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Institutions Protect Themselves in Sexual Abuse Cases


The one thing that all sexual assault cases have in common — whether perpetrated within the military, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts or by Jerry Sandusky or an unknown predator — is a victim.

Or victims.

What they don't all have in common is an institution that covers up, conspires, countermands and contradicts findings that would help the victim.

Or prevent there being victims, emphasis on the plural.

In the cases of the church, the military, the Boy Scouts and Sandusky, an all-powerful institution churned into overdrive to protect itself.

What was ignored in each case — pushed aside and denied for so long that the numbers and the horror became staggering and could no longer be ignored — were the victims.

It was disappointing, but not surprising, that the military, Penn State University and the Boy Scouts tried to sweep the problems away, wanted to pretend that military officers are men of character; that football gods are unimpeachable; and that Boy Scout volunteers just want to show kids how to build campfires. None of them claim the direct ear of God.

But the Catholic Church presumably had a moral obligation to protect the weak and the young, the vulnerable kids who were so frequently the ones winnowed from the herd at the hands of skilled pedophiles.

Here's an example of what a bishop in the church deemed important as the sexual scandal began unfolding.

The late Rev. James Hogan, former diocesan bishop of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., wrote in 1994 to a priest accused of sexually abusing minors: "Painful as the situation is, we must safeguard your own good name, protect the priestly reputation and prevent scandal from touching the church — even if unjust."

Insert Penn State or Boy Scouts or the military in place of the word "church," and football program or scouting program or military officers for "priestly reputation" and you have the response that made it possible for the scandals to grow and the victims' lists to increase.

In the 11 years since the Catholic Church began reeling from an avalanche of revelations about priests' sexual abuse of children and teens, much of which had been hidden or denied for decades, the focus has changed.

There have been payoffs and apologies and recriminations. Priests have been laicized, bishops have been criticized and cardinals have resigned. Victims are acknowledged and sometimes vindicated.

But it takes more than that to regain public trust.

Each of these institutions is hierarchical; as long as people up the chain of command are the ones meting out the consequences, the public has a right to be wary.

The U.S. military currently is in the hot seat. Various branches are under attack for a growing number of reported sexual assaults and disappointing responses.

How can it get worse than when the man in charge of the Air Force's sexual assault-prevention effort is arrested and charged with sexual battery? That news broke Monday night when Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was arrested.

It was followed Tuesday with a report from the Pentagon that 26,000 military assaults were reported last year, up a third from the 19,000 in 2010. This at a time when the problem supposedly was getting serious attention.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama told a news conference, "The bottom line is: I have no tolerance for this. If we find out somebody's engaging in this stuff, they've got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period."

That the military's system to prevent sexual assaults is flawed is indisputable. Particularly loathsome is the rule that allows a commanding officer, on his (or her) own, to overrule the finding of a court martial.

Information from the Department of Defense shows that about 85 percent of victims do not report sex crimes for fear of retribution or a lack of trust that justice will prevail. Military officials have said they are concerned that some troops do not report crimes to their superiors and that because more than 50 percent of such crimes occur at the hands of higher-ranking authorities, victims are afraid to come forward.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is emerging as a hero on this issue. The former prosecutor, McCaskill is holding up the nomination of a senior Air Force officer, Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, as vice commander of the Air Force's Space Command. She wants to know more about Gen. Helms' decision to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case last year.

That a high-ranking woman officer is involved suggests how deep the institutional loyalty lies.

McCaskill and other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., want to have sex offenders in the military discharged from service and to adjudicate military sexual assault outside the chain of command.

That is clearly the only way to go. The alleged perpetrators may be valuable officers in whose careers the nation has invested millions of dollars. But these are criminal issues. They must be dealt with in a criminal court of law. In itself, this does not guarantee justice, but it gives the victims a fighting chance.

The continued pattern of sexual abuse is undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world.




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