May 11, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Protect victims, not public perceptions

 

The recent news about sexual assaults and lazy institutional reactions might’ve sent some readers scrambling to check their calendars. This is 2013, right? More like the Neanderthal Era in the armed forces, and at the University of Montana.

The Pentagon released a survey Tuesday estimating that 26,000 members of the military were sexually abused last year. That’s up from 19,000 in 2010 – a figure apparently too low to merit an effective response. Indeed, the officer overseeing sexual abuse prevention programs in the Air Force was himself arrested last Sunday for allegedly grabbing a woman’s breasts and buttocks in a parking lot.

Well, this time the president is plenty mad, according to news reports, and he’s not going to take it anymore. We’ll see about that. His new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, is already protesting a sensible reform that would inject more objectivity and fairness into the process of handling sex abuse cases.

A chief concern of many congressional leaders, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, is that military justice is entrenched in the chain of command, which can inhibit the reporting of sexual assault. Commanders have control over which cases to prosecute and the selection of jurors, and they can reverse convictions. The survey reported that 62 percent of victims reported retaliation after their cases were disposed of. Fewer than 10 percent of cases result in convictions.

Reforms are being pushed by Sens. Murray, Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate, and Reps. Niki Tsongas and Michael Turner – a man! – in the House. Among the changes would be giving military prosecutors control over such cases. Nearly all U.S. allies in modern countries have removed this power from commanders.

But, there is resistance from Hagel and some members of Congress. They claim it’s imperative that the status quo be preserved to maintain “good order and discipline,” as U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham put it. A little late for that.

Meanwhile, the University of Montana has agreed to measures that would better protect women on its Missoula campus. The university and its police force have been the subject of embarrassing disclosures over the handling of sexual abuse cases. The allegations forced the ouster of the football coach and athletic director. It got so bad that the U.S. Justice Department had to intervene.

Questions remain about how the Missoula Police Department and county prosecutor’s office responded to assault complaints.

Campus victims were belittled, disbelieved and made to feel generally uncomfortable for reporting sexual abuse, according to federal officials. They launched an investigation after 11 students reported sexual assaults over an 18-month period. Incredibly, in this day and age, campus police didn’t have protocols for handling such cases.

The feds found “deeply engrained gender stereotypes” and worries about negative publicity. This misplaced concern netted university officials a steady stream of cringe-inducing headlines.

But that’s what happens when the first concern of institutions is self-protection, rather than doing the right thing.

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