Rape and Rank -- The Problem With All-Powerful Men

Criticized for years for their handling of rape in the services, top officials in the United States military were ordered to increase their efforts after the secretary of defense viewed the landmark documentary Invisible War in April 2012. Now, a year later, a new report shows the problem is getting worse. The data comes just days after Jeffrey Krusinski, the officer in charge of preventing sex crimes in the Air Force was, himself, arrested for sexual battery.

Officials frustrated by the persistent problem of rape in the military and outraged by the spectacle of Krusinski's arrest have focused mainly on the need for better training and policies. Senator Kirstin Gillibrand of New York recently suggested soldiers and officers don't understand "what sexual assault is, and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline."

Education is good, but the spike in reported crimes occurred even as the services changed their training programs to increase awareness across the services. What hasn't changed is the system of military justice, which still invests all the real power over investigations, trials, sentencing, and clemency in the chain of command. Rank still rules, even in the military justice system. And this fact explains why the Department of Defense can't seem to get control of this problem.

For a true understanding of how a sexual assault crisis can resist resolution, it helps to consider how another huge, rank-based institution has suffered through an almost identical, slow-motion disaster. For decades the Catholic Church has tried and failed to end the worldwide scandal caused by priests who rape and molest minors. After more than 6,000 cases involving tens of thousands of victims -- in the United States alone -- the problem still defies the all-male hierachy who promise "zero tolerance" and implement new policies and education programs.

In both the church and the military, policies and programs fail because they do not address the root issue of male-only, hierachical power. The leaders of official Catholicism maintain and practice the belief that at the moment a man is ordained he becomes ontologically superior to laypeople. From this first on the ladder above the masses he may then climb to monsignor, bishop, archbishop, cardinal and even pope. With each step he gains both authority and respect as a higher order being whose judgment and moral standing are assumed to be simply better.

If the church system of rank sounds authoritarian and militaristic, this is because it was modeled after the regimes that ruled the Old World during Catholicism's development. And like an army, the church hierarchy has always depended on obedience and the control of information to maintain its status. Superiors governed by declaring truths, not revealing shameful secret, and the maintenance of the myth of moral rectitude became more important than rectitude itself.

In the American military, the authority established by rank assures combat effectiveness and a level of order that is essential to readiness. As in the church, superiors are typically answerable only to their higher-ups, who rarely submit to the influence of outsiders. When asked this week to offer examples of cases in which higher ranking officers were held accountable for mishandling a rape or sexual assault claim, the major in charge of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office couldn't name a single one.

Lay Catholics who have struggled against clergy sex abuse are familiar with this dynamic. Superiors try to manage, cover up, and otherwise avoid dealing forthrightly with crimes committed by men in uniform. Outsiders with a real and legitimate interest insisted on justice. When they didn't get it they turned to a competing institution -- the courts -- which provided the means to challenge a system that was supposed to serve them but chose to serve itself, instead. Men who ranked above priests were finally targeted for prosecution and victims began to feel some hope for true change.

The rape crisis in the U.S. military has now reached the point where competing institutions -- Congress and the White House -- are engaged on behalf of the American public. The recent case of an Air Force general overturning a pilot's conviction for sexual assault is sparking the kind of outrage seen in the church when parishioners learned that bishops helped offending priests escape prosecution. Those revelations led to billions of dollars in payments to victims and loss of moral authority for the church. (These problems have been exacerbated by the hierarchy's steadfast resistance to power-sharing and outside help.) If the military is to escape a similar decline in support it must respond now to the pressure from the public and take the final word on military justice in case of sexual assault out of the hands of officers who can act unilaterally.

As Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said Sunday, "The military leadership at this point has shown that they have not been capable of fixing this problem." This truth will not change until justice is detached from power and rank no longer rules.