Dennis Hastert and Do-it-yourself Justice
By Melanie Blow
Dennis Hastert’s name is back in the news again, as the Los Angeles Times has gotten documentation that at least four people have credibly accused him of sexually abusing them as children. His story is so typical, and now that more victims have come forward, his story becomes even more typical. As such, it’s worth repeating.
In a month where stories of family and sexual violence by celebrities won’t fade from the headlines, we’re now learning about former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, someone third in line from the president of the United States, spent huge sums of money to silence someone he sexually abused as a child.
When I lobby for Statute of Limitation (SOL) reform, the unspoken question hanging in the air is always “why do you want to sue your abuser?” That’s a question worth talking about.
If your TV gets stolen, you’ll realize it shortly after it happens. Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) does not operate that way. A study released in 2013 showed it takes survivors an average of 21 years before they talk about their abuse. That’s a testament to how damaging it is, and how good abusers are at manipulating their victims to silence. So very long Statutes of Limitation (SOL’s) for the crime, or no SOL’s, are essential if we want to stop child sexual abuse. But what good does conviction in civil court do?
The most obvious answer is that successful civil suits make the plaintiffs richer.The ACE study proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that experiencing sexual abuse has lifetime consequences for victims. The CDC has actually calculated the direct costs associated with surviving child abuse to be about $200,000. One standard way to calculate payouts for pain and suffering is to take the actual damages and multiply it by a number between 1-5. Using this formula, a sum of $400,000-$1,200,000 per plaintiff makes sense. Punitive damages are generally capped at 100X the actual damages. So when you look at actual damages, plus pain and suffering, plus punitive damages, the really large settlements we occasionally hear about in cases like Penn State make sense.
The newest wrinkle in the Dennis Hastert case is that his alleged victim, Steve Reinboldt, has been named. Unfortunately, Steven passed away in 1995 from AIDS, taking details of his story with him. It’s interesting to note that HIV itself, as well as two things that cause it (over 50 sexual partners and IV drug use) are linked to ACE scores. So it seems likely that Steven wanted money for medical care, and demanded it from someone who set his life on a painful path full of destruction. And he since he couldn’t do it through the courts, he did it his own way.
There are very tangible, non-financial benefits to sueing a sexual abuser. Successful plaintiffs get legal documents saying “X sexually abused me”. This can be very validating. Suits against institutions reveal exactly how badly the institution behaved- this is very relevant to parents whose children are involved with those institutions. These documents can prevent a sexually abusive adult from gaining custody of a child through the foster care system. States can collect the names of sex offenders convicted through civil suits and assemble them into a database, similar to Megan’s law. This gives employers, CPS and anyone else interested in protecting children from harm another tool to do so.
In defending the usefulness of civil suits for survivors, I used to stop right there. This year, I talked with a CSA survivor who was sexually abused in different states, one of which doesn’t have a Statute of Limitations on child sexual abuse. The DA who would need to do the leg-work to bring her case to trial reluctant to do it. If he refuses to, she will have the chance to sue her abuse. As she put it “I want him to go to the police station once a week and write me a check for fifty cents. I don’t care about his fifty cents, but I want him to have to think about what he did to me once a week, because I think about it every day.”
This feeling of consequence, of justice, is what most people fighting for SOL reform want. One can only imagine this is what Steve Reinboldt wanted, too. While he got the financial portion. He may have gotten a sense of control by taking something from someone who took so much from him, and he may have used this power to protect other kids (“if I hear you’ve done this to someone else, I will tell the papers). This is still not an appropriate action. But it’s tragic that the laws, in Indiana and in so many other states, are so bad that blackmail is the closest approximation to justice for victims.