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The Military and the Church: Bedfellows in Sexual Assault

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

The US military's response to reports of sexual abuse echoes that of another closed, rigidly hierarchal male institution, the Catholic Church: first silence and cover-up; then blame the victim and reassign the perpetrator; and, finally, lay the fault on a “few bad apples.” Like the church's historic, internal handling of sexual abuse by priests, military commanders determine whether or not their soldiers face criminal proceedings.

An exposé by Denver Post reporters revealed, further, that commanders commonly solicit input from accused soldiers regarding their preferred punishment. Gene Fidell of the National Institute of Military Justice labels it a “command-centric military justice system, one that (18th century British Vice Adm.) Lord Nelson would have recognized.”

In 2004, The Denver Post undertook a groundbreaking investigation into military response to sex crimes, analyzing Army records of soldiers in Iraq accused of rape and other sex crimes between the years 2003-2004. The inquiry uncovered a litany of protections for and lenient treatment of sex offenders. Commanders gave verbal reprimands and job-related punishments, such as light fines and extra duty – with no prospect of prison time – “nearly five times as often as criminal charges.” Even when military investigators and prosecutors acknowledged that there was enough evidence to prosecute on sexual assault charges and recommended it, commanders chose not to proceed. In one illustrative case, a military police officer was dropped in rank and discharged by commanders at his request, even though prosecution evidence had been assembled for one of two rape charges.

The Denver Post review of military records corroborated allegations by female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan wars “that their complaints were met with incomplete investigations and lenient treatment of offenders.” As one former female Marine officer and Iraq veteran baldly put it: “The command has so much power over a victim of sexual assault. They are your judge, jury, executioner and mayor: they own the law. As I saw in my case, they are able to crush you for reporting an assault.” Fidell points to Congress as the fulcrum in whether the “command-centric” military justice system changes. “Congress created the military's legal system. So it has the authority to yank it away – or modify it.” Change in the military, though, boils down to whether defense leaders change radically in how they understand violence against women – as a crime and not merely a psychological problem. The precise sea change the Catholic Church must make, as well: to confront child and adult sexual abuse by its clerics as a crime and not only a spiritual failing.

SAPRO: Token, Timid and Underfunded

Under Congressional pressure to investigate and address the deluge of sexual assault in the military, the Department of Defense (DoD) created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) in 2005. Among its initial actions was offering soldiers the choice to report sexual assaults anonymously and hiring sexual assault counselors/advocates. Hailed by the defense agency as reform-oriented, critics describe the office as token, timid and underfunded and as one that merely distributes posters and collects data on sexual assaults, but has no authority for investigation and enforcement.

As for the content of SAPRO's messages, here is a sample used in sexual assault prevention training for military victim advocates. “One new initiative,” says the Joint Forces sexual assault response coordinator for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, “is, 'Ask her when she's sober,' which will avoid legal trouble (for the initiator).” Let's unpack the message here. He doesn't have to be sober; she does, so he can defend himself against rape charges. Given the well-known correlation between excess alcohol and rape, why is the sexual assault message about sobriety directed at her and not him? Moreover, while drinking is an augmenting factor in male rape of women, it is not a root cause – a crucial point missing in the training message. In sum, the new rape prevention initiative indicates that the military's top concern is how to prepare a male soldier to defend himself in a rape charge, not how to prevent rape and protect women soldiers.

Critical Independent Evaluations

Two commissioned studies of the military's response to sexual assault have revealed systemic neglect and deliberate defiance at top levels of government. In 2009, the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military issued a report that spotlighted the marginal status of SAPRO, charging that it lacks “higher-level attention,” and exposed the “sporadic and inconsistent” funding of sexual assault prevention and response programs in the military branches. The Task Force uncovered abysmally poor documentation of sexual abuse: “DoD's procedures for collecting and documenting data about military sexual assault incidents are lacking in accuracy, reliability and validity.” The report investigators found that SAPRO lacked “the expertise to lead and oversee its primary mission of sexual assault prevention, response, training and accountability” and that it does not “interface with operating forces or military officials responsible for accountability.” In other words, lacking competence, clout and teeth to fulfill its mission, SAPRO serves as a cosmetic agency created to touch up the DoD's image and assuage critics.

This independent Task Force, which had been authorized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in October 2005, took DoD three years to assemble, a time lag during which thousands of service women and men were sexually assaulted. One analysis estimates that as many as 75,000 sexual assaults may have happened during this do-nothing period, given estimated rates of military assault and the high rate of non-reporting in the military. No “shock and awe” response here to sexual terrorism and torture within its ranks.

In 2011 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its report to the Congressional Subcommittee on Military Personnel, which found the DoD Inspector General's Office ignored its mandate to develop policy and to supervise sexual assault investigations and related training for DoD criminal investigative organizations. Not one of the 2,594 sexual assault investigations reported by DoD in fiscal year 2010 was given any oversight by the Inspector General's Office, because, as GAO put it, “it believes it has other, higher priorities.” The GAO investigation also found two other systemic obstacles to preventing sexual abuse: the various service branches were not cooperating to jointly leverage expertise and resources to address sexual assault, and legal obstructions, which make it “more difficult to prosecute” certain cases and may result in “unwarranted acquittals.”

No Political Will

The findings of these government-mandated independent investigations mirror the experience of veteran advocates for military sexual assault victims. A former Marine now working in advocacy, Greg Jacob, portrays the military approach to investigating reported sexual assaults as “an HR [human resources] approach to criminal conduct.” He describes a system with no training in sexual crime investigation, one in which the investigating officer's uppermost consideration is “the character and the military conduct of the accused.” No small surprise that the DoD prosecution rate in 2007 for sex crimes in the military was 8 percent, as compared with the 40 percent prosecution rate for the same crimes among civilians. Coast Guard veteran Panayiota Bertzikis, founder of the Military Rape Crisis Center, asserted that in the six years of SAPRO's existence, nothing has changed. Victims call the SAPRO's victim advocate hotline and no one answers or they get an answering machine. By 2011, according to Bertzikis, the military still had an appallingly low prosecution rate (10 percent) for sex crimes.

Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and now executive director of Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy and human rights organization for women victims of military sexual trauma, also disputes the DoD claims of taking action to reduce and prevent sexual abuse in the military. According to her, SWAN continues to see '”a disturbingly steady flow“' of military sexual abuse survivors. Further, the burden of proof still remains on victims within a system willfully deaf, dumb and blind to their plight. Litigator Susan Burke, lead counsel for the February 2011 suit brought by 15 women and two men against the DoD and ex-Defense Secretaries Rumsfeld and Gates, minces no words regarding DoD efforts: “… [T]he problem is that there is no genuine political will to change things. It's a paper tiger … the will doesn't exist. When you look at the career paths of the perpetrators compared to the victims, the former are rising up the ranks and the victims are leaving the military.” The suit claims that the two former defense secretaries “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted and where military personnel openly mocked and flouted modest Congressionally-mandated institutional reforms.”

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After nine years of war and military occupation in Iraq, the Veterans Health Administration (VA) faces a tsunami of severe injury and illness among women veterans thanks to DoD's largely feckless sexual assault prevention programs. However, the VA system has been built around the needs of male veterans. In the next series section, “Picking Up the Pieces,” we will probe the complexity of women veterans' health crises, including post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual assault in the military and what they need to put their lives – shattered on two war fronts – back together.

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