By: Andrew Rosenthal

New York Times: The Opinion Pages

The Navy announced on Wednesday that it had finally charged three football players at the Naval Academy with rape, sexual assault and lying to investigators after they allegedly gang-raped a female midshipman while she was passed out from drinking. The three midshipmen will face court martial proceedings and, if they are tried and convicted, could be sent to prison for 20 years or more. We’ll see how that goes.

I’d like to congratulate the Navy for filing charges, but it took a long time to conclude the investigation and come to a decision about filing charges in a rape case that occurred in April 2012. (It took no time at all, of course, for the Academy to discipline the victim for drinking.)

The Navy should explain why the process was so drawn out. Otherwise, the Navy looks like it acted only under the political pressure of a burst of outrage over the soaring rate of sexual assault in the military and the failure of its leadership to do anything about it. The accused students were not suspended or subject to any disciplinary action at all. They went on playing football, which raises serious questions about the Naval Academy leadership’s priorities.

Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to urge him to increase oversight of military academy superintendents. She said she is “deeply troubled by the lackluster response from the superintendents to increasing rates of sexual assault within their academies.”

To be fair, I shouldn’t just single out the brass, because Congress hasn’t done much about this problem, either. Some hearings were held recently at which lawmakers spoke sternly, even with outrage, to military witnesses. But then last week, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, killed the most promising response on the table – a bill by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat of New York, which would have given independent military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault crimes to try.

Mr. Levin’s substitute bill would make retaliation a crime, which is a positive step, and would allow the civilian service chiefs to intervene if military officers refused to follow a recommendation to prosecute made by military lawyers under his supervision.

But it was a significant second-best to Ms. Gillibrand’s bill, which would have fixed the basic structural flaw in the military justice system that deters people from reporting assaults. A Pentagon report released in early May estimated that as many as 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. Only a small fraction of victims — 3,374 in all — reported their attacks. Many fear damaging their careers, even while their complaints are not taken seriously.

As Lawrence Downes wrote on this blog, the Pentagon has been using the term “zero tolerance” about sexual assault for at least 20 years, while displaying a shocking amount of tolerance. It’s time for military leaders to really do something, or risk civilian society concluding that they think women in uniform just have to be tough enough to deal with sexual assault.

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