WASHINGTON -- Air Force Secretary James Roche said Thursday that the service needs to move quickly to fix a climate that has led to at least 54 alleged cases of rape and sexual assault at the Air Force Academy.
"We have cadets who have misused power, that have done things we cannot tolerate," Roche said. "We have to deal with a climate that has allowed this to happen."
Investigators who spent two weeks at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., identified 54 cases and met with at least six alleged victims, although there are probably many more who will not come forward, Roche said.
"What frightens me most is the climate that has affected so many others who have not come forward," he said. "While we have seen, whatever the number is, 25, 50, there are probably a hundred more that we do not see."
Roche did not say during what time period the alleged assaults occurred. Cases are being prioritized for follow-up by the Defense Department's inspector general, focusing efforts on cases "where the person who placed the accusation felt the system let them down."
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said the situation at the academy is worse than the Navy's 1991 Tailhook Scandal -- when dozens of women complained they were groped or assaulted by drunken pilots at a Navy booster group's convention -- because the system let down the victims in these cases.
He said his office has been contacted by two dozen cadets who said they were raped or sexually assaulted and each one said the academy either did not support the victim in the case or did not adequately punish the assailants.
"We have a system breakdown at the academy," Allard said. "The entire support and legal system at the academy appears to have failed."
Allard said changes must be made to ensure the safety of cadets, and to give victims confidence that reporting attacks will not jeopardize their military career.
Roche said he expects reforms by the end of the month that will change the climate at the academy.
The academy was confronted with a string of sexual assault allegations 10 years ago, but Roche said the Air Force thought it had taken adequate steps to address the problems.
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.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the heads of the Army and Navy that they have a responsibility to ensure that their service academies aren't experiencing the same problem as the Air Force.
In the last 10 years, 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. In other cases, administrative action was taken because there was not enough evidence to prosecute, he said.
With the incoming class, the roughly 4,000-member cadet corps at the Air Force Academy will have 714 female cadets, including 218 new arrivals, Roche said.
"We have to assure that their parents believe those cadets are safe," Roche said. "We cannot bear the thought of a criminal becoming a commissioned officer."
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has accused the academy's top commanders of mishandling rape allegations and said they should be removed. But a spokesman for Roche and Jumper issued a statement refusing to blame the academy's top brass.
"We will not make a scapegoat of anyone nor offer pre-emptive judgments on any issue, but will ensure justice is served on all levels," Lt. Col. Chester Curtis said.
Allard had criticized Air Force investigators for leaving Colorado without talking with 10 current cadets who have said they were raped. He also said he was unhappy the investigators did not consult a community rape crisis center whose counselors say they have heard from 22 cadets in the past 15 years who reported being assaulted.
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