The Air Force is moving quickly to protect female Air Force Academy cadets and ensure complaints of rape and sexual assault are taken seriously in light of 54 cases that have been identified by investigators, a top Air Force official says.

"We have to deal with a climate that has allowed this to happen," Air Force Secretary James Roche told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

Roche said major changes are expected by the end of the month and efforts will continue to make sure assailants are held accountable and women who lodge complaints don't suffer retaliation.

"We have cadets who have misused power, that have done things we cannot tolerate," Roche said. "We cannot bear the thought of a criminal being commissioned."

The cases took place over a span of 10 years, according to an Air Force spokesman.

Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said two dozen current and former cadets have come to him with stories of rape and assault at the Colorado Springs, Colo. academy. The cadets, he said, do not feel their complaints were taken seriously and in some cases the victims said they were punished.

"The entire support and legal system at the academy appears to have failed," Allard said. "These failures begin with leadership, but they do not end there. The system is broken and must be fixed if we are to ensure the safety of cadets."

There are likely more cases than the 54 investigators have identified, Roche said.

Cari Davis, executive director of TESSA, the main women's crisis center in Colorado Springs, said her group had dealt with 22 sexual assault complaints involving cadets over the past 15 years.

"I think we should be prepared for the number to continue to increase given the publicity on this case," said Davis, "as well as many (counselors) asking themselves, 'Did we see this type of client?"'

Roche said the cases the Air Force has identified are being prioritized for follow-up by the Defense Department's inspector general, focusing first on cases where victims say the academy's system let them down.

The academy was confronted with a string of sexual assault allegations 10 years ago and took steps to resolve the problems, Roche said, but more is apparently needed.

On Thursday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper traveled to Colorado Springs to meet with cadets and remind them of their duty to report whatever they might know about alleged assaults, Roche said.

Other service academies have confronted similar problems in the past.

In the last decade, two Air Force cadets have been charged with rape, Roche said. One was acquitted, the other pleaded guilty at a court martial and was sentenced to seven months in jail. Some cases that lacked the evidence to prosecute were handled administratively, he said.

With 218 new female cadets joining the academy later this year, 714 of the roughly 4,000 cadets at the academy will be women, Roche said.

"We have to assure that their parents believe those cadets are safe," Roche said.