Military College Courts-Martial Cast Spotlight on Sexual Abuse

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Three courts-martial over sex-related crimes at the Naval Academy — including rape charges against the football team's star quarterback — are set for this summer, as the school remains under pressure to reduce sexual assaults.

Lamar Owens Jr., who led the Navy football team to an 8-4 record last fall, faces court-martial Monday at the Washington Navy Yard on charges of raping a fellow midshipman in her dorm room in January. Courts-martial are set for later this summer against another football player accused of indecent assault and an instructor who is accused of making crude sexual comments to a female student.

In contrast with these three cases, the Annapolis, Md., school held only one court-martial for a sexual offense from 1994 to 2004, according to a Pentagon report released last year.

However, the academy and the nation's other public military schools have been under scrutiny since allegations of sexual assault arose at the Air Force Academy in 2003. On June 28, a Coast Guard Academy cadet was sentenced to six months in a military prison after being convicted of sex-related crimes, although he was acquitted of rape.

Some victims rights' groups say the cases show that the school, which was criticized in the Pentagon report for not doing enough to curb abuse, is demonstrating that it won't tolerate sexual offenders.

"Once they realize we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment, assault or violence, I anticipate we will see the numbers go down," said Delilah Rumburg, head of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. She co-chaired the task force that wrote the Pentagon report.

However, lawyers for some of the defendants say the increase in cases is driven by political pressure on the academy and its superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt.

"Admiral Rempt is running scared," said Charles Gittins, attorney for Lt. Bryan Black, the instructor accused of sexual harassment. "He has been under pressure from the board and feminist organizations."

A spokeswoman for the academy would not comment on the cases.

The academy has struggled with charges of sexual abuse and harassment since it first admitted women in 1976. Women still comprise only about 17 percent of the 4,000 student body, but the numbers are increasing with each class.

The academy includes classes on sexual harassment and abuse prevention in its training beginning with "plebe summer" — the first session with incoming students. A sexual assault intervention program provides resources for victims.

"I have consistently made clear to all our staff and midshipmen that the Navy does not tolerate sexual harassment, misconduct or sexual assault," Rempt testified last month before a House panel investigating abuse at the military academies.

The Navy can handle cases using administrative methods, which could lead to a midshipman's resignation from the academy, or through a court-martial, where conviction can mean prison time. The academy superintendent decides which method to use.

There have been 41 accusations of sexual assault involving midshipmen since 2001, according to academy statistics released last month. Eight were referred to trial. Two were convicted, one by court-martial last summer, the other in civilian court. Two await trial — Owens and fellow football player Kenny Ray Morrison. The other four were expelled.

The academy has historically chosen the administrative option, allowing midshipmen to resign, said Anita Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, which tracks cases of abuse in the military. The fact that some midshipmen are now facing criminal proceedings is encouraging, she said.

"It is hopefully indicative of the fact that the military will be able to provide justice for the victims in these cases," she said.

Attorneys for Owens, Black and Morrison have challenged Rempt's ability to oversee the cases, saying his decisions are swayed by politics, not evidence.

While the academy encourages reporting, there may still be a reluctance among midshipmen to report assaults. During a preliminary hearing for Owens, a friend of the accuser described the difficulty the woman faced over whether to report the incident, saying women who report men at the academy "get crucified" by their peers.