By Lauren French
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sexual assault victims in the U.S. armed forces have been robbed of their trust in its justice system, but military leadership is still in the best position to restore that confidence, the new top Pentagon official charged with combating the problem says.
In one of his first interviews since taking over last month, Army Major General Gary Patton acknowledged the extent of what he called "a terrible, repugnant and humiliating crime."
But reports of sexual assault should continue to be investigated, and if necessary punished, within existing channels, said Patton, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
That could put him at odds with lawmakers who say the system has failed, and want sexual assault cases handled by a military body outside the traditional chain of command.
Patton, a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, assumed his post at a time when the military is under intense criticism for the most sweeping sexual assault scandal in more than a decade.
At Texas' Lackland Air Force Base, 38 people alleged they were raped or sexually harassed by trainers, triggering two Air Force investigations and calls for a congressional probe.
There were 3,192 reports of sexual assault in the military last fiscal year, a 1 percent increase from the previous year. But only 791 subjects were disciplined, as commanders routinely lack sufficient evidence to prosecute cases.
The Defense Department estimates that only one out of six assaults is reported, because of victims' fear of reprisal or inaction.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta increased the department's scrutiny of sexual assault in April when he issued guidelines mandating that reports for the most violent crimes automatically go to top-level commanders.
Patton said his goal is to wipe out sexual assaults from within the U.S. military's ranks.
"It is an affront to the very values we defend," Patton said. "It has no place in the Department of Defense, period."
He said he will increase the number of conversations he has with sexual assault victims, and intensify scrutiny on why so few cases are prosecuted. He has met with forensic experts to learn more about the science of sexual assault investigations.
Patton said he trusts existing investigation methods used by the military. Currently, when a victim reports a sexual assault, an office within the unit investigates and commanders are tasked with punishing offenders.
"If you were to take the disciplinary component and put it into some external, centralized, whatever, body, independent, apart from the chain of the command, you've just removed the commander from the problem and tied the commander's hands," Patton said.
U.S. Representative Jackie Speier introduced a bill last November that would bypass the military's chain of command for sexual assault cases and instead give responsibility for investigating to an independent body within the military.
Advocates say the bill, awaiting action by the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, is the best way to investigate sexual assaults.
"Right now, the authority is invested in the unit commander," said Speier, one of Congress' most outspoken advocates for military rape victims. "They have no judicial training, they have no legal training and yet they are making decisions on whether a case merits prosecution."
The military needs to "explain why all these scandals keep happening," the California Democrat said.
The House Armed Services Committee held a closed hearing last week with the secretary of the Air Force on the Lackland scandal, but Speier said witnesses were uncooperative and unable to answer basic questions about the investigations.
Speier wants Congress to launch its own investigation. "I don't think they know how to fix this," she said.
Patton, who helped implement the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy toward gays in the military before taking his current post, said he will work to create a culture where offenders know they will be caught.
"It is about affording dignity and respect to everyone. And a unit that has that climate ... you prevent from occurring," the general said.
SAPRO, as Patton's office is known, has cycled through three directors in little more than a year. Victims' advocates say its founding director had little grasp of the scope of the military's sexual assault problem.
Advocates were also critical of Patton's predecessor, Major General Mary Kay Hertog, saying she placed too much trust in commanders who have too often ignored victim's complaints.
Hertog had served in a command position for one of the largest training wings at Lackland.
Patton himself is under scrutiny as part of a congressional probe into whether whistleblowers were stopped from exposing decrepit conditions at Dawood National Military Hospital, a U.S.-funded Afghan military hospital where patients died from simple infections and starved to death routinely.
Patton, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the issue.
Nancy Parrish, president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said Patton should take a hard-line approach to revamping the military's justice system instead of focusing on education programs that are SAPRO's hallmark.
"Silly education program" will not stop the serial predators within the military's ranks, said Parrish, who supports the creation of an independent agency within the military.
"The military code of justice was created in the '30s and it needs to be modernized," she said. "Its unintended consequence was to reinforce a culture that once existed in our own world ... of how we think of women."
Despite years of promised reforms - most recently, with Panetta's new guidelines - the number of sexual assaults and rapes has continued to climb, Parrish said. Her criticism was echoed last month by President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next Air Force chief of staff.
"We've done a lot of work, and we've made no difference," General Mark Welsh, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Everyone is trying to do the right thing and figure out some way of stopping this."
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Xavier Briand)