Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert pleaded guilty last October to one count of illegally structuring bank withdrawals, and will be sentenced to up to five years in prison by a federal judge later this week. But behind this technical-sounding crime is something truly horrific: According to the feds, the structured bank withdrawals were payoffs to students Hastert molested while coaching wrestling decades ago. He isn’t being prosecuted for those crimes because the statue of limitations in Illinois forbids it.
Who would support somebody who paid out $3.5 million over multiple decades to keep alleged victims of sexual abuse quiet? Lots of people, it turns out. Hastert’s defense team says they received 60 letters of support, and not just from ghouls like former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former CIA director Porter Goss. Hastert also received support from the Illinois wrestling community, including University of Chicago head wrestling coach Leo Kocher; David Kapple, a wrestler he coached 45 years ago; and Theodore DeRousse Jr., the former United States Wrestling Federation’s Illinois chair.
Before Hastert was chosen to replace a terminally ill member of the Illinois House of Representatives in 1981, he taught social studies at Yorkville High School, about 50 miles west of Chicago, for 16 years, and coached the football and wrestling teams. His career as a coach—during which he allegedly molested wrestlers—was a crucial part of how he presented himself to the world during his rise to power, and the wrestling world cooperated. He has been feted by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame not once, not twice, but three times. He was given the Order of Merit award in 1995, Outstanding American in 2000, and Lifetime Service to Wrestling (Illinois) in 2003.
The letters of support from Kocher, Kapple, and DeRousse were written earlier this year, before the federal government revealed the highly credible accusations of molestation against Hastert, but that’s hardly an excuse. Hastert’s attorneys argued to keep the 60 letters of support from becoming public, but once it became clear the judge would release them, 20 people withdrew their letters. They no longer wanted to support Hastert once they learned about the accusations of molestation (or, perhaps, simply didn’t want to be known as supporters of an accused child molester). Forty people did. These three were among them.
It’s worth noting that while the feds didn’t reveal molestation-related allegations against Hastert until after the letters were written, they hardly came out of nowhere. Accusations had already been floating around Illinois politics, wrestling, and media circles for years, and last summer the family of one of the alleged victims came forward, and gave a chilling account to Good Morning America:
Jolene said that Steve told her the abuse lasted throughout Steve’s four years of high school as he served as team student manager. “Mr. Hastert had plenty of opportunities to be alone with Steve, because he was there before the meets,” she said. “He was there after everything because he did the laundry, the uniforms. So he was there by himself with him,” she added.
Despite this, Kocher, on University of Chicago letterhead, describes “Denny” as “an outstanding human being who has made enormous contributions to society—particularly the youth of society—over his lifetime.” (You can read the full letter on page 62 of this PDF.)
What would explain this vigorous support for a man who has to all appearances been exposed as a monster? Much of it, it seems, has to do with his strong, dedicated opposition to equal rights for women.
As an example of Haster’s high character, Kocher cites Hastert’s interference with attempts to implement Title IX, the law which prohibits any educational program receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex:
The smart thing to do politically was to not touch this issue — no one benefits from being accused of being anti-female by the well-funded and media savvy feminist groups. But Denny did whatever he could, whether it was prevailing upon the Department of Education to relent in its demands that a male college sports program be dropped (yes that did happen), or encourage a college president to find another way to satisfy the onerous demands of a Dept. of Ed. Bureaucracy that was bearing down hard. He never said no when it came to his being able to help in any way to stem the senseless devastation of non-scholarship sports opportunities.
As insane as it seems, Kocher’s letter is of a piece with the misdirected blame the wider wrestling community places upon Title IX for the slow decline of wrestling as a sport, which Hastert tapped for support. Take, for instance, his official citation for his Order of Merit from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame:
Congressman J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, leader of the fight to save wrestling and other men’s collegiate sports from destruction in the name of Title IX, was voted the Order of Merit for 1996 by the Distinguished Members.
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But of primary interest to his wrestling constituents has been Hastert’s drive to save collegiate wrestling programs, being chopped year by year through unfair application of the Title IX program, which was established by Congress to provide equal rights for female athletes.
This myth has been perpetuated by wrestling supporters since shortly after the ink dried on Title IX. It is true that numerous universities zeroed out wrestling to address the imbalance in funding between men’s and women’s sports, but that was a choice university administrators made, not one Title IX foisted upon them. Administrators could have chosen to cut football and its 85 scholarships—Title IX opponents were sure that they would—or chosen to support an additional women’s sport in order to balance out wrestling. They didn’t. Instead of taking the blame for cutting wrestling programs, though, cynical administrators portrayed Title IX as reverse sex discrimination, and essentially told the wrestling community “the women made us do it.” Some were happy to be taken in by this line of logic; others were happy to take advantage of it; and in all it seems to have created bonds of solidarity that pretty much nothing could break.
Inside Higher Ed reached out to Kocher, who didn’t respond, and the University of Chicago, which asserted that Kocher’s individual views don’t necessarily represent the University. The National Wrestling Hall of Fame is considering revoking Hastert’s awards. At least one of his alleged victims is expected to testify at his sentencing.