Dennis Hastert, once the longest-serving Republican House speaker in U.S. history, was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Chicago to 15 months in prison in a hush-money case related to Hastert's sexual abuse of teen boys decades ago.
U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin called Hastert a "serial child molester" and said he would have given a lengthier prison term if not for Hastert's age and declining health.
Throughout the judge's remarks, Hastert sat in his wheelchair without expression, glasses low on his nose. At one point, as Durkin made it clear that probation was not in the cards, Hastert clasped his hands in front of his face and dropped his eyes.
He showed no outward reaction to the sentence. As the dozens of spectators filed from the courtroom, Hastert remained motionless with his mouth downturned, not speaking to anyone.
Shortly before learning his sentence, Hastert had admitted for the first time that he sexually abused boys decades ago when he was the wrestling coach for Yorkville High School.
Hastert, who has been hobbled by a stroke and other health issues, quivered as he was helped from his wheelchair by his attorneys and leaned heavily on a walker as he approached the lectern at the front of the courtroom. In a raspy but firm voice, Hastert apologized to those he victimized, saying he "mistreated athletes."
"What I did was wrong and I regret it," Hastert said. "They looked to me, and I took advantage of them."
Durkin then asked directly if Hastert sexually abused certain victims. Hastert said he did not recall molesting Scott Cross, who moments earlier had testified that Hastert performed a sex act on him in an empty locker room when he was 17. "But I accept his statement," Hastert said.
Asked by the judge about another alleged victim, Stephen Reinboldt, Hastert called it "a different situation," but he said he was not denying the testimony of Reinboldt's sister, Jolene Burdge, who had testified about the abuse moments earlier.
"So you did sexually abuse him?" the judge asked.
"Yes," Hastert said.
The sentencing hearing completed the stunning downfall of Hastert, who rose from humble beginnings as a schoolteacher and coach to become the third-highest elected leader in the country, a man who was revered in the small towns of Kendall County he called home.
That legacy was shattered in May 2015 when federal prosecutors brought the stunning charges that Hastert had illegally withdrawn $1.7 million in hush money from various bank accounts to keep a former acquaintance quiet about "misconduct" in his past.
But it wasn't until earlier this month that prosecutors detailed in a 26-page sentencing filing that Hastert had abused at least five teenage students connected to the Yorkville wrestling team in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of them was Scott Cross. On Wednesday, an emotional Cross, 53, a younger brother of former Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross, said he decided to go public so that his children and others would know there's an alternative to staying silent. As painful as his decision was, he said, "staying silent was worse."
Scott Cross' brother, a former Kendall County lawmaker who considered Hastert a political mentor, accompanied his brother to the sentencing.
Hastert, 74, is expected to surrender to a medical facility in the federal penitentiary system at an undetermined date.
Hastert's defense had sought a sentence of probation, a punishment Durkin said would not be appropriate in a case of this magnitude.
In lengthy remarks, the judge made much of the fact that when the FBI confronted Hastert about hundreds of thousands of cash withdrawals from banks, he tried to blame another sex abuse victim, identified only as Individual A, claiming he was blackmailing him.
"That's a big problem for you," Durkin said.
Prosecutors said in court that Individual A did not commit any crimes, and a lawsuit by Individual A said Hastert offered to pay $3.5 million for restitution and to keep the sexual abuse a secret.
The judge spent several minutes speaking about Hastert's victims, praising Cross' "incredible courage" for testifying Wednesday.
"He didn't have to do that," Durkin said.
The judge, also singled out Burdge, who had testified that her brother had told her of Hastert's sex abuse before his death in 1995.
Durkin told Burdge she could rest assured that people finally believed her.
Burdge nodded, smiled sadly in the courtroom gallery and whispered, "Thank you."
Individual A, whom Hastert paid $1.7 million to keep quiet, did not appear in court but delivered a written statement for the judge to consider. In the statement, Individual A said the sexual abuse had started with a massage, a similar account to other victims'.
Individual A was then 14, the judge noted.
"Can you imagine the whispering and the finger-pointing," the judge said, if there were rumors of "the town hero molesting you?"