Community, politicians react to Hastert prison sentence

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Thumb through old Yorkville High School yearbooks and you'll find Dennis Hastert held in high regard. Wednesday he was sentenced to prison. (WLS)

Dennis Hastert taught at Yorkville High School from the mid-1960s to 1980. He was in his 20s and 30s; his accusers were between the ages of 14 and 17 years old when they say their coach molested him. Wednesday, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison on banking charges stemming from a hush money agreement to cover up that molestation.

In the community and political party where he was admired, many are struggling to reconcile the man they thought they knew with the man headed for federal prison.

Thumb through Yorkville High School yearbooks from the 60's and 70's and you'll find snapshots of a man held in high regard.

One caption reads, "Our fine wrestling team ably coached by Mr. Hastert."

The wrestlers were state champions, the pride of the Fox Valley. Hastert also coached the football team for a time. Yearbook staff wrote: Hastert "enjoys athletics and working with young people."

"I never envisioned that this former teacher and wrestling coach from Kendall County Illinois would have the opportunity to lead the United States House of Representatives," said Hastert on the House floor in 2007.

At the time he was teaching, Yorkville was a rural town where everyone knew everyone else. Hastert's wins as a coach, and reputation as teacher, propelled his political career from the school house to the state house and eventually the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. No one could have predicted how high this history teacher could climb or far he would eventually fall.

"I think he should get 20 years!" says Yorkville resident Sandra Clark.

Clark is something of a rarity here in Yorkville, someone willing to speak out against the former Speaker.

"I don't care if he's an old man. What he did to those children is not acceptable," she says.

"It's not enough," agreed Amber Hettinger. "I have no sympathy for him."

Others have a different take.

"I think it's kind of ridiculous to put someone man in prison for something he's done so long ago," says resident Frank Dobner.

"I think it's too harsh, given his age," says Lesia Yarbrough, another resident.

At Yorkville High School there is now a push to unravel his legacy and have a sign with his name removed from the gym. And the National Wrestling Hall of Fame is now considering whether his name should be erased from their history as well.

But others in the community now seems anxious to move on.

"Yorkville's sense of identity is not wrapped-up in the bad deeds of one man," Dobner says.

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Formerly one of the Illinois Republican Party's most revered politciians, the state's politicians react to their former luminary's fall from grace.

Hastert's prominent place in both the state and national Republican Party has added a second, political dimension to his fall from grace. Given the fact that his investigation and sentence has virtually nothing to do with government, the vast majority of local politicians contacted by ABC7 Eyewitness News wanted nothing to do with it. The few who did speak out were disgusted and more concerned about the victims.

"I don't think there's anything political to be gleaned from this, to be perfectly honest," said State Senator Matt Murphy (R-Palatine). "To be perfectly honest I think he got a sentence that was reasonable for what he's done."

Like most Illinois republicans, State Sen. Murphy was stunned to learn that Hastert's victims many years ago included Scott Cross, brother of Republican Illinois State Rep. Tom Cross. Scott Cross spoke in court Wednesday about sexual abuse at the hands of Hastert. Cross had previously been identified in court papers as Individual D.

"I was completely floored," Murphy said. "Nobody had ever heard of that before. At least I never had. I never heard any rumors of anything like that. This is a human tragedy on a lot of levels."

Tom Cross, who lost his run for State Treasurer in 2014, is inextricably entwined with Hastert as a one-time protege. Scott Cross had not told his family of the abuse until recently, and spoke about feeling ashamed, embarrassed and guilty in his moving testimony. The catalyst for Cross coming forward appears to be requests from Hastert's legal team for his brother, Rep. Cross, to write a letter of support for the former Speaker.

Tom Cross issued a statement praising his brother's appearance at the sentencing hearing, saying in part, "We hope his testimony will provide courage and strength to other victims of other cases of abuse to speak out and advocate for themselves."

Former Illinois Republican Chairman Pat Brady called the day's events "sickening."

"My heart goes out to all the victims. Not just the people who were in court today, but to all the people who were victimized throughout the years and the years they've had to keep this in. It's a sad day," Brady said.

Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, who served in Congress while Hastert was Speaker, wrote, "I commend the many victims who have broken decades of silence to tell their stories. They and their families deserve our full support."

Other current and former members of Congress who served with Hastert would not comment when asked.

State Sen. Murphy said Hastert's admitted sex crimes had nothing to do with politics.

"This was something he did long before he was in politics as a private citizen and I don't think this has a place in this," he said.
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