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Panetta Pledges to Hold Sexual Assault Offenders Accountable

Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2012 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta took the podium at the Pentagon briefing room today to announce new policies and respond to reporters’ questions on an issue he called a top priority: sexual assault in the military.

“Sexual assault has no place in this department,” the secretary said. “It is an affront to the basic American values we defend, and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and … our families.”

The secretary announced DOD initiatives establishing a sexual assault advocate certification program, extending the confidential or restricted reporting option to military spouses and adult family members, increasing funding for military investigators and judge advocates, and assessing leader training in sexual assault prevention and response.

“There are no easy answers,” the secretary acknowledged. “But that makes it all the more essential for us to devote our energy and our attention to trying to confront this crime.”

In a military force, where the promise is to help each other in battle and to leave nobody behind, that promise must begin by honoring the dignity of every person on or off the battlefield, Panetta said.

“We will be announcing additional initiatives over the coming weeks and months,” he added.

The secretary then took reporters’ questions, calling on Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, director of the department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, to join him in responding.

“She knows these issues,” Panetta said.

The secretary said by its nature, sexual assault is a difficult crime for law enforcement agencies, whether military or civilian, to resolve.

“Individuals who are the victims hesitate to report these crimes,” he said. “There's peer pressure … not to report it. There is concern about how it impacts on your career. And so, as a result of that and the difficulty of prosecuting these cases, too often these cases go unreported.”

Panetta said he and other Defense Department leaders are working to change the mindset on sexual assault. More reports are coming in and more cases are being prosecuted, but the effort must continue, he said.

“The most important thing I think we can do here is to try to train leaders at the command level to make clear that they're aware of this issue and … that they take steps to stop it,” the secretary said.

Increasing successful prosecutions is another facet to ending sexual assault in the military, Panetta said. “They've got to be able to nail the case in court,” he added. “And oftentimes, as you know, these cases come down to one person's word against another.”

The secretary stressed the importance of encouraging victims to report assaults quickly and ensuring investigators gather evidence quickly.

“If those steps are taken, what I want to assure, then, is that the prosecutors take these cases seriously and take these cases to court,” he said. “We've got to make sure that prosecutors are as aggressive as we feel they should be in these instances … to make sure that the signal is sent that anybody who does this is going to be held accountable.”

Hertog noted that hundreds of new members enter the military services weekly.

“Every week, we have to try to inculcate in them the service core values that you take care of each other, that sexual assault is a crime,” she said. “And that's why training up front, at the beginning, basic training, all the way through somebody's career, is so very important, as well as training our officers.”

Hertog said commanders, investigators and prosecutors share responsibility for setting the right approach to sexual assault.

Holding perpetrators accountable requires “making sure that that commander builds that command climate where somebody feels comfortable in coming forward … and that investigator knowing what he or she must do to investigate that sexual assault, and that prosecutor to take that strong case to trial,” she said.

Since the military services began a dual-reporting system in 2005, sexual assault reports have increased, the general noted. The dual system allows victims to file confidential, or “restricted,” reports, which clear the way to medical care and counseling but do not result in charges. Unrestricted reports also lead to victim care and counseling, but also trigger criminal investigations.

The increase in reporting under the dual system is “not always a bad thing,” Hertog said.

“A victim is coming forward and willing to say, ‘I need some help; I've been sexually assaulted,’” she said. “You could also look at it … [as] yes, more people are now maybe perhaps aware of what sexual assault is. The stigma, maybe, to report has been reduced. So we want them to come forward to make that report to us.”

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