A victim’s confidentiality versus the public disclosure necessary to prosecute crimes and hold individuals accountable: That’s the tightrope students and administrators at the Air Force Academy have walked in dealing with sex-crime allegations since the school went co-ed in 1976.
Sometimes the academy has leaned precariously to one side of the line, sometimes to the other, and even today, many months after the scandal broke and the issue has been examined ad nauseam, these tensions remain unresolved. Yet a resolution seems necessary if reforms are to have any chance of long-term success.
For years victim confidentiality took precedent over mandatory reporting and building prosecutable criminal cases, an imbalance that left many accusers protected from invasions of privacy and possible retribution, but the academy’s disciplinary system paralyzed and left administrators in the dark about the scope of the problem. But in response to the scandal, the Air Force general counsel last spring stripped away some of those privacy protections and recommended a policy of “mandatory reporting,” enhancing the academy’s ability to prosecute sex crimes and provide victims with the justice many said they were denied.
Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, the academy’s commandant of cadets, has said that without a commander in the loop, “what the system will do over time is gravitate totally to the victim, and you’ll never be able to prosecute” sexual assaults.
We think this is the proper course of action, given the role excessive confidentiality played in denying that justice was done and impeding the academy’s ability to recognize and respond to the problem. Yet the current mandatory reporting policy is not the last word on the matter.
The Fowler Commission last month again accentuated the importance of victim confidentiality. A Pentagon working group has come up with a hybrid policy that attempts to reconcile victim protection with mandatory reporting. And Air Force Secretary James Roche reportedly is pushing the working group back in the direction of enhanced confidentiality.
Many Americans are quick to believe that every impasse is amenable to compromise. But perhaps the demands for complete victim confidentiality and justice before the law are simply incompatible with one another. If we must have one or the other, we favor the latter, as long as safeguards exist to ensure that cadets aren’t twice victimized — by peers, school officials or the process when they come forward.