Years after sexual abuse, men stay trapped in silence

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert allegedly molested five boys. One of them is now speaking out on his abuse.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert allegedly molested five boys. One of them is now speaking out on his abuse. AP

It’s the silence that traps them, encasing them in shame, self-loathing and sometimes fear.

The millions of American men who were molested when they were children hide what happened to them for years. But every so often, something happens to crack the silence.

That’s what we saw last week in Chicago at the sentencing of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who allegedly molested five teenagers connected to the wrestling team he coached decades ago. One of them, Scott Cross, now a 53-year-old married father of two, decided he wouldn’t be silent anymore about Hastert, who was convicted of violating federal banking laws in paying hush money to a now deceased former student. The statute of limitations on the abuse ran out decades ago.

Cross wanted to remain unidentified by name in court records, just like the other victims who still deal with the consequences of what happened to them.

But then Hastert, 73, had the hubris to twice contact his brother, Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross, to write a letter to the judge on Hastert’s behalf, asking him to show mercy.

That is what pushed Scott Cross to testify at Hastert’s sentencing. And it was powerful to hear, in his words, the impact Hastert’s abuse had on him.

He endured years of guilt, isolation and sleeplessness, he told the court. “Today I understand I did nothing to bring this on, but at age 17, I could not understand what happened or why,” he said.

Cross’s testimony reminded me of Maryland Del. C.T. Wilson, D, who stood before his colleagues twice, describing the lifelong horror of being raped repeatedly as a child by his adoptive father. It took Wilson, an Army veteran and attorney, 20 years to acknowledge what he endured.

He was lobbying his colleagues to extend the statute of limitations for victims to file lawsuits against an abuser or organization that harbored the abuser. And for two years in a row, the Maryland legislature ignored him. State lawmakers were swayed by the Catholic Church, which has been at the center of a global scandal over priests sexually abusing children for years.

What a way to tell victims they shouldn’t be heard.

But the Hastert case – which resulted in a 15-month sentence for the former lawmaker – and Cross’s courage in talking publicly about being molested have prompted other men to seek help, said Christopher Anderson, executive director at Male Survivor, an advocacy group for male victims of sexual assault.

The aftershocks of this kind of abuse can last decades. And often, the thing that cracks men’s silence is seeing another man come forward.

After I wrote about Wilson last month, I heard from someone I’d lost track of. He was a smart and strong leader in the D.C. non-profit world. And then suddenly, a couple years ago, he disappeared.

Emboldened by Wilson’s bravery, he got in touch with me, explained his absence and said he wanted to tell his story.

He and his brother had been sexually abused by his babysitter when he was 6. The boys told their parents, but it was a time when the things the boys described weren’t spoken aloud.

And besides, the babysitter was from a good family. Who would believe them?

So the parents hushed their boys, dismissed the babysitter and never spoke of it again.

It became the kernel of shame and self-loathing that the man, who is now 67, spent decades surviving. And it was finally his calamitous depression that prompted the man to get counseling and confront it.

He told me everything. Then he told me I couldn’t use his name. Sixty years had passed, and he was still too ashamed for people to know.

Twitter: @petulad.