Just as it seemed pre-election momentum had shifted in favor of Republicans, longtime GOP incumbent Mark Foley resigned from his House seat amid reports of sexually inappropriate internet exchanges with teenage boys, former congressional pages.
Last week the fallout from that disclosure stretched well beyond a single district race as accusations of prior knowledge among Republican leaders had the entire party playing defense a month before a critical midterm election.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for a House ethics investigation into whether Republican leaders ignored warning signs and let Foley's questionable conduct slide in the interest of saving political face. The editorial board of the conservative Washington Times called for the resignation of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Are such measures warranted? Hastert denied foreknowledge of sexually graphic instant-message exchanges that took place between Foley and a former page in 2003, claiming to have first learned of them when ABC News broke the story Sept. 29. But Hastert and other Republican leaders learned of suspiciously friendly e-mails from Foley to another former page long before the recent public disclosure. Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, the Republican chairman of the House Page Board, told reporters he became aware of the e-mails near the end of 2005. Hastert and Majority Leader John Boehner said they heard of the messages earlier this year.
Unlike his more explicit online chats, which could lead to criminal charges, Foley's e-mails to a Louisiana boy in August 2005 included no explicit sexual advances. He asked the former male page how old he was and if he would send Foley a personal photo. Foley also commented that another teen was in great shape. The page forwarded that message to a congressional staffer, calling it "sick, sick, sick" and commenting, "This freaks me out."
Upon learning of the incident, Shimkus ordered Foley to cease all communication with the former page. He did not inform the lone Democrat on the three-person House Page Board and did not investigate further, he claims, to comply with the wishes of the boy's parents. Hastert defends those actions as appropriate given the lack of explicit content. "There wasn't much there other than a friendly inquiry," he told reporters. Newspapers and FBI officials who saw that e-mail apparently also did not act.
But Robert Shoop, a Kansas State professor of educational administration, says the questions in Foley's August 2005 e-mail constitute a classic case of "grooming"-saying something mildly inappropriate to check reaction: "Often, the abuse starts out with e-mails like, 'What did you do for the summer? What do you want for your birthday? How are you doing?' From there, they progress into 'What are you wearing?' or 'Take off your shorts and get relaxed,' which often eventually results in sexual activity."
Shoop says organizations where impressionable young people work alongside powerful adults are especially vulnerable to sexual misconduct and in need of a rigorous training program outlining the dangers. No such program exists for congressional pages despite previous instances of abuse.
Rep. Daniel Crane, a Republican from Illinois, admitted to having sex with a 17-year-old female page in 1983: Voters ended his career the next year. Rep. Gerry Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat, maintained that his 1983 affair with a 17-year-old male page was consensual and that the congressional investigation revealing it had violated his right to privacy. Studds remained in office until his retirement in 1996, a fact many Democrats ignore in directing moral outrage toward Republicans for failing to police Foley.
Republican leaders now vow to install new measures that will prevent future abuse of House pages, who are appointed by their congressional representatives, must be juniors in high school, at least 16 years old, and "B" students or better. Stricter safeguards for pages under consideration include an anonymous hotline for them and their families to report any suspicion of misconduct. But former House page James Kotecki told WORLD that adequate avenues for reporting abuse are already in place. "There is adult supervision at work; there is adult supervision at school; and there is adult supervision in our dorms," said the 20-year-old Georgetown student. "I would have felt very comfortable approaching any one of those adult supervisors."
The question is whether the adults in power would have taken sufficient action.