Pentagon Program Seeks Victims' Help in Catching Serial Sex Offenders

A Sexual Assault Awareness Month banner is displayed near the Keesler Base Exchange satellite pharmacy on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, April 2, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Kemberly Groue)
A Sexual Assault Awareness Month banner is displayed near the Keesler Base Exchange satellite pharmacy on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, April 2, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Kemberly Groue)

The initiative, known as Catch a Serial Offender, or Catch, allows active duty personnel or adult family members to file a restricted report -- a confidential filing that does not trigger a full criminal investigation -- on an assault to determine whether the suspect has any previous charges or complaints.

If a match is made, the Defense Department sexual assault response officer handling the report would notify the victim and give him or her the opportunity to file formal charges, known as an unrestricted report, in an effort to prosecute the perpetrator.

The idea is to both encourage victims to report any assaults and to seek a formal investigation if others have been assaulted or are at risk, according to Defense Department officials.

"We encourage greater reporting to connect victims with the care they need and as a way to hold offenders appropriately accountable," said Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the DoD's Office of Force Resiliency, in a statement.

The Defense Department has long struggled with the issue of sexual assault in the military services. A survey published earlier this year found that from 2016 to 2018, the estimated number of sexual assaults increased by 38%, from 14,900 to 20,500.

And the number of formal reports filed also rose sharply, from 4,794 in 2016 to 6,053 in 2018.

With the Catch program, victims can provide information on their assailant through a confidential computer program they can access after speaking with a sexual assault response coordinator or victim advocate.

They will provide any information they know about their assailant -- name, rank, unit and/or physical descriptions -- that trained advocates will compare to military criminal records and other national databases.

The victims then will have an opportunity to convert their restricted report to an unrestricted report -- a formal charge that launches an investigation -- and will be able to participate in the case, according to the Pentagon.

"Victims of sexual assault deserve our best support and resources," said Nate Galbreath, acting director of the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "We're excited for the launch of Catch, which will provide an opportunity for victims to disclose information about their assailant or assault in a safe and confidential way."

The number of serial sex offenders serving in the U.S. military is unknown. A 2015 investigation by the Scripps News organization found that of 1,312 military sex offender cases, 242 were not on any U.S. sex offender databases.

Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, executive director of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault and harassment, said it's difficult to determine how many assaults in the military are perpetrated by serial offenders.

As the Air Force's chief prosecutor from 2010 to 2014, he only saw a handful of cases involving a repeat offender.

"The common belief is that the offenders are repeat offenders, but we don't actually know that," Christensen told Military.com. "[But] maybe this will uncover that this is true."

Christensen said that to truly encourage unrestricted reports and increase sexual assault prosecutions, the military services need to take allegations seriously and protect victims against retaliation or negative experiences, which affect more than 60% of those who report, according to the 2018 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.

"For many people, they come forward, nothing happens to the offender and they suffer the consequences," Christensen said. "[The services] have to show they are doing a better job at prosecuting and protecting those who report."

But, Christensen added, he thinks the new Catch program is a "good idea."

"I think the military may be realizing they need to get a handle on [sexual assault in the ranks]," he said.

In 2018, the military services received 5,805 unrestricted reports of sexual assault, including 548 that were originally filed as restricted and converted by the victim to unrestricted. An additional 1,818 restricted reports were filed.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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