is pervasive in our justice system's handling of child sex abuse cases. Child predators are the antithesis of one who is principled or trustworthy. They typically use their positions of authority to sexually prey upon children after grooming their victims to trust and respect them. Hastert is simply another Jerry Sandusky, right down to the ploy of wrestling with his victims as part of the grooming process. Like Sandusky, Hastert deserved no leniency.

Studies have shown that child sex abuse survivors are one and a half times more likely to experience serious health problems. Psychological issues for survivors often include anxiety, poor self-esteem, dysfunctional relationships, eating disorders and PTSD. Higher rates of depression and suicide attempts are reported. Childhood trauma resulting from sexual abuse also predisposes the victim to autoimmune diseases later in life. To correct DeLay's grossly inappropriate comment, it is Hastert's victims, rather than their perpetrator, who did not "deserve" to be sexually assaulted or to have to "go through" the long-term effects of having been abused by Hastert.

In the past few years, cases involving child sex abuse have become part of our public consciousness. In many of these cases, the perpetrators are supposedly normal, respectable people in the community — religious leaders, teachers, coaches, mentors. It is time we, as a society, recognize these predators for what they are — dangerous offenders who prey upon children for their own sexual gratification. Nothing more, nothing less. And so, when pedophiles are finally held accountable under the law, there should be no confusion. It is the victims, rather than their abusers, who deserve justice and to whom we must show mercy.

— Neil Jaffee is legal counsel to the Vertigo Charitable Foundation and co-producer of "Pursuit of Truth: Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse Seeking Justice."

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