In watching and listening to the unfolding stories over the last week of sexual assault in the military, I could not help but notice how similar the military’s mess is to the situation in the Roman Catholic church over child abuse carried out by priests. Trusted leaders misused their positions of power to gratify their own sexual desires, and even worse, the hierarchy all too often protected the abusers and failed the victims.

At the end of a piece on the Chuck Hagel’s reaction to the latest ugly news, Craig Whitlock at the Washington Post laid out the even uglier systemic picture:

Last week, the Pentagon released a report estimating that the number of military personnel victimized by sexual assault and related crimes had surged by about 35 percent over the past two years despite intensive efforts to confront the problem.

The Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 troops experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year. Yet only a fraction of that number — 3,374 — filed sexual-assault reports with military police or prosecutors.

Military officials said most victims are reluctant to press charges because they fear retaliation from their superiors or ostracism from their units, or that investigators won’t take their cases seriously.

Lawmakers and victim advocates also blame an unwillingness among many commanders to deal with the problem forthrightly.

Members of Congress said they were outraged to learn about two cases in which Air Force generals granted clemency to convicted sex offenders, adding that the decisions would discourage other victims from reporting rape or sexual abuse.

That was the Pentagon’s report.

Back in 1985, Father Thomas P. Doyle prepared a similar report for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now known as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops), detailing how they might better respond to the abuse crisis that was publicly unfolding for the first time. The reaction, said Doyle ten years later, was . . . underwhelming (p. 10):

The manual in question is a detailed compendium of information on the medical/psychological, legal, canonical and pastoral aspects of the problem. It contains suggested procedures for dealing with reports of misconduct and information on the medical evaluation and possible treatment of priests suffering from related sexual disorders. This manual was composed as a private venture by two priests, one a canonist [ed.: Doyle] and the other a psychiatrist, and a civil attorney. The three had been directly involved in the Lafayette, Louisiana case and initiated the project with the sole intention of providing the bishops of the country with a means of assistance for what they, the three authors, believed would be an ever increasing problem. Along with the manual they drew up a proposal for a “crisis intervention team” of experts who would be available to assist bishops who requested their aid. The initial vision included an NCCB (National Conference of Catholic Bishops) sponsored committee that would gather medical, legal and other experts to thoroughly research all aspects of the sexual abuse issue thus providing the Church’s leadership with a solid base of information upon which to act. Although the venture had the private backing of several bishops and archbishops and appeared to be off to a decent start in 1985, it suddenly became a dead issue.

And while the bishops put their heads in the sand, the scandal continued its twofold eruption — individual priests continued to abuse children, and far too many bishops covered things up, transferred priests around, and went to great lengths to keep things out of the press. In a retrospective piece in 2010, Doyle painted an even more damning picture of the dynamics of the institutional culture (emphasis added):

Sexual abuse of the vulnerable by clergy has been a shameful aspect of Catholic culture for centuries.  Church defenders claim it has always been a minuscule percentage of the clerical population, but the numbers are irrelevant.  What is urgent and destructive has been the way the Church leadership, from the papacy on down to local bishops, have responded.  “For the good of the Church” victims have been ignored, silenced and rebuffed, and criminal offenders have been quietly sent off to new assignments, often to offend again.  “For the good of the Church” those harmed by the clergy have been led to cooperate in their own exploitation, convinced by their trusted leaders that the institution’s image and the exalted status of the priests is of greater value than healing or justice.  Though other institutions, public and private, religious and secular, have all experienced sexual abuse and other forms of internal corruption, the Catholic Church is unique.  It has used its immense spiritual power and its absolute authority to control victims to the extent of persuading them to be part of their own cover-up.

There will continue to be abuse by the clergy as long as the ecclesiastical environment that allowed it to flourish continues as a closed, hierarchical system enshrouded in secrecy and sustained by the power of fear.

Replace the church terms with military ones, and Doyle could be talking about the Pentagon rather than the Vatican. In listening to both bishops and the brass on their respective scandals, I’ve heard versions of all the classic excuses for not taking action.

  • Mulligans: “It isn’t really as bad as it’s being portrayed, but we’ll move the guy out of his current job” said higher-ups, as they sought to tamp down the news.
  • Minimize the problem: “It’s just a few bad apples,” said the leaders, as they tried to minimize the systemic issues.
  • Blame the victim: “If those raising these charges would just have worked through channels, we could have quietly dealt with things,” said the leaders, blaming the victims for creating the scandal.
  • Avoidance of responsibility: “It’s one person’s word against another, and the accused has a long and distinguished record,” said the leaders, trying to avoid having to deal with things at all.

Sorry, but those reactions didn’t wash when the bishops tried them, and they won’t wash with the brass either. Thankfully, and in stark contrast to the bishops, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seems to understand that very well:

After a decade of war, the military may have become soft on some sexual assault offenders, the Pentagon’s top officer said Friday.

“If a perpetrator shows up at a court-martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, there is certainly a risk that we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters at a Pentagon news briefing.

“This is actually a continuum of a challenge we’ve had,” Dempsey said, recalling the 1990s, when the military faced a string of sexual assault incidents including the Tailhook scandal involving dozens of Navy and Marine aviators, and the spate of sexual assault incidents at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

“Then we went to war and maybe some of that was masked,” Dempsey said. “Do I think there is an effect of 10 years of war? Yeah, instinctively I do.”

[snip]

“Now is time for moral courage at every level. There can be no bystanders,” he said. “We have a serious problem that we must solve: aggressive sexual behavior that rips at the bond of trust that binds us together. We need — actually we must — change course.”

Amen, General.

Commanders of abusive soldiers face a powerful dilemma, just as the bishops do with their abusive priests. In taking action against a subordinate, it calls into question the leader’s ability to lead. Think about it: it doesn’t look good to a promotion panel if a bunch of your subordinates were raping those in their care. Unless, that is, the leader is able to take substantive action that deals not only with the specific case at hand, but also creates a better culture that makes it that much less like to take place again. But it takes moral courage and real leadership for a leader to take action like that.

PBS’s Independent Lens features documentary films, and the trailer above is for “The Invisible War” which they describe like this:

The most shameful and best-kept secret in the U.S. military? The epidemic of rape and sexual assault within the ranks. An American female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. A culture of privilege and impunity has resulted in few prosecutions, and the systematic isolation of women — and men — who dare report the crimes.

As General Dempsey said, that culture must change on every level. Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal to move investigations and prosecutions out of the chain of command is a good first step.

But if you want another sign of how badly, how utterly desperately, how urgently, the military culture needs to change, consider this: “The Invisible War” came out last year, not last week, and the grim situation it details did not suddenly pop up out of nowhere. When Lisa Derrick hosted the film’s director for an FDL Movie Night chat last June, she opened her post like this:

The most chilling phrase in The Invisible War, Kirby Dick’s documentary about the ongoing, institutionalized, taxpayer-funded rape of military service people by fellow members of the military, appears onscreen at the film’s beginning:

All statistics in this film are from U.S. governments studies.

This scandal was not news to those in charge at the Pentagon, just as the scandal of abusive priests was not news to the bishops. Now the question is whether the Pentagon brass has learned anything from the failures of the bishops as the military moves forward.